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31 January 2018

Bulgarian wilderness irreversibly damaged by ski resort popular with UK visitors

A new WWF report reveals that the Bansko ski resort, favoured by UK skiers, has caused lasting damage to the Pirin World Heritage site. It also found there is no strong economic case for expanding the ski facilities, despite the Bulgarian Government’s recent move to open up the park to further construction.

Home to brown bears, grey wolves and the lesser spotted eagle, Pirin is one of Europe’s most important areas of wilderness. It has been awarded UNESCO World Heritage site status because of its ‘Outstanding Universal Value’.

The new report reveals the severe effect on the environment caused by the creation and expansion of Bansko ski resort, of which a quarter of its visitors are from the UK. Amendments made to Pirin’s current management plan by Bulgaria’s government in December have now opened up to 48% of the park to construction activities. A new draft management plan, currently under dispute in court, would allow construction of ski infrastructure in an area 12.5 times bigger than the current area and logging in 60 per cent of the national park.

Bansko ski resort was approved by Bulgaria’s government in 2000. The report reveals that it has compromised Pirin’s long-term economic value and delivered a mixed economic impact to date.

The Government’s new plans pose potential further threat to Pirin. Ski infrastructure construction and widespread logging would seriously risk the park’s wildlife by destroying and reducing natural habitats. The expansion would take place in some of the most pristine and valuable areas within the park, and would require cutting down old Macedonian and Bosnian pine trees. It is estimated that more than 3,000 hectares of forest would need to be felled to facilitate the planned expansion of ski areas. The report forcefully shows that these plans would cause irreversible damage to the World Heritage site and are based on a questionable business case.

Veselina Kavrakova, WWF Bulgaria Country Head, said:

“Ski development in pursuit of short-term gains has already taken a shocking toll on Pirin. This report brings its damaging impact on both nature and Pirin’s long-term economic value into sharp focus. Bulgaria’s government cannot simply press on with plans to allow the ski area to increase 12-fold. It must instead listen to its citizens who are calling for Pirin to be protected.

“Sustainable economic development can better capture the long-term potential of the park and extend the tourism offering beyond skiing by developing year-round activities to attract more visitors outside the winter months.”

The changes to its current management plan were pushed through by Bulgaria’s government on 28 December after WWF and a coalition of NGOs filed a lawsuit against the government’s proposed new management plan. This move has sparked weekly street protests in more than 20 cities in Bulgaria and dozens more around the world, including London.

WWF’s report, “Slippery Slopes: Protecting Pirin from Unsustainable Ski Expansion and Logging,” highlights that, when building the current ski zones, the ski facilities were constructed on 60 per cent more national park territory than contracted. This construction caused irreversible damage to the national park. As a result, two areas lost the status of World Heritage Site and were downgraded to ‘buffer zones’.

Chris Gee, Head of Campaigns at WWF-UK said:

“The plight of Pirin has captured global attention. Here in the UK, we’re seeing weekly protests outside the Bulgarian Embassy, while the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation has pledged its support and actor Jared Leto sent a letter to Prime Minister Borissov. World Heritage sites are the planet’s most precious places and it is clear that people want Governments to protect them, rather than open them up to the highest bidders. The Bulgarian Government is running the risk of UNESCO deciding that this incredible site should be added to its World Heritage ‘in danger’ list - which would be the first EU World Heritage site to be given this unwelcome listing.”

The report also finds that the assumptions underlying the economic case for ski expansion are weak. The ski zones are shown to have had mixed economic impact on the local economy to date, as demonstrated by increased unemployment, population reduction and drastic decrease of property value. Bansko is also not maximizing the potential of its existing facilities. Furthermore, climate change effects are expected to affect snow conditions, increasing dependency on artificial snow and inflating the cost of operating the ski resort as well as pressure on local water supplies.

WWF’s report instead provides a roadmap for developing Pirin sustainably. This vision focuses on year-round sustainable tourism and different ways that income can be generated in the area. If successful, Pirin could serve as a blueprint for sustainable management of mountain ecosystems in Bulgaria and beyond, and its nature would be protected for current and future generations, the report says.

Last week World Rowing became the first global sports body to respond to UNESCO World Heritage committee's call for sports bodies to protect World Heritage sites.


Notes to Editors:

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