Bulgaria's sea and river ports are seeing something of a renaissance as trans-European transport networks are developed and investment and traffic increase. Water transport, which some felt had been superseded in most sectors by cheaper air travel and better roads, has reasserted itself and is being integrated with other forms of transport.
Bulgaria's strategic location, on the river Danube and with ever-improving links across the Black Sea and beyond, as well as to Europe and Turkey, combined with EU membership, give it significant potential as a transport and logistic hub.
On August 1 it was announced that Slovenian port operator Luka Koper was to expand its operations into Romania and Bulgaria. The firm said it would be opening a representative office in the Bulgarian city of Ruse, which lies on the Danube, a short distance from the Romanian city of Giurgiu on the north bank. The two cities are linked by the only bridge over the river between the two countries. Luka Koper issued a statement saying EU accession meant that the countries "represent great potential for us".
Two potential projects which already interest the Slovenes are a roll-on/roll-off (ro-ro) ferry service between the Slovenian Adriatic port of Koper and Burgas, on the Black Sea coast of Bulgaria, and the overland transport of cargo originating in Bulgaria to Sezana, a transport hub in Slovenia, whence it can be transported to Italy. Investments worth $11.9m are already underway in Sezana, Luka Koper said.
Ruse is Bulgaria's fifth largest city and its major Danube port and border post with Romania. It lies on pan-European transport corridors VII (along the Danube) and IX (Helsinki-Alexandropoulos[a Greek port on the Aegean]). The corridors are major long-distance transportation routes in Central and Eastern Europe highlighted for development.
The city has seen something of a decline over recent decades, but the increase in funding for the development of the corridors and the effects of EU accession have given it a boost. Ruse has good connections to the Romanian port of Constanta, as well as Burgas and Varna, also on the Bulgarian Black Sea. Several Bulgarian port cities are seeing a renaissance due to an increase in both waterborne and overland freight.
Dockland Port-Burgas, a subsidiary of Industrial Holding Bulgaria, is to invest $16.2m in developing a commercial port in the city. The Burgas-based firm is already active in the repair and reconstruction of vessels, machine building and equipment, and cargo loading and unloading. The three-year construction project should get the green light by the end of 2007, the firm's executive director, Vesselin Statev, told local press.
Statev said the main idea behind the project is to build a grain terminal, where a niche exists in the market. The private commercial port will compete with the state-owned docks and aims to provide improved, swifter services, he added.
The port will handle an annual 1.2m tonnes of freight, Statev said, 800,000 tonnes of which will be grain and 400,000 tonnes general cargo.
In another sign of the renewed importance of sea ports on the Bulgarian, and indeed European, transport scene, there is a plan to construct an intermodal transport terminal in Burgas, which was unveiled at the end of June. The "intermodal" aspect of the project comes from the integration of sea, river, road and rail transport.
The terminal will be centred on sea and river port facilities and will also include bus and railway stations.
"A large transport centre with all the services which Bulgaria has not had until now, not [even] in [the capital] Sofia, will be set up," Transport Minister Petar Mutafchiev told the press. Office and leisure areas will also be zoned and the project will be financed through EU funds or public-private partnership deals, he added.
Mutafchiev said a design project would be chosen by the end of this year. Three blueprints have already been submitted and the ministry expects more to come.
A third port set to benefit from Bulgaria's transport boom is Vidin, on the Danube in the north-west, which was badly hit by war in the nearby former Yugoslavia and sanctions imposed on Serbia. In May, Spain's FCC Construccion started work on a $317.5m bridge between Vidin and the Romanian city of Calafat, which have until now been linked only by ferry. The road link should revive the city's economy and bring renewed interest in the port, for which tender bids were opened last month. Vidin also lies on corridor IV, and the opening of the bridge is just the sort of development that the corridor plans aimed to promote.
Bulgaria's ports, Varna aside, have been somewhat overlooked in the post-communist era. However, with new impetus to building transcontinental transport links and improving intermodality, they look set to take centre stage as Bulgaria reclaims its rightful place as gateway between east and west.