Author Leaonne Hall is an expert on the overseas property market and has written extensively for a number of newsstand titles. She previously produced three editions of the Red Guide to Buying Property in Eastern Europe, and has been writing in detail on the individual markets since 2003.
Centrally located in Europe, Bulgaria is a land of tremendous beauty and diversity. The cost of living is low, the food is great and the economy is booming, with the country offering a much slower, more relaxed pace of life – and rock bottom property prices.
With more than 300 days of sunshine a year and skiing to rival the best Europe can offer, it’s no wonder the tourist and property-buying market is booming. The scenery in Bulgaria is stunning, the climate superb and there are numerous historic towns and ancient traditions to savour. One of Europe’s least populated countries, it boasts 11 blue-flag beaches, 354km of coastline and 37,000km of hiking paths – not to mention nine UNESCO World Heritage sites and a wealth of ancient monuments.
Although property prices are low – where else can you purchase a rural retreat for just £8,000? – it’s anticipated that they will continue to rise, fuelled by the growth in tourism and the increasing awareness that Bulgaria can rival Spain, Portugal and Greece as a holiday destination.
Named in a recent report by currency exchange company FC Exchange, as one of the best countries in which to invest in 2007, Bulgaria is one of Eastern Europe’s most rapidly advancing and expanding nations. With an average property appreciation rate of 47.5% in 2004, Bulgaria is attempting to shake off its reputation for corruption, dodgy dealing and over-development by only giving the go-ahead to the highest-quality developments, and by protecting its natural parks and resources from the over-development that has so blighted southern Spain. Its investment potential has been attributed to the strength of the economy and currency, balanced levels of supply and demand, low prices and high levels of World Bank and EU funding, which has in turn led to improvements in the infrastructure and tourism industry.
There has been a 90% rise in the numbers of visitors from the EU in recent years thanks to increased ease of access, and now that the country has EU membership and restrictions on budget airlines have been removed, tourist numbers are set to expand.
Politics and economy
As with the majority of Eastern European countries, Bulgaria gained independence in 1989, becoming a parliamentary democracy. Until 1996 it was ruled by the Socialist party, but major economic depression resulted in their collapse. Since then, Bulgaria has been committed to fiscal reform, and has experienced steady economic growth. The current President is Georgi Parvanov and the Prime Minister is Sergey Stanishev.
Thanks to the acceptance of Bulgaria into the EU on 1st January 2007 it is anticipated that the foreign investment that has poured into the country since 2003 will continue, as will the economic growth rate, which is currently one of the highest in Europe, sitting at 5.6%. Annual inflation is at 3.8% and rates of taxation are extremely low when compared with the rest of Europe – 0.15% on property and between 15 and 29% for income tax. Bulgaria’s corporate tax rate has been cut to 10%, and the hope is that this will further boost the already healthy business economy and encourage more inward investment.
Geography and climate
Roughly the same size as England, Bulgaria is located on the Balkan Peninsula, surrounded by the Black Sea to the east, Romania to the north, Serbia and Macedonia to the west, and Greece and Turkey to the south. A hilly, mountainous country – more than half of it sits at an average elevation of 480 metres – Bulgaria enjoys a temperate climate, and while chilly in winter, the summers are hot. With glorious, sun -bleached beaches on the eastern Black Sea coast and an excellent skiing season lasting from December to mid-March, in the giant alpine mountains of the Balkan range in the north, this is a country with much to offer.
The Bulgarian capital is the rejuvenated city of Sofia, whose skyline is dominated by the peaks of Mount Vitosha. The country’s southwest is home to Bulgaria’s highest mountains, which are cloaked in forests and surrounded by lakes. To the north, the Danube flows around the alpine mountain ranges, and nestled among these peaks are many traditional villages. The northwest is famous for Lake Srebarna, a haven for birds and waterfowl.
