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Our Aim is to Turn Bulgaria into a Year-round Destination Interview with Krassimir Guergov, president of the Bulgarian Golf Association By KONSTANTIN ANGELOV Photography DILYAN MARKOV, ARCHIVE

01.07.2013 | 15:49

Mr. Guergov, in May 2013 the televised Volvo World Match Play Championship near Kavarna reached half a billion households around the globe. Has there ever been any other media event in Bulgaria with such coverage?

- This was the most widely covered positive event in Bulgaria. There may have been some negative media coverage across the world on this scale, but with the duration and positive coverage I am certain that there has been no other event to rival this one. This does not only apply for Bulgaria, but in the whole of Eastern Europe.


I believe this is the first time that Volvo organised the championship in Eastern Europe?

- Yes. As a sports event it can possibly only be compared with the European football championship in Poland and Ukraine.


You are one of the golf pioneers in Bulgaria. When you founded the Golf Association 12 years ago did you imagine there would be a competition of this scale in Bulgaria so soon?

- No. Of course, our aim has always been to promote Bulgaria as a well-known golf destination and to host a big championship. Not in our wildest dreams did we imagine such a competition, not only because of the traditions of the other big tournaments, but also because of the needs of the sponsors. Sponsors prefer to fund competitions in countries with a large market for their goods.


Bulgaria has unique scenery. This is why; in this case, it was not important for the sponsors whether one hundred thousand people would attend the event. It was more important to them that those one billion television viewers saw a beautiful picture which will be associated with their advertising.


Per Ericsson, President of Volvo Event Management, explained how he liked the golf course on the Internet and then got a good recommendation from the marketing director of Rolex. Even so, was it easy to convince Volvo to come to Bulgaria for this edition of the event?

- Actually, the people from the IMG senior management had already seen the golf course, so there was no need to convince them that it was a great place for telecasting. The Rolex ad chief had also been to the region and was very well acquainted with the three courses - BlackSeaRama, Thracian Cliffs and Lighthouse. They, in turn, recommended the place to Volvo as the best venue for the tournament.


In the Bulgarian Golf Association's overall strategy it was very important to only build high-quality golf courses, i.e. bearing the signatures of designers such as Gary Player, Ian Woosnam, Paul McGinley, Peter Harradine, people who are very well known among golf circles as designers of golf courses. Some of these designers are also well known players. Having these designers demonstrates that these courses are of high quality. The other golf destinations which rival Bulgaria, such as Turkey, mainland Spain, Mallorca, Portugal, offer golf courses that were mostly made by low-budget designers, whereas we had the best.


- The superstars, Paulter and McDowell, called Thracian Cliffs "stunning". Ericsson said that the players were "simply delighted". Even the correspondent of the Irish Times devoted more space in his articles to the course than to the successes of his compatriot McDowell. Why did you decide to assign the construction of this golf course to Gary Player and what distinguishes it?

- The fact that Gary Player has made a golf course is a one 100 per cent guarantee for all players, professionals and amateurs alike, that it has been designed according to the highest standards. We had to take this step, regardless of the fact that Gary was a bit more expensive than we could afford when we created the golf destination. However, it guaranteed that this new destination would immediately be recognized as a unique competition venue, unique both as scenery and design. It is because of this combination that Volvo, Rolex, IMG and European Tour chose Bulgaria. What distinguishes Thracian Cliffs from all the rest is that it is the only golf course in the world that offers a spectacular view of the sea from every hole.


Can Bulgaria now be regarded as a complete golf destination? What follows after such a prestigious tournament? What are the plans of the Bulgarian Golf Association?

- Our only problem,which, is only natural, is that right now Bulgaria attracts mostly seasonal tourists. We have two or three months of skiing during the winter season and a summer season for the seaside that is about two or three months. The aim of the Bulgarian Golf Association is to make the country a 12-month tourist destination. This will also mean more flights to Varna, Bourgas, Sofia and Plovdiv. I think that golf will help to expand these destinations and that the airline companies will provide year-round flights.


Per Ericsson said that his only concern was the roads connecting Kavarna and Varna. He said that he had found it easier to travel from Sweden to Beijing than to Kavarna. Is this Bulgaria's big problem as a destination?

- Without a doubt. Keep in mind that a golf player spends an average of 85 euros a day on food alone. Apart from the food the player must then pay for stays in a hotel. Obviously, this makes golfers some of the most attractive tourists for any destination.


