The Pirin and Rila Eco and Sustainable Tourism Project (PREST; 1994-1997), funded by the British Environmental Know How Fund, was initiated by the Bulgarian Ministry of Environment and Waters with the aim to support Bulgarian authorities in the preservation of environmental quality in and around the Pirin and Rila National Parks through the transfer of British experience in protected areas management. In the wider context, this was related to the sustainable tourism planning in the Pirin region and the encouragement of such forms of tourism that would be in harmony with the environment and mode of life of local population.

PREST was managed by a Project Liaison Committee including representatives of the nine municipalities covered by the project (Bansko, Razlog, Gotse Delchev, Belitsa, Yakorouda, Sandanski, Simitli, Kresna and Stroumyani), the Pirin NP, the Ministry of Environment, the Ministry of Reconstruction and Development, the Committee of Tourism, the Committee of Forestry and the Sofia District Administration. The project was run by a Manager and Assistant working at the office in Blagoevgrad, with a Project Director situated in Manchester, UK.

The main project activity was the transfer of British know how, accomplished through a series of study visits to the UK for various public groups from the Pirin region, and through the work of British consultants on the spot. The latter produced detailed reports with recommendations for each municipality regarding the following topics: Sustainable Tourism Development in the Pirin region, Information Provision of Tourism in the Pirin Region, Crafts, Visitor Centers in the Pirin Region.

In 1994, two study visits to the UK were organized for mayors and project liaison officers from the member municipalities, with the aim to explore the existing tourism development strategies in protected areas and the work of tourism NGOs and regional committees. An inventory of preserved traditional crafts in the region was done (the first of its kind in Bulgaria) and a database of craftspeople was started.

A regional contest for producing an environmental children’s newspaper entitled “Nature in My Homeplace” was carried out in 1995. 350 children and 25 teachers from the region took part in it. 12 of these teachers were selected to participate in a study visit at the Field Studies Council in the Lake District, UK. Later on, these 12 teachers established the Eco Eye regional association for environmental education.

Also in 1995, a regional conference on EIA was hold in Bansko, with the participation of lecturers from the British Land Use Consultants Company. A workshop on project preparation and fundraising was also organized in that year. In October 1995 Pirin NP officers traveled on a study visit to the UK.

At the time of the Sofia Conference of European Ministers of Environment, PREST started the Made in Pirin initiative to promote local crafts. On October 21 and 22, the Ministers visited Blagoevgrad, where an exhibition of traditional crafts and folklore concerts were organized in the old Varosha Quarter.

In 1996, there were four study visits to the UK: for the newly elected municipality mayors (to learn about the experience of British regional tourism boards); for senior officials from the protected areas management system; for museum workers from the Pirin region and for forestry officers (on recreational use of forestry). As a result of the first study visit, the Pirin Tourism Forum was established at the end of the year.

In the same year PREST started to accumulate its biggest ‘capital’ (capital of the PTF as well): the tourism inventory of the Pirin region combined with the establishment of a regional photo-library. The inventory was finalized in the next year. In brief, the PTF is still the organization with the best regional tourism database in Bulgaria.

Other training in 1996: “Small Family Business Management” and “Customer Care” – workshops for hotel and restaurant owners from the Pirin region, with lecturers from the Manchester Metropolitan University. An Environmental Education workshop was organized with the members of the Eco Eye Association and other teachers from the region working in the same sphere. All year PREST published free materials on sustainable tourism development (a whole page in each issue) in the Imoti (Property) weekly regional newspaper, which was disseminated to all interested parties.

The most important achievement of PREST was actually the establishment of a regional network of partnerships for sustainable tourism development in the Pirin region, with the participation of state and local authorities, the tourism business and the structures of civil society. PREST laid also the foundations of a mutually beneficial cooperation with the media, which was passed over to the PTF in the following years.