History and culture
Many people are surprised to find that Bulgaria boasts a huge array of cultural highlights. The country was first formed in AD681 and by 1014 was under the sway of the mighty Byzantine empire, which introduced the Orthodox Church and the Cyrillic alphabet. Soon it was the turn of the Ottomans, who ruled Bulgaria from 1396; the following 500 years saw much persecution of the country’s Orthodox monks and the conversion of many Christians to Islam.
During the 18th and 19th centuries there were many revolts and uprisings, and eventually Bulgaria briefly regained independence following the Russian ousting of the Ottomans in 1878. Surprisingly, Bulgaria allied herself with Germany during the Second World War, although the tsar famously refused to send 50,000 Bulgarian Jews to the Nazi concentration camps. Wholeheartedly embracing communism following WWII, Bulgaria remained a communist country until 1991, when democracy was introduced following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Bulgaria has nine UNESCO World Heritage sites and a number of Greek, Roman and Thracian artefacts and sites. One of the top cultural highlights is the Monastery at Rila, along with the Boyana church and the rock-hewn churches of Ivanovo. The ancient city of Nesebar is one of the Black Sea’s most important trading centres and has been labelled a UNESCO Heritage site thanks to its varied architectural heritage, monument to the numerous invaders who occupied it at one time or another.
Under communism, the country was officially atheist, but today nearly 90% of the country’s inhabitants follow the Bulgarian Orthodox religion. A sizeable percentage of the population are Muslim, while there are also small Catholic and Christian groups.
Bulgaria has many monasteries, and during Ottoman rule, these Orthodox centres were responsible for awakening much nationalistic pride, and served as centres for planning and staging revolts. Of the 400 monasteries in Bulgaria today, 160 remain active places of worship.
Tourism and getting there
Tourism in Bulgaria has been growing at a rate of 22% per annum in recent years, although the country has been popular with Germans, Scandinavians and other Eastern Europeans for many years. 2004 saw a 75% increase in the number of British holidaying in the country, and as tourist levels have risen, so has interest in the real estate market.
Between 2005 and 2006, there was a more than 100% increase in visitors to Bulgaria, with 3.7 million tourist arrivals. The World Trade Organisation forecasts that by 2010 there will be 20 million tourists visiting Bulgaria every year, while high street travel agents have reported growth of more than 100% in bookings to Bulgaria. The country has topped travel operator Opodo’s top ten emerging travel destinations for 2007 and they reported that bookings to Bulgaria have risen by 40% in the six months prior to EU membership.
Thanks to the continued growth of the holiday market, the number of regular budget flights continues to expand. There are already regular flights to Bulgaria with airlines such as British Airways, Balkan Bulgarian Airlines and Wizz Air. Bourgas Airport’s director recently announced that now Bulgaria has joined the EU, additional flights are scheduled by airlines such as Ryanair, easyJet, Germanwings and Myair.
Cost of living
Bulgaria remains one of the most affordable European destinations, with the cost of living sitting at just 30% of Spanish living costs. A meal out can cost as little as £5, while mineral water is as little as 17p a litre and a pint of beer only 35p! Now Bulgaria is a member of the EU, it is widely expected that prices will go up. However, what is very important for potential buyers to be aware of is that the cost of building materials and labour have risen disproportionately in comparison to other costs due to the high demand. Foreigners should also be aware that until recently the law stated that foreigners were to be charged more for things such as property, museums and hotel rooms, compared with locals. This was the official policy of the Bulgarian government until the last year or so, but now this practice is illegal. If you find you are being charged more than the locals, feel free to challenge this.
Food and drink
If you like grilled meat, eggy bread, yoghurt and tomatoes then this is the place for you. Fruit and vegetables are fresh and home-grown and the meals are delicious and varied. The Bulgarians love their salads and popular dishes include kebahche (spicy meat sausages) and kyufte(flattened, curly sausage).
A typically daily menu starts with pancakes with berries and syrup, or a cheese pastry for breakfast. Lunch can be a shopska salad, comprising tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, feta cheese and olives, while a traditional evening meal is kavarnais–roasted meat and vegetables seasoned with garlic, onions, tomatoes, oil and spices.