ARTICLES 
Bulgarian and foreign resort investors and residential real estate developers ready to flex their golfing muscles
By Peter Michel Heilmann, 14th September 2005

With more than five new golf resort and leisure-integrated real estate developments in the pipeline, Bulgaria is in its early stage of development but has the potential of becoming an exciting new golf destination and golf real estate market

Only one 9-hole and three 18-hole golf courses are currently open for play in Bulgaria, while developers estimate that there are less than 500 golfers throughout the country. According to the most recent European Golf Association statistics, the official number of players in Bulgaria is 102. But this is expected to change over the coming years as Bulgaria is determined to enter the European Union in 2007. "By the time Bulgaria joins the EU in 2007, we expect that the popularity of golf would have increased tremendously within the country," says renowned golf course architect Gary Player, who is currently involved in two Bulgarian golf resorts near the 1,000 year-old resort town of Varna -- BlackSeaRama Golf & Villas and Thracian Cliffs - Golf & Spa Resort.
"Bulgaria is now going forward, both economically and politically," says Class "AA" Professional Golfer Alan Egford, who spends most of his time in Greece and Bulgaria as a Golf Development Consultant to The PGA Europe/R&A and partner in Golf Balkan, a Sofia-based firm specialising in golf course design, construction, renovation, irrigation, and management. "The Bulgarian Golf Association is very much a part of that process." Golf Balkan was formed in 2003 in response to the growing golf market in Bulgaria, the Balkans, and Eastern Europe. With a team of highly qualified Golf Course Managers and Greenkeepers, the company is available for golf projects of all sizes, scopes and complexity. In 2003, Golf Balkan was commissioned to design and construct the St. Sofia Golf Club, located at Elin Pelin, near the Bulgarian capital. Egford works under The PGA Europe / R&A conclave of missionaries banner and has been heavily involved in Bulgaria via this organisation.
NEW GOLF DEVELOPMENTS IN BULGARIA

1. BlackSeaRama Golf & Villas: This is the first 18-hole international golf development close to Balchik, located North of Golden Sands on the Black Sea. The developers started to build the first 9 holes two months ago, while work on the other 9 holes will commence in 2006. The 18-hole golf course will be surrounded by hotels and residential real estate. BlackSeaRama is a Gary Player signature golf course resort development with modern, luxurious accommodation and dramatic sea views offered to those seeking a premier holiday retreat at significant savings over other European competitors. Gary Player said about the to-be-developed villas: "...at such a beautiful place, if in South Africa, a single lot would cost around two million dollars." The site of BlackSeaRama Golf & Villas, which extends to the lip of a 150-metre high seaside cliff, is marked by a plateau surface and offers a spectacular elevated view of the Black Sea. The master plan has been developed by WATG.
2. Thracian Cliffs - Golf & Spa Resort: This is another new development in Balchik, just 2 km. away from BlackSeaRama Golf & Villas. It is a huge project with hotels, houses, apartments, a marina, a beautiful Gary Player championship course, etc. Digging will commence in 2006. The main buildings of this 145-hectare resort will be based on the villages of the Thracian coastal region. The resort's architecture was inspired by Bulgaria's local coastal architecture. Since there are not that many old fishing villages left, the developer's intention is to recreate an old village that should appear as if it has been there for centuries. Therefore, the architecture is based on designing traditional, small-scale and very simple buildings. Even though they are quite simple, these buildings will be enriched with the use of different materials, mostly locally-sourced, in order to fit into the natural environment. The rough topography of the sea level Thracian Cliffs golf course will create a nice contrast and will drive a diverse design approach. The master plan has been developed by WATG.
3. Ibar Golf Club & Spa (Mount Rila's premier four-season resort and home of the first Nicklaus signature golf course): The game of golf continues to expand to new markets all over the world, and Nicklaus Design continues to be the vehicle to introduce that game. The latest country added to the Nicklaus Design resume of 28 countries is Bulgaria. The Ibar Golf Club & Spa will be a Nicklaus Design course, featuring Steve Nicklaus as lead designer, and will not only represent the company's first project in Bulgaria but also its first in South-East Europe.

"Though golf is not new to the country we are delighted that Nicklaus Design will be an important part of the foundation Bulgaria is building and the legacy they are creating in Southeast Europe," said Steve Nicklaus, Ibar's lead designer and vice president in charge of business development for the Nicklaus Companies.

On June 14, 2005, Nicklaus Design officials, led by Executive Vice President Tim Kenny, were on hand in Bulgaria for a formal signing ceremony with Ibar's executive directors, Kiril Nedev and Ilia Lazarov.

Ibar will be located in Dolna Banya, about 70 kilometres from the capital city of Sofia.

"We at Nicklaus Design strongly believe that golf is a global game, and we embrace each opportunity we have to introduce golf or grow it in new countries and emerging markets," Steve added.

