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British Entrepreneurs Invest in Bulgaria
The suggestion that Bulgarians and Romanians will soon arrive in the UK in their thousands may have fuelled UKIP's surge in the polls, provided column inches in the newspapers, and given news programmes something to chew on - but it has also concealed the fact that there is quite a bit of migration in the other direction.<< Back to list of articles
On the glistening white slopes of Borovets in western Bulgaria, the ski season may be over but the pistes are not empty.
In the absence of tourists, some hardened Bulgarian ski instructors in red jackets are whizzing down at high speed.
Amid the cacophony of voices one distinctly British accent sticks out.
It belongs to Matt Pidgen, the founder of a snowboarding and ski company that has cornered the market here.
Thanks to him, and others like him, Borovets is awash with British skiers in the winter season.
Influx of entrepreneurs
"Borovets has seen massive investment. New lifts, new hotels," he says.
"It was all very communist when I came here. You used to see policemen with machine-guns on corners... that has all changed now to come in line with Europe."
Cheap flights which connect Bulgaria to the UK have also helped this resort to grow. It has opened Bulgaria to new markets.
Mr Pidgen says he and his company, Snow and Wake Bulgaria, are now making a difference to the local economy.
"We're employing people. We're building a project at the moment. All the materials are sourced locally. Yes, the money is definitely going back in."
Some 7,000 Britons have now made Bulgaria their home.
It is not exactly as attractive as the top destinations for British expatriates - the United States, Australia and Canada. But the cheaper labour costs and property prices have magnetised Bulgaria's own influx of entrepreneurs.
James Flint, a property developer, came here in 2004.
By the time Bulgaria joined the EU in 2007 he had already established himself in the real estate market in the capital, Sofia.
Now he rents out smart apartments to elite clients.
"There is a great willingness among the population to build up their country," he says.
So is it a good time to come here and do business?
"I shouldn't be saying this, but frankly, yes!"
With all the reports in the British media recently about Bulgarians wanting to seek work and benefits in the UK, how did people respond to him?
"I was treated really well, actually. I don't think the Bulgarians are that interested [in the media reports] to be honest," says Mr Flint.
"I think those who are savvy, literate and speak English have picked up on stories in the media. I think basically there was a sense of mild irritation - but [people are] fairly dismissive."
Across town, anyone missing British home comforts could do worse than call in at Andy Sowray's food shop.
Andy's Foods is like any old British corner shop, complete with English mustard, jars of jam, chutney and pickle, and packets of breakfast cereal.
"I had been in the region for about eight years," says the Englishman.
"I looked around and spoke to British people here and asked them what they missed. And they said two things - sausage and bacon."
I notice he has a string of union jack bunting on the shop front and a big union jack hanging on the wall behind the till. I ask him whether anyone has criticised him for being British.
"At times I have thought... I'd wake up one morning and find the windows broken, but actually I have not had one negative comment," says Mr Sowray.
"I think they are taking media reports with a pinch of salt. There's no aggression or bad feelings towards the British at all."
Britain is now Bulgaria's fourth biggest investor.
Other multinationals have come here to capitalise on the cheap labour and rental costs, setting up offices.
The IT sector is a growth area. The US firm Hewlett Packard is based here, and Coca-Cola has decided to base its European headquarters in Bulgaria.
In the open-air cafes on a warm summer's evening, Bulgarians are sipping their own cooling drinks and refreshing cocktails. I decide to ask them what they think of the most recent influx of foreign workers.
"You are very welcome," says one woman, an English teacher with a purple headband and bicycle.
"You British bring civilisation wherever you go. This is my impression at least," she adds.
Another man, who works for a Dutch IT firm, tells me the arrival of foreign firms is having a positive impact.
"Sure it is - you know when we have more employees working for good companies it means better salaries… it's a good thing if people have jobs," he tells me.
In many parts of this country you find educated Bulgarians who are pleased with the opportunities offered to them by foreign companies and often, but not exclusively, it is British entrepreneurs who have blazed the trail.