Not on Holiday:
Brits in Bulgaria
In Bulgaria, the British are known mostly for their tourism. Taking advantage of cheap flights from London, Glasgow, and Manchester, they spend their holidays careening down the slopes of Bansko’s ski resort, or enjoying a lazy, boozy week at Sunny Beach on the Black Sea. But, in the quieter parts of Bulgaria, thousands of British citizens who call themselves “immigrants, not expats” have chosen to make the country their primary home.
On the flip side, 84,000 Bulgarians were living in the UK in 2019, according to statistics from British consular officials in Bulgaria; with many thousands more working temporarily or seasonally in industries such as horticulture and seafood processing. Together, these Bulgarians sent back €101.6 million in remittances in 2018, and €25 million more in the first quarter of 2019, according to Bulgaria’s finance ministry.
This out-migration – which has increased significantly since Bulgarians gained full EU-wide freedom of work rights in 2014 – is contributing to rapid population decline in Bulgaria itself. Today, Bulgaria has the fastest shrinking population of any nation in the world. Its current population of seven million people (already a million less than London alone) is expected to drop to less than five million by 2075. The worst-hit regions are the rural areas, where many village houses have been abandoned for want of a buyer, as their owners either migrate to other European countries, or die from old age, with no new residents in sight.
Enter some of the bravest of the British: the sort of enterprising do-it-yourself types who can take in the sight of an old, run-down mud-brick house, and imagine turning it into a beautifully restored rural home – the start a new life for themselves in a sunny climate with an abundance of nature. At last count, nearly 9,500 Brits have officially made the move to Bulgaria, where their hard-earned savings go a lot further than in the UK. Another estimated 2,000-6,000 live in Bulgaria part-time, and are thus not registered as permanent residents.
The majority of these long-term and permanent residents have settled in central Bulgaria near Veliko Tarnovo, a Bulgarian National Revival-era city with medieval churches and a fortress, which is currently awaiting UNESCO World Heritage status. Others have settled in or near smaller towns across the country, such as in the south-east near the border with Turkey, or in the far-north near the Danube. Still others, mainly working professionals, live in the Bulgarian capital Sofia, or in the country’s second city, Plovdiv. Finally, a number of British pensioners have chosen to live in the beach communities on the Black Sea coast.
Paul Clark, a consular official at the British Embassy in Bulgaria, has observed that many of his fellow citizens have found innovative ways to make a living. Some work remotely for international companies, run small businesses catering to the needs of holidaymakers, or make money through e-commerce activities, such as online trading. Bulgaria has extremely fast internet, Clark explained. Others, Clark told me, are self-sufficient types who have “finished their full-time career and have come out to live in self-funded retirement”. In some cases, this has included adopting a subsistence-based lifestyle, growing their own fruits and vegetables – a practice not dissimmilar to “homesteading” in the American West.
But with Brexit looming, many of Bulgaria’s enterprising British residents have become increasingly concerned about their long-term prospects in the country; particularly in relation to the economic consequences of a scenario in which the UK ends up leaving the EU without a robust free trade agreement.
Intrigued by the stories of these intrepid Brits and their desire to forge a different kind of life for themselves in Bulgaria’s increasingly depopulated countryside, I decided to pay a visit to some of these “immigrants” to find out more about their motivations and plans for the future. I rented a car and drove from my home in Sofia to the region around Veliko Tarnovo, where several enterprising immigrants welcomed me into their homes and communities.