Whistler-based Ecosign Mountain Resort Planners Ltd has been assigned by the Serbian government in charge of a major development Stara Planina. Horwath Consulting Zagreb, member of Horwath International, is also part of the project, which aspires to become an international resort on the border between Serbia and Bulgaria.
“We don’t have an agreement yet on the Bulgarian side, in order to start an official study. We are going to have Serbia first. At this moment, the customer, the Serbian Ministry of Tourism and Economic Development, is actually working on a proposal plan, is trying to find investors and developers for the project,” Paul Mathews, President of Ecosign said for Property Xpress.
Presently, the project foresees two major parts: alpine ski operations and real estate development. There will be five or six major ski lifts, ski track and snow making facilities as well as new hotels and housing units. Stara Planina is aimed at middle class, upper-middle and high-class customers. More details are available in the exclusive interview with Mr. Mathews available at Property Xpress.
Paul Mathews also said that Ecosign hasn’t any project in Bansko, Bulgaria, as Bulgarian media wrote earlier this summer. “We don’t have a project in Bansko. Currently, we are providing advisory services on Vitosha’s master plan,” Mr. Mathews told Property Xpress.
Ecosign’s President also revealed details about a big golf and housing marina project on the Black Sea, about 22 km south from Odessa city, Ukraine. The development is to be spread on about 270 ha, a former farm site, and will include two golf courses, conference center, real estate development, yacht club, marina, etc. The customer is a Kiev-based company
According to Mr. Mathews, Poiana Marului is the only project the company is proceeding on at the moment in Romania. Currently, the Canadian mountain planners are working on the basic feasibility studies and the master planning.
“You cannot just make one investment and think that the world will come to see it on the next year”.
Paul E. Mathews
Canadian Ecosign Mountain Resort Planners Ltd., designer of a number of Olympic and World Championship Alpine competition venues, among which also the forthcoming Winter Olympic Games 2014 in Sochi, Russia, is one of the most renowned companies in the field of mountain design, resort planning and landscape architecture. Now they are looking at the SEE region and Property Xpress could not but get in touch with Mr. Mathews, the company’s President, in order to inquire about their projects in the region.
What is Ecosign’s role in the rehabilitation of Bulgarian Vitosha Mountain? Is the company involved in any projects in Bansko, as has been released earlier this year? How is the work on the initiated by the Serbian government Stara Planina project, which may expand into an international mega-resort, advancing? What will it include and what type of customers is it aimed at? Have Stara Planina’s developers and investors been chosen already? What kind of project is Ecosing working on at the moment in Odessa? How many projects are the Whistler-based designers proceeding on at the moment in Romania? Mr. Mathews answers all these questions in the present interview.
He also reflects on issues such as: Will Vitosha remain number one for the people in Sofia only or it holds potential for attracting a wider spectrum of tourists? What are the issues about Bansko? Why the Sochi region is destined to keep up its attractiveness from tourism point of view for many years after Sochi Winter Olympic Games 2014? Will Ukrainian mountain resorts follow its example? What is that slows down the development of Smotrich and Bystrets? How many years does it take to develop a world class destination from scratch? What problems are famous mountain resorts in Switzerland and France faced with at the moment and what is the solution?
Business card of Paul E. Mathews:
Paul E. Mathews, President of Ecosign. Since founding Ecosign in 1975, Mr. Mathews has directed the planning and design of 300 major mountain resort projects in over 32 countries
Mr. Mathews has developed extensive experience and a keen eye for the location and arrangement of lifts and pistes in the mountain zones and for the design of new or renovated resort villages in the mountains. This expertise has also led to the study and redesign of several traditional mountain villages in Central Europe, with substantial improvements in the pedestrian environment and the traffic and transportation systems for holiday makers, local people and also the movement of goods and freight. Mr. Mathews has received numerous awards for his work on various projects by the Association of Landscape Architects, the Canada West Ski Areas Association and other organizations. Mr. Mathews is a frequent lecturer on Ski Resort Planning in both North America and Europe. Mr. Mathews holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Forest Ecology from the University of Washington in Seattle, USA where he also studied landscape architecture for two years.
Mr. Mathews holds a membership in the following associations and professional societies:
Member – Association of Ski Area Consultants, Member – Society of American Forester, Associate Member – National Ski Areas Association, Associate Member – Canada West Ski Areas Association, Associate Member – Pacific Northwest Ski Areas Association, Associate Member – Intermountain Ski Areas Association.
