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Chic, Style - and it's Bulgaria!

For years Bulgaria has been branded as a downmarket budget destination which has attracted hoards of bargain-hunting tourists in search of cheap booze and fake Rolexes ... no more! Chic, Style - and it's Bulgaria as developers chase a wealthier clientele, Bulgarians become richer and a different type of tourist explores the treasures of this Balkan wonderland.

Words like “cheap,” “bargain” and “low–cost” are slowly being replaced with “boutique,” “luxury” and “designer” as Bulgaria ditches its cut price image in favour of one associated with style, culture and opulence.

The construction of professionally designed golf courses from the Black Sea to the capital is one of the driving factors; property in golf complexes is of a lavish standard with many design features not included in traditional new builds. The property prices within the complexes is much higher than equivalent property in neighbouring towns and villages, with four-bedroom cliff-top homes costing up to £330,000, but has had the effect of increasing prices of high quality properties in the vicinity.

This upward trend has pushed out the bargain hunters who came to Bulgaria to make a quick turnaround on a low investment price.

The Gary Player designed Black Sea Rama golf complex provides a lavish gated community with apartments and villas encircling the 18-hole course. The development provides spectacular uninterrupted views across the coast, and an attractive garden setting. There are numerous on-site amenities and access to a wide range of other “elitist” sports like tennis and horse riding. The course, along with the other two Black Sea courses, is close to the Tuzlata Spa’s thermal and mud baths as well as a number of new yacht marinas.

Marinas are also another classic example of Bulgaria’s upwardly mobile trend. Last year the country's first private and biggest yacht port Marina-Dinevi opened in St. Vlas on the Southern Coast. The state of the art yacht port has 300 yacht places and can accommodate the enormous king class craft, which are longer than 25 meters. Boat International, the leading magazine group serving the international super yacht industry, included the port in its annual catalogue of leading yacht ports, which included similar complexes in the Seychelles, the Bahamas and the Paradise Islands.

 

The evidence of Bulgaria’s rebranding is all around. In major cities, in particular the capital, boutique hotels, like the Maria Luisa Hotel in Sofia, offer stylish surroundings often in renovated older buildings. Boutique hotels also tend to offer a high standard of personal service are springing up all over the country. Last year the Association for European Boutique Hoteliers held its annual conference in Sofia in recognition of the cities encouraging trend towards the opening and promotion of Boutique Hotels.

 

Even the wine industry has taken on the mantle of boutique wines with wineries like Todoroff, known now worldwide as a boutique wine cellar. In the last two years this boutique winery has won numerous prestigious international awards including medals at the world renowned Vinalies Internationales Wine Tasting Show in Paris. In fact wine tours of Bulgaria’s wine producing regions are slowly replacing package tours to Sunny Beach. One such tour marketed by a Sofia based-travel company to American tourists offers tours starting from 900 dollars for a ten day tour. In fact, special interest tours are developing as fast as new apartment blocks, with companies offering hunting tours, Black Sea and Bulgarian river cruises and heritage tours.


Last year Thomson Holidays and First Choice announced that they would no longer feature Bulgaria’s Northern Coast resorts in their summer brochures, the reason – the resorts have become too expensive for their budget travellers. Golden Sands once the darling of disco dancing, kiss-me-quick tourists has undergone a dramatic image change. The frontline has been rebuilt and now includes luxurious spa hotels and lavish apartment blocks overlooking the sea. Even the ramshackle of souvenir and designer fake stores are being replaced with boutiques selling real designer watches, clothes and sunglasses. Such luxury frontline developments are raising the stakes and image of the beach resorts. John Hitchcox’s Yoo brand, renowned for its construction of designer pads for the young and wealthy in the likes of Miami or Sydney took the construction industry by storm when it started construction on a frontline luxury apartment block in Obzor, 55km from Varna. Two-storey penthouses in the block cost in excess of £250,000.

The apartments are lavishly designed with large decking terraces, boutique chic bathrooms and Philippe Starck extras. As in Golden Sands, the majority of buyers are from Russia. Hitchcox has plans for similar developments in Byala and Kavarna and says that he is here for the long-term. "I’m really pro Bulgaria and I’m consistent with my pro-ness, we’ll be here for at least 15 to 20 years."

Chic shopping malls are starting to dominate the skylines of all towns and cities and they are filled with stores selling scented candles, attractively packaged toiletries, designer brand clothes, stainless steel kitchen items, bookstores and designer coffees. Even purveyors of smoking requisites are jumping on the designer bandwagon with Bulgaria’s exclusive importer of Cuban cigars, Kaliman Caribe, opening its second luxury boutique in Sofia last year. Kaliman sell the full range of Habanos cigars and target the high end of the cigar market.

Robin Barrasford of real state agency Barrasford and Bird explains that since Bulgaria joined the EU, confidence in the country has grown and increased the demand for bigger, more luxurious, frontline properties for personal use.

Lance Nelson of Jet2Let believes that spa tourism is the way forward for a more exclusive Bulgaria, “The spa town of Sapareva Banya, under an hour on a new road from Sofia and surrounded by lakes and high peaks, offers an unspoilt, year- round destination. It also has the hottest spring water in Europe and the only active geyser in Balkans.” Indeed, Bulgaria is rich in spas and wellness spots, with over 800 mineral springs it is within the top five in Europe. The springs are currently undergoing regeneration and spa tourism will be the next big thing as developers rush to exploit the country’s best spa resorts with hotel complexes and wellness centres.

 

The future looks bright for Bulgaria and change for the better is happening at a rapid pace. Bulgaria is now well placed to take its fair share of the luxury market, and those who still want the traditional, rural Bulgaria will not have to travel far to find it. Luxury tourism is also just about to start to touch Bulgaria’s towns and villages!