This is why I believe that if flights are organised to our Black Sea coast from Scandinavia, the UK, Germany and Central Europe, they will be fully booked because we are now an established golf destination. We also have beautiful scenery and delicious food, which, unless more solvent tourists start visiting in the near future, will simply be lost. All those small, boutique food producers we are proud of will go bankrupt and we will no longer have delicious sheep's cheese, nice tomatoes or tasty wine.


There has been talk for years that Bulgaria has made a mistake in the development of its tourism and that it has turned into a low-quality product and insufficiently solvent tourists. Can golf reverse this trend? In your opinion, what will be the long-term economic effect of a tournament like the Volvo World Match Play Championship?

- I think that Bulgaria has only one chance to get out of poverty and to change the status as the lowest paid inhabitants of Europe. This opportunity is from tourism. We have at least four very nice resorts. We have two developed golf destinations, one near Sofia and Bansko and the other on the Black Sea Coast. These factors are enough to turn us into a year-round tourist destination. I believe that tourism alone can support the main livelihood of the Bulgarians which are agriculture and services.


You mentioned Turkey as a rival destination. In Turkey golf enjoys active and generous government support, the state provides land, subsidies, etc.. What more do you think could be done in this respect in Bulgaria?

- I think that the state should announce a public procurement and encourage the destinations; this would bring golf tourists here from the Scandinavian countries, the UK and Germany. It should call a public procurement for the leading Bulgarian and international airline companies and subsidise that handle tourists. I am convinced that a small initial investment would produce a rapid effect and then these flights would become very profitable. This is the way to attract solvent tourists, people who will buy property in Bulgaria and then who will come here outside the active tourist season. This will also help the development of the other types of tourism like cultural tourism, for example.


Bulgaria's unique advantage is that golf can be played almost all year round, including in July and August. In rival destinations like Turkey and Spain it is unbearably hot during those months.


How do you think Bulgaria should be promoted as a tourist destination? There are constant complaints that the state is not doing enough. On the other hand, the tourist branch too, seems to be biding its time; there is no unity and cooperation between the big players.

- To develop a tourist destination the state needs to invest a lot in order to create the infrastructure, to provide free areas to the people who want to build sports facilities and cultural sites and to develop congress tourism. When the state does this, it can expect the opposite effect and rely on these people to take part in the creation of such national advertising.


So far the state in Bulgaria has not created any infrastructure. It does not support airline companies to effectively operate flights to and from Bulgaria, yet the government collects enormous airport charges.


If the state invests something in tourism things will change. I am certain that every Bulgarian Lev invested in flights or in tourism advertising will be repaid a hundredfold. Just look at how much money is allocated for such things in Spain, Turkey, Portugal, and even in smaller countries like Cyprus.


We cannot expect people to know about Bulgaria without any advertising. Nobody would have realised that there is such a golf course in Bulgaria had it not been for this tournament. We cannot afford to produce an advertisement that has the capability of reaching a billion people. If we had to do it any other way it would have cost us over $80 million.


Is there any chance of something on this scale happening again soon in Bulgaria?

- We have the ambition to apply for the Ryder Cup, one of the most attractive competitions in the world. I think that we could host it around 2020 or a little later.


What personally attracted you to golf? If I am not mistaken, you are a champion in Bulgaria in sport orienteering. Is it only the closeness to nature that unites these sports?

- No, not only. In a golf competition one walks about 10 km, approximately the same distance is covered in orienteering. In both types of sport you need to think, to choose the best strategy of how to get from point to point. They do have many things in common, in fact, golf is one of the healthiest sports.


- Are there enough Bulgarian players?

- There are about 800 registered competitors, not including the people who play for pleasure. The best thing about this sport is the handicap system which can equalise the worst player to the best player and create a real competition between them.


This is the only sport in which an amateur can play against a leading professional.

- And even beat him. That's what makes golf unique.


Do you follow the PGA Tour? Against whom would you test your mettle?

- I have noticed that most people, who are really into golf, do not have any favourites and that is how it is with me. I do have several favourites from the point of view of PR.


The most famous figure in contemporary golf is undoubtedly Tiger Woods, but not many people know that John Daly, for example, who is currently not even in the Top 1,000 of the rankings, has some of the highest ratings when he plays. The point is that he cannot appear in a competition like Volvo, because he cannot qualify for participation, but as an attraction he is unbeaten.


Finally, I think that women's golf, too, which we have a good chance of developing in Bulgaria, has a future. Our ambition is to have a competitor at least among the women in the Olympic Games.