Business card of the firm:
Ecosign (ECOlogicalDeSIGN) was founded in Whistler in 1975 to provide innovative Master Planning, environmentally sensitive, practical and experiential design solutions for all-season mountain resorts. During the past 32 years, Ecosign has successfully completed mountain master plans, detailed village designs and resort feasibility studies for mountain resort communities in Andorra, Argentina, Australia, Austria, Bulgaria, Canada, Chile, the Czech Republic, China, Finland, France, Georgia, Greece, Italy, Japan, Korea, Kazakhstan, Lebanon, Mexico, Morocco, New Zealand, Norway, Serbia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Romania, Russia, Turkey, Ukraine and the United States. Ecosign has completed numerous Master Plans for mountain resorts that hosted major competitive and sporting events worldwide. The company has completed master plans for Mount Allan (Nakiska), Alberta, the site of the 1988 Winter Olympics; Snowbasin, Utah, the site of the 2002 Winter Olympic Downhill and Super G.S. events; and Sierra Nevada, Spain, the site of the 1996 World Alpine Championships. Ecosign has also completed a redesign of the world famous Kandahar downhill course at St. Anton, Austria for the 2001 World Championships. Ecosign is currently preparing a Master Plan of Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains, site of the 2010 Olympic Alpine skiing events. Ecosign completed a master plan for the Beidahu Ski Resort in Jilin Province, P.R.C., which integrated the competitive components for the 2007 Asian Winter Games. Ecosign is currently preparing the Master Plan for the Whistler Nordic Centre, venue for the 2010 Olympic Winter Games and is working on plans for the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games.
Mr. Mathews, what do you think about Bulgaria?
I know only Bansko, which is very heavily built, and Vitosha. A big renovation of Vitosha should be made: the ski-lifts, the tourist accommodation and infrastructure are very old there.
Can you tell us about your project in Bansko?
We don’t have a project in Bansko. We’re helping on Vitosha, just a little bit. Tzeko Minev (First Investment Bank major shareholder) asked my opinion about the plans for Vitosha, but not for Bansko. We haven’t entered a legal contract for Vitosha yet. Currently, we are providing advisory services on Vitosha master plan.
Can you add more details about the Vitosha project?
Not too much to say yet. We don’t even have a contract but I am studying the existing facility and advising Mr. Minev as to improvements to the plans he made with a Bulgarian architect.
Do you think that Vitosha can attract a lot of tourists?
Well, I think that Vitosha is number one for local people: children and people with a passion for winter sports but, if a good upgrade is implemented, I believe it could be attractive also for tourists departing Bulgaria, willing to spend one or two days in Sofia to see the city, to make a city break. Thus they can spend also one or two days skiing in Vitosha.
What do you think about the other mountain resorts in Bulgaria?
I have only been to Bansko and Vitosha. We are also interested in projects near the border with Serbia, to the west. We are now working on projects for the Serbian government, Stara Planina, for example.
Yes, you are working together with a Croatian firm, aren’t you…
Yes, that is correct. We are working together with Horwath HTL consulting company. The reason why I came to Bulgaria in April this year was to discuss the potential from the Bulgarian side to implement an international resort on the border between Serbia and Bulgaria. Thus people could come to the Stara Planina mountain range from the side of Nish in Serbia, or from Belgrade, or from Sofia. I believe that such a development would be much more interesting for European and international tourists.
We don’t have an agreement yet on the Bulgarian side, in order to start an official study. We are going to have Serbia first. At this moment, the customer, the Serbian Ministry of Tourism and Economic Development, is actually working on a proposal plan, is trying to find investors and developers for the project. I just visited Serbia for a meeting with potential investors in Belgrade. We need to set up a proper proposal call from the government side and to be very clear on land owership issues and anything like this.
Did you have such a meeting with Bulgarian officials as well?
Not this time, no.
Do you have a team in Serbia or you are relying on your Croatian partner?
We are relying on our partner.
How do you see the Stara Planina project?
There are two major parts: alpine ski operations and real estate development. It is still not on a 100 pct decided by the Serbian government who the players will be.
If the project breaks ground how many years would be necessary for it to be implemented?
Two years construction for the first phase.
What will it include?
Five or six major ski lifts, ski pistes and snow making facilities as well as new hotels and housing units.
Will the housing be high-end?