Nicklaus Design, the privately-owned firm led by legend Jack Nicklaus and the Nicklaus family, is recognised as the world leader in golf course design. Nicklaus Design, as a company, has 282 courses open for play in 28 countries and 37 states. Of those Jack Nicklaus has 235 courses open for play worldwide, including 196 solo designs, 11 redesigns and 28 co-designs. At least 45 Nicklaus Design courses have been ranked in various national or international top-100 lists, and 77 courses have hosted a combined 500 professional tournaments world-wide or significant U.S. national amateur championships.
4. and 5. Lighthouse Golf Resort (also known as Cliff Golf & Holiday Club) and Pirin Golf & Holiday Club: Detailed design work has begun on two separate courses in Bulgaria, Lighthouse Golf Resort and Pirin Golf & Holiday Club. Ian Woosnam will be working alongside European Golf Design Ltd. (EGD) of the U.K. on both courses.

Woosnam Design, working in conjunction with EGD, has signed an agreement with Barage Complect Ltd., the Sofia-based property development company and real estate consultants, to design one new course in the popular Bansko ski area in the south west (Pirin Golf & Holiday Club) and the other in Balchik on the Black Sea (Lighthouse Golf Resort). These courses will be built in conjunction with hotels and residential properties. Both are spectacular sites.

The Pirin Resort is situated two hours from Sofia, located on the outskirts of the well-known ski-resort town of Bansko in the Pirin mountains (between Razlog and Bansko). The site scattered with small rock outcroppings and mature pine trees is set against the picturesque mountains providing a perfect backdrop.

The second course, Lighthouse Golf Resort, is located on the Black Sea, just outside of the small resort town of Balchik, 40 minutes from Varna. Situated high on top of cliffs only divided from the sea by a small strip of the land the site benefits from spectacular views along the coast in either direction. Construction is due to commence on both courses later in 2005.

"I am extremely excited about this opportunity," says Woosnam. "Golf is in its early stages of development in Bulgaria and I am keen to be involved in helping develop the sport in the country. We aim to create world-class facilities which will promote the game of golf and tourism in general. The backdrop to the Bansko site is spectacular and with mature pine tress and streams I envisage a rugged mountain look to the course. The Balchik site is very different, being on a plateau adjacent to the Black Sea coast with magnificent cliff top views."
6. New Ferry Group development in Katina, near Sofia: According to Bulgaria's Dnevnik and Pari newspapers, Spain's Ferry Group is ready to invest more than EUR 100 million in a golf course, five-star hotel with swimming pools and residential real estate in the village of Katina, close to Sofia. In August 2005, Minko Gerdjikov, the Bulgarian capital's acting mayor, signed a contract with the chairman of Ferry Group for the transfer of the municipality's stake in the Sports Centre of Katina to the Spanish company for BGN 2.7 million.

The 160-hectare golf course may qualify for Bulgaria's "first-class investor certificate," which is issued by the InvestBulgaria Agency when foreign direct investment transactions exceed BGN 100 million. With this certificate, the investor is eligible for Bulgarian state support in terms of financing infrastructure development. Special incentives are given for large investors, including investors in real estate. The first phase of the project will reportedly be built on 90 hectares.

The Bulgarian golfing visionaries

Alan Egford specifies four people whom he believes are fundamental to Bulgaria's campaign to install golf as an important part of their national culture.

They are Krasimir Guergov, the BGA President, Seth Underwood, the BGA General Secretary, an Englishman who married a Bulgarian and settled there, Reny Damianova Ph.D., an Associate Professor at the National Sports Academy, a lady who has already introduced the theory, rules and science of golf to here students, and Stoil Stoilov, a skier with a burning desire to introduce golf to his country.

Reny is the intrepid lady who, as reported here previously, travelled by public bus routes international borders, from Sofia to Munich and back to meet PGAE General Secretary Lawrie Thornton and set in motion the production and publication of a dictionary of golfing terms for her university students, endorsed by The Professional Golfers' Associations of Europe Ltd. (PGAE).

The country's golf season is approximately from late March/early April to October/November, with the possibility of a longer season depending on the weather.

Bulgaria is one of the fastest-growing real estate markets in Europe, providing opportunities for both long-term investments and short-term speculative transactions. In parts of Western Europe and the U.K., property prices have surged because of historically low interest rates and rising incomes. It looks like a bubble has developed. In Eastern Europe, real-estate prices are being driven by rapid economic growth and the need to replace low-quality housing. As people get richer, they spend more money on living somewhere nicer. It may be decades before that process is complete.

Following the invitation at the Helsinki meeting of the European Council in December 1999, Bulgaria began accession negotiations with the European Union (EU). Bulgaria hopes that these will lead to membership in 2007. At the Prague Summit in November 2002, Bulgaria was invited to begin accession negotiations for NATO membership. Bulgaria became a member of NATO on April 2, 2004. Bulgaria is currently a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council.

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