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 Inspection Trip to Bansko  15.12.2007 back
Guardian journalist, Tony Levene, finds out what happens when he takes advantage of a £39 for two offer to see a new resort being built in Bansko.

A two-night trip to Bulgaria for two for just £39. On the unsolicited email which arrived in my Guardian inbox, the £39 was in big bold type "Call now!" This is £19.50 a person for "flights, resort transfers, accommodation, all your entertainment and dining!"

This must be a bargain - it is £19.80 return from my local London station to Gatwick. And £39 is less than an off-peak return to Birmingham.

Bulgaria is a mystery to me - I know it is north of Greece, they use the Russian alphabet, it has just joined the European Union and, about 30 years ago, there was that poisoned umbrella incident which killed Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov.

But was this an "if it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is" deal? Could I end up in my own advice column, Capital Letters? I decided to consumer-test it. The email promised "a real feel for Bulgaria and [a] view [of] an idyllic development within a no-pressure relaxed atmosphere".

At, the Essex firm which sent the email, Regan Sloan said it would be fine to travel without a partner (so it wasn't timeshare which always insists on selling to couples); and that it was a property trip. I had to sign a 13-clause contract with (there are a bewildering number of firms involved here). One clause said that if I did not bring a "valid major credit and/or debit card" I would have to pay £199. So last week I found myself on an Easyjet flight (£69 each way) to Sofia, Bulgaria's capital and main airport. Other than Bulgarians, almost everyone seemed either to have property in Bulgaria, or was going (like me) to look at a potential purchase. Prices, it seems, have been booming.

At the airport I met Phil Grimes, owner of sales agent, his assistant Mariya, and five others on the £39 trip. None of my fellow-guests has ever invested before. Like me, they received the email - and were curious.

Leaving Sofia for our ski resort was an exciting drive dodging potholes, huge lorries and kamikaze coach drivers. Two and half hours later, we arrived at a three-star and former Soviet hotel in Razloj, a town near Bansko, Bulgaria's prime ski resort and one of the very few in Eastern Europe with a modern ski lift.

It is midnight, and the buffet is standard Bulgarian fare with lots of meat, few vegetables, and even less fruit. This trip is not for vegetarians.

The presentation - miss it and it's a £199 fine, the contract says - starts the next morning. Grimes, a former Customs investigator, tells us he is an independent agency whose "main function is to identify the properties that are worth marketing. We cream off the best and get rid of the rubbish". He's also selling flats in Albania - it could be the next big thing.

I was expecting the hard sell, but the patter is more softly-softly. "I came here a year or so ago and did not like it. Then it grew on me," he says. He then comes to the "vision" - Razlojka Valley Resort, the object of the trip. There's a drawing and a scale architect's model.

I'm told the "back story". British investor Bob Warrior from Liverpool came here to buy flats but noticed the lack of five-star facilities. He found a field, loved the views, bought it, got planning permission and is now selling luxury flats. It's his first development.

The flats, rated a "five-star investment opportunity" range from a three-bed duplex at €270,000 (£194,000) down to a small studio at just over €60,000 (£43,000). There are discounts for early payments. The brochure has an investment forecast based on annual growth of 6%, 9%, 12% "seen as a more sustainable level for several years" than the 29.4% a year growth of the past three years. There's a rental plan and even a buy-back guarantee.

Grimes tells us that while "early investors have made their gains, there is still sustained growth. This is like Spain 30 years ago".

But later, we discover there are 120-plus agencies in Bansko selling new-build flats - mostly to Brits - with few, if any, facilities for resale. After all, agents make more from new-build while buyers don't want second-hand when they can buy new at a discount. So how will anyone realise a profit? What's more, this development isn't even in Bansko - it is six kilometres from the nearest ski lift.

We travel past the Ladas and Trabants and horse-drawn carts to see the five-star investment opportunity. We go off road and up a rutted track until we can go no further. Then it's a trudge across scrub, snow and sludge. But there's nothing there, except a few posts marking out the "site" - the roof is planned for 2010. And given the pace of building in Bulgaria - construction is the dominant industry - you have to imagine what the area will be like when all the surrounding fields are covered with new tourist developments. You also have to picture six championship golf courses. So far, just nine holes are open.

The development is sold as a summer/winter investment. But you have to hope that golfers will be happy with the three-hour plus flight and the two and a half hour transfer (a more local airport is still years away) and that skiers will be happy to be 6km from the ski-lift and apres-ski, even with a promised shuttle bus.

After a meat-heavy lunch, we tour Bansko which is pleasant and has the aforementioned 120 estate agents.

Grimes then takes us up the windy snowy mountain road to the ski run. The snow is good for early December.

We then go to one of Warrior's flats in Bansko. There's a talk from a local lawyer which reveals yet another company - the Bulgarian legal owner of the development. You have to pay €1,000 for the legalities - and be prepared to sue in Sofia if anything goes wrong.

The evening is another big meat meal lubricated by Bulgarian firewater rakyia followed by a 3.30am tour of the Christmas lights.

Grimes had a card reader in case anyone wanted to put down a deposit. Sadly for him it remained unused.

The next morning Grimes (and I) were up early for the drive back. The others? Their faces ranged from white to grey to green. Rakyia.


For £39, it was a great value introduction to Bulgaria. There was no hard sell, virtually no sell at all. I (and the others) had a great time. I spent nothing and did not even need Bulgarian currency. And I sampled rakyia.

But there was no time to check anything out. I have no idea of prices in the shops and bars, or - more crucially - what other developers offer. And I have no idea of Bulgarian loans.

You could hardly make a decision on the spot. But then, as Sloan at Paradise says, most people take longer to buy clothes than purchasing property.

Source: The Guardian

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