As we want to offer a whole spectrum of variety for middle class, upper-middle and high-class customers, we are proposing a mixture of residential units. For example, we also foresee three-, four- and maybe five- star hotels.
Do you foresee golf courses?
No, there is not enough room for golf courses, that could be done lower down in the valleys. Another issue about golf courses is that they require a long nice season and, at high elevation, it is not so long. The development will also include amenities like sports centers, swimming pools and spas.
Can you tell us more about Sochi and draw a comparison between Sochi and the Balkans?
Sochi, of course, is very unique because it is on the Black Sea, the mountains are just 40 min driving to Krasnaya Polyana where there will be the ski trails and the other facilities. At the moment Sochi is really starting to boom because of the federal support for the development of the infrastructure for the Winter Olympic Games 2014. The benefits to the people are very substantial: infrastructure was on a very low and poor level and now a new airport and highways and roads will be built. Of course, there are issues there with electricity and technical infrastructure. A main benefit is that real tourism could thus be started. Moreover, Sochi was very popular for summer tourism, all hotels and bungalows were very heavily booked from spring to early fall, but in winter there were no customers at all. Seasonality was a big problem not only for the employees and workers, but also for the businessmen. Now there are two or three winter sports areas under construction, and one existing. Local people can use winter sports to have a good business all of the year round: not only summer from the Black Sea but also winter from the Caucasus mountains. All this will bring stable employment and, I believe that there will be big attractions for European and international tourists to come to the Caucasus mountains for skiing and snowboarding.
Do you think that the region will manage to keep up its attractiveness to tourists after the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic Games?
I believe so because the developers of the resorts are very top-of-the-line in Russia. For example, oligarch Vladimir Potanin with his company Interros is developing Rosa Khutor resort and he does everything in an absolutely first class way. There is another project called Psekhako Ridge by Gazprom Corporation, Russia’s largest company. Another unique feature is that Russia’s President at the moment, Vladimir Putin, is a very skilled sportsman and skier, and he is very supportive of this development and wants also very high quality.
Is there a large housing component foreseen in the Sochi 2014 project?
Yes, there is, a lot of development is going on for housing, hotels, etc. in Krasnaya Polyana and Sochi.
Are there many buyers?
Yes, and the prices are quite good right now. Prices have gone up nearly three times over the last year, because of the Olympic Games.
Do you think that Ukraine can follow the example of Sochi?
Sochi has made a huge step forward, because they have the federal government committing about USD six or eight billion to the project.
What about Bukovel, Ukraine, Ecosign also has a project there?
Bukovel has been building very, very strong this last three or four years and there has been a very aggressive expansion there as well as a very rapid growth and visitation. Now they are running into some basic problems with the infrastructure: the highways and the electricity. Still, they have enough money now to implement what they have planned. There have been big improvements this year in the highways and the electrical distribution that is why I am very optimistic about the progress to made by Bukovel this year.
You have three projects in Ukraine, can you give us more details about them?
We are involved also in Smotrich mountain, a pretty high mountain, but they have the problem now with electrical supply. The other one near to Smotrich is called Bystrets, and these two could actually join together in the future with a common marketing. But both these projects have problems with high-ways and electrical distribution. These are remote areas in the Carpathian Mountains and the infrastructure is not so strong.
Is the Ukrainian government also supportive of mountain development in the region?
The district of Ivano- Frankivsk has a general policy to support mountain tourism development but they don’t have enough resources. I think it will take a little time for these infrastructure improvements to be implemented.
What about investors, aren’t they interested in these projects as Ukraine is attracting a lot of real estate interest from all over the world?
Bukovel is getting a lot of investors, Kempinski hotel, for example, is going to be built there, they have attracted good investors and they have enough money now to fix their electrical problem and the road access problem.
Smotrich and Bystrist are struggling, they don’t have enough political power to develop the new electricity infrastructure yet.
Another project we are doing in Ukraine, which, I think, could be more interesting, is down in Odessa. It represents a big golf and housing marina on the Black Sea, with a full set of amenities. It has a very good chance to commence infrastructure development next summer and it is very capable of attracting investors to buy high-end homes. There will be two golf courses and a marina on the Black Sea, as well as a small destination village. I am very optimistic about this project. It has area of about 270 ha, where an old farm was located, therefore we didn’t have to consolidate the land. It is about 22 km south from Odessa city, on the Black Sea. It is a seaside resort with 27 holes of golf, hotels, a conference center, real estate development, yacht club, marina, etc. The project represents a seaside recreation and residential community and a resort with golf. Our customer is Agricultural Limited Liability company, a domestic company.
You have four projects at the moment: three ski resorts and one golf project. Are the investors in the other three developments also Ukrainian companies?
Yes, they are also Ukrainian companies, mostly from Kiev.
Do you think that Ukraine can become a world class destination and if yes, in how many years?
Yes, it is already on the way, and, quite frankly, all these projects already attract nearly 500, 000 visitors annually, like Bukovel, for example. That is not leading the world, of course, but Ukraine and the SEE countries have to develop inside the country first and our design work very much aims at supporting and enhancing the establishment of their domestic markets. You cannot just make one investment and think that the world will come to see it on the next year. It takes longer than this.
What are the main issues in this business?
The main issue is size and quality of this type of facilities: it takes several years to get them built, you need training and people with international standards for service which is also hard to find in each country, and then you need around five years of successful operation before the word of mouth starts spreading and the project begins to gain popularity. I would say developing an international market, that is what we did in Canada, takes about 10 years to become internationally established from scratch, from a new project.
Do you think that the SEE countries can compete with renowned world destinations?
Absolutely, and this is the key point: first you have to develop your own market and become strong like Bansko, for example. Bansko has already become a little bit international famous. I think the planning in Bansko was not clever enough: the ski area is not bad but the planning in the city was horrible – there was no proper design, no master plan, everyone does whatever they like. As a result, the resort has very bad traffic problems and is already overbuilt in many regions, fails to deliver a good connection to the ski slopes. As there are many visitors coming to Bansko, the resort town is facing certain issues at the moment.
There was an announcement that you also have two projects in Romania?
Yes, we are working on a couple of projects in Romania, we are doing initial feasibility studies now. Actually, Poiana Marului is the only project we are proceeding on at the moment and we are trying to do the basic feasibility studies and the master planning.
Can you compare Romania and Bulgaria in terms of tourism potential?
I think that Romania is rather similar to Bulgaria: very good population and coming much better economy. I believe that you will have very good potential. I am positive that the winter sports business is going to become a very large industry over the next 10 to 20 years in the whole region. There is quite a boom going on everywhere: in Ukraine, Bulgaria, Serbia, Croatia, Poland, the Czech republic – all these countries boast good snowy mountains, people and economies are coming better, that’s why I am very optimistic about these markets.
Bulgaria has both mountain and sea resorts which are already quite popular. Do you judge this as an advantage or?
Sure, I told you about the long lead time for this. Bulgaria is well ahead in timing from Ukraine or Romania.
What you need to do is to make sure that a good master plan, a balance between the beds, the parking places and the ski capacity, is in place. This is the problem with Bansko now. It started up pretty good: a Kempinski Hotel has been developed and a good work on the mountain design and architecture has been accomplished by Mr. Minev, but the city has no masterplanning and zoning – everyone is building whatever they want almost everywhere, it is not very well co-ordinated. Now they already have problems with transportation, traffic jams, lack of parking places, long waiting time. It is pretty complicated, I would say.
What is the global trend in mountain planning and ski resorts development?
I think the trends are for higher quality and lasting facilities: well designed pistes and high speed chairs as well as nice mountain lodges, and because of global warming – snow making systems.
The key point for our company is a very professional design, especially of the real estate and hotels components, as well as central village zones, underground parking lots, pedestrian areas, very nice architecture. It is essential a balance between all capacities such as beds, parking places, highways, ski lifts, to be struck. Balanced resorts, like here at home in Whistler, Canada, work very well as a business model and are very attractive from a visitor’s perspective as well.
You apply a business model, called “strata” condominiums, related to the way the housing units are managed and leased. Do you think that this could be applicable to European resorts as well?
I believe so. Yes, the key point about “strata” title units is that we deliver warm beds through this model. We can build condominium hotels or apart hotels in Europe and sell the units to individual investors, but they should put the units into the rental pool if they don’t use them. This is how we can get many hot beds for the visitors who come to stay at the resort and I believe that this is key. They are having a lot of trouble in Switzerland and France at the moment from these “cold” beds which are owned privately, but, since they are used only two weeks per year, there are no customers for the resort. This is a big issue in Europe and we have a lot of work trying to fix this problem.
Do you participate with equity in some of the projects you are engaged in?
No, we are only designers, we charge a service fee and we are an independent and objective third party.