Who goes to Buzludzha… And why?
An online study of visitor motivations conducted with 300+ participants following their visit(s) to the Buzludzha Memorial House in Bulgaria. Survey, analysis and report by Richard F. Morten, a PhD researcher with the University of Central Lancashire, UK.
1. Who goes to Buzludzha?
2. Who did you go with?
3. Why did you visit Bulgaria?
4. What is the appeal of Buzludzha?
5. How many times have you been?
6. Did you research the monument’s history?
7. Did it meet your expectations?
8. Would you revisit or recommend?
9. What other place is like Buzludzha?
1. Who goes to Buzludzha?
The largest demographic was British people over the age of 51.
The study found that Buzludzha appealed more to older age groups – with each decade (21-30 years old, 31-40 years old, etc.) showing a higher visitor count than the previous. The largest group surveyed was those visitors over the age of 51.
In terms of nationality, 34 countries were represented – from Mexico and Argentina, to Kyrgyzstan, Malaysia and New Zealand. Respondents were spread across five continents but the largest number came from the UK (of whom 15% identified themselves as English, 5% Scottish and 1% Welsh, while the rest simply said ‘British’).
27% of respondents said they lived in Bulgaria already. Interestingly though, most of these were non-Bulgaria immigrants: British ex-pats made up the largest portion at 77% of non-native residents. Bulgarians represented just 13% of those respondents living in Bulgaria, followed by 2% each from the USA and Netherlands.
A couple of comments…
2. The fact that 55% of responses came from British people should not imply that British people make up the majority of visitors at Buzludzha. Rather, the results of this survey may skew towards a more British demographic because:
(i) It was published in English;
(ii) I’m British myself, and many of those I shared the link with were also British.
There are other trends which suggest this survey was often completed by groups of people with common interests. For example, “motorbike tourism” is mentioned more than one might expect for a random sample. As a result, the range of respondents can at times feels more organic than strictly random – and it naturally excludes those would-be respondents who don’t speak English, or don’t have Internet access. Nevertheless these 316 responses gave a typically broad variety in answers, even though some small pockets of homogeneity exist.
1. The survey was primarily interested in the experience of foreign visitors to Buzludzha – people who are travelling from further away, know less about the monument to start with, and who are bringing new money into Bulgaria. Should the monument be restored, it will depend on foreign interest and foreign money. While the Bulgarian perspective is of course incredibly important (and in some senses, the most important perspective), the focus of this study was specifically on tourism potential and thus, foreign visitors.
For that reason, the fact that only 25 Bulgarians completed the survey should not suggest that Bulgarians don’t have strong opinions on the matter. Rather, they have such strong opinions that 25 of them shared their thoughts on a survey aimed primarily at a different group (and some of those Bulgarian respondents gave highly insightful answers, as we’ll see later on).
2. Who did you GO with?
71% of people visited Buzludzha with friends and family… only 1 in 10 took a tour.
3. Why did you visit Bulgaria?
An impressive 41% of visitors came to Bulgaria primarily for Buzludzha.
Excluding residents of Bulgaria, 41% of respondents said they had travelled to Bulgaria mainly to see the Buzludzha Monument – compared to 33% who had visited the monument during a more conventional holiday, and 12% who were mainly here to visit friends or family.
Of the 41% who mentioned Buzludzha as a main travel motivation, 11% were including Buzludzha alongside other sites of communist heritage in the country. There were 7% who said they were visiting Buzludzha alongside other specific monuments from the same period; and 5% who were including Buzludzha alongside more conventional tourist destinations (examples included the Rose Valley, Plovdiv and Veliko Târnovo). Meanwhile, 18% said they had come to Bulgaria for Buzludzha, and nothing else.
What are the implications of this?
41% of non-residents said they mainly came to Bulgaria to see Buzludzha. For one in five, it was the only reason they came and this might highlight potential for improvement in how Bulgaria markets itself. The Bulgarian tourism board is keen to present the country as a good destination for beaches, skiing, picturesque monasteries and wine tourism… but there is little-to-no official mention of Bulgaria’s 20th century architectural heritage. As it turns out though, even without official state promotion people are already travelling a long way to see Modernist architecture in Bulgaria. The 18% of visitors who came to Bulgaria and only saw Buzludzha, might have stayed for longer (and spent more money) if they knew that Bulgaria had other buildings and monuments they might find interesting. At the moment however Buzludzha is not recognised with official monument status, it is not endorsed or advertised by the state, and the only written text on-site is a sign reading “Keep Out.” All of this feels like a missed opportunity, in terms of tourism.
A comment on visitor numbers…
The data gathered from this survey suggests that of all the non-Bulgarians visiting Buzludzha (this time including non-Bulgarian residents of Bulgaria too), around 26% of them are in the country primarily because of this monument. Out of our estimated 13,410 foreign visitors per year, that’s almost 3,500 people who likely wouldn’t have otherwise come to Bulgaria. If those tourists each spend €150 during their stay in the country, then Buzludzha, as an inaccessible ruin, is already earning Bulgaria over half a million euros of additional tourism revenue each year.
This is all hypothetical, of course – we simply don’t have the data to work with when it comes to visitor numbers, and unfortunately, the local government have not been responsive to the suggestion of better data gathering on-site. However, the above estimates can at least give an idea of the scale of Buzludzha tourism today: at a time when most visitors know they can’t even go inside the monument. If Buzludzha were made safe and officially opened to visitors, therefore, it is clear it could quickly become a significant asset to Bulgaria’s annual tourism earnings.
There is currently no precise data available on how many people visit Buzludzha. However, since a 24/7 guard detail was stationed at the monument in the summer of 2017, it has become easier to make an informed estimate. The Buzludzha guards report seeing typical numbers of around 100 people per day… well over 200, sometimes, on a sunny weekend. The most reported in a single day (and not counting the annual gatherings of the Bulgarian Socialist Party at Buzludzha, which can draw in up to thousands of visitors) was more than 400 people. In winter, when the snow makes it harder to visit, the average number of visitors observed was more like 20 people per day and across the whole year, the guard estimated that maybe half of the visitors observed were foreigners, and half Bulgarian.
These numbers are only approximate, but it gives us something to work with. So let’s say that for 8 months a year the monument gets 100 visitors per day (a conservative estimate)… while for the coldest four months, it gets 20 visitors per day. That’s a total of 26,820 visitors in a year (averaging 73 per day). If roughly half of those are foreigners, according to on-site guards, that equals something like 13,410 foreign visitors per year.
4. What IS THE APPEAL OF Buzludzha?
Architecture was the #1 attraction. Political sentiment was the lowest.
The political aspect of the monument scored much lower however, as a motivating factor. On the graph above it can be seen drawing an almost inverted line, compared to the other options. This is interesting as it refutes some of the claims made previously by critics of Buzludzha, who have at times suggested that the monument appeals only to those nostalgic for the socialist past. Rather, the results of this survey suggest that the majority of visitors to Buzludzha go there primarily for its architecture and history, enjoying the building in spite of – not because of – its former political associations.
Respondents were asked to score seven qualities of the monument from 1-8, according to their appeal (where a score of 1 was not very interesting, but 8 was a strong reason for visiting). These themes were: Architectural value, Historical significance, Beautiful decay, Adventure, Mountain views, Photography, and Socialist sympathies. The first six of these scored similar results, as can be seen from the graph above. All six were considered to be very attractive qualities of the Buzludzha tourism experience, with the monument’s Architectural value, in particular, scoring highest of all as a reason for visiting.
5. How many times have you been?
Most people had only been once.
6. Did you reSEARCH the monument’s history?
92% of people did their homework… either before visiting, after, or both.
The majority of respondents had spent time learning about the monument before they visited. Of the 13% who said they researched it afterwards, most of those had been taken to the monument by a friend or family member. Only 8% of the visitors surveyed said they hadn’t researched the monument’s history at all.
7. Did IT MEET your expectations?
Only 6% of visitors were disappointed.
Of the minority who reported a disappointing experience, 44% said it was because they hadn’t been able to get inside the monument… while 56% had been inside, but were disappointed to see the monument’s poor condition.
8. Would you REvisit or recommend?
Just 4 people said No. More than 300 said Yes.
9. WhAT OTHER PLACE Is like Buzludzha?
The Roman Colosseum, Machu Picchu, and the US Pentagon all get a mention.
Not all comparisons were to ruins! Some answers focussed more on Buzludzha’s architectural design, comparing it with other notable works of Modern architecture. These included: the Lloyds Halifax building in London; the Flying Saucer ride at Coney Island, New York; the UFO-shaped Institute of Information in Kyiv, Ukraine; the Slovak Radio Building in Bratislava (shaped like a giant inverted pyramid); the Nevigeser Wallfahrtsdom, a Brutalist church in Velbert, Germany, designed by Gottfried Böhm; and also the saucer-shaped 112 Emergency Response Centre in Tbilisi, Georgia.
The Other category included a wide mix of places that didn’t really fit anywhere. The US Pentagon, for instance… a couple of Gothic cathedrals. Urquart Castle in Scotland, the ‘Suicide Forest’ in Japan, La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, and in Spain, the Valle de los Caídos: a controversial Francoist memorial site with similarly difficult heritage. Four answers in the Other category compared Buzludzha to Bulgaria’s Shipka Monument. Of those four, two were Bulgarians. One respondent, when asked to make a comparison, simply said: “A spaceship.”
Now, back to that communist heritage.
This question was deliberately vague. On the one hand, there’s nowhere really quite “like” Buzludzha… and sure enough 58% of respondents said that Buzludzha was like no other place they had been. The other 42% offered comparisons however, and these show a lot about how different visitors categorise the Buzludzha experience.
The largest group (23%) compared Buzludzha to other sites of communist heritage. That’s hardly surprisingly, and I’ll unpack some specific examples below. Interestingly though, 5% compared the monument to ancient sites: the Colosseum in Rome was mentioned 4 times; Chichen Itza and other pyramids of Mexico were mentioned 3 times; the Greek Acropolis, Machu Picchu and Ankhor Wat all featured too.
Modern ruins were mentioned by 4% of respondents: the kind of places famous for their atmosphere of beautiful decay (regardless of their original purpose, or politics). These comparisons included Michigan Central Station in Detroit, the Maunsell Seaforts in the Thames not far from London, the abandoned Rubjerg Knude Lighthouse in Denmark and also Gunkanjima (Hashima Island), a famous derelict island off the coast of Japan.
Other sites of communist heritage mentioned included: the old Soviet barracks outside Berlin; the Mother Ukraine monument in Kyiv; the Mother Georgia monument in Tbilisi; also in Tbilisi, GEorgia, the Ministry of Roads building; the Tirana Pyramid in Albania; three mentions of Havana, Cuba; three mentions of the Berlin wall; several references to the humungous House of Parliament building in Bucharest, Romania, and one respondent who, thinking outside of the box, compared the experience of visiting Buzludzha to watching the 2003 movie Good Bye, Lenin!
Of the 23% who compared Buzludzha to other sites of communist heritage, 5% mentioned other communist-era monuments in Bulgaria (the memorial sites at Shumen, Varna and Stara Zagora got the most mentions). Another 5% – that’s 12 people – compared Buzludzha to Chernobyl, