Bulgaria’s “Sunny Beach”: Center of the Universe

Bulgarians call their worst Black Sea resort by its original name, Slanchev Bryag. “Sunny Beach” or “Sonnenstrand” are direct translations. “Mafia Beach” is an alias this place definitely deserved fifteen years ago. To a lesser extent it still does today.

Slanchev Bryag is the prototype of a terrible holiday resort. That place shows how a spot of this kind should not be built. In a way, it is the anti-resort.

First of all, city planning is something nobody seems to have heard of down there. What used to be more like a holiday village for the privileged in communist Bulgaria started to grow, even before the changes. By 1989, there were 108 hotels. Then, hotels and businesses targeting tourists mushroomed. That place spread like a malicious cancer. Today, 800 hotels can accommodate some 200,000 people.

The more buildings were erected, the more streets were added, in an uncontrolled fashion. At some point, around 20 years ago, Slanchev Bryag was not a holiday village anymore, but something like a tourist city, without the infrastructure to support it. Today, the monster called “Sunny Beach” is far too big to tame.

Slanchev Bryag’s beach is actually great. Located in the Bay of Nessebar, it is 100 meters wide and 8 kilometers long. This beach is just the right place for long walks, especially in the early mornings and the late evenings, when most tourists are either asleep or consuming what the Bulgarians call pizza.

The thousands of cute seagulls in the region are benefiting from the chaotic situation. The more tourists hit the beach, the more eatable trash they find. Fifty percent of their menu probably consists of fresh fish picked out of the Black Sea, while the other half might be edges of pizza crusts.

Hotels owners benefit a lot too. According to many Bulgarians, the majority of those establishments was built by the mafia, including people who used the “influence” they had in communism to build themselves money making machines and money laundering objects. But, by now, large international tour operators own hotels too.

Between all of those hotels, countless businesses, many of them run by the same owners, are milking the millions of tourists who end up in Slanchev Bryag every summer season. Supermarkets and restaurants of all price levels are the obvious ones. So are partially elegant clubs, such as “La Cubanita” or “Cacao Beach”, where one vodka is 14 Leva, the equivalent of just over 7 Euro. For Bulgaria, that kind of price is astronomically high.

Then there are those currency exchange businesses. Fifteen years ago, all of those change booths would systematically rip off tourists. Whoever complained would have an involuntary appointment with some musclebound gentlemen. Today, the cheating is more subtle.

Hardly any regular banks can be found in Slanchev Bryag. Their automated teller machines are missing too. Almost all ATMs in “Sunny Beach” carry the name and logo of a company hardly anyone has heard of. Under normal circumstances, Bulgarian banks would not want to miss out on good business with countless tourists. But here, they might have been pushed out by wise guys. The fees tourists pay for withdrawing their money are probably quite high.

At the change offices all over the resort, customers will just get bad rates. No more musclemen. No more obvious con jobs in front of the mayor’s window. That was before Bulgaria became part of the European Union. But the prostitution and casino business in Slanchev Bryag is still there. It has grown substantially.

This resort offers all kinds of hotels, including places where pretty ugly stains on mattresses and bed sheets are part of the extras offered, such as a place called “Korona”. Alison Pounder, a British tourist who wanted a nice vacation with her 74-year-old mother and two grand-kids, used social media channels to warn people of that hotel: “People in the U.K.: Do not come to ‘Korona’ in Sunny Beach”, Mrs. Pounder wrote. For two days, she had been trying to “get out of filthy rooms not fit for humans”, she said (read separate article).

But there is also the more positive side of things. At “Sun City Holiday Apartments”, Melanie, a German tourist who is seven months pregnant, says this was her third trip to the same location. “Where else can I stay a week for less than 500 Euro? I like it down here”, she says while watching her two daughters play in the rather large pool.

Melanie is not really a typical tourist, since she and her family took this big trip by car. They drove 2,000 kilometers from the German Thuringia province to “Sonnenstrand”. And they will drive all the way back. This family is experienced and will most likely not become victims of the currency exchange mafia or their taxi colleagues whose rates are five to ten times higher than those in the Bulgarian capital Sofia.

Bulgaria also offers Black Sea holiday resorts which are far nicer than Slanchev Bryag, including Kavarna in the north or Sinemorets in the south. But people who want to party, step on each other’s feet and meet lots of compatriots, will do so here, in most cases.

Slanchev Bryag is the center of the universe for low budget tourists and for business owners. The tourists spend their savings on holiday packages, while those who are cashing in love to show off their Aston Martins and Maybachs on the resort’s overcrowded main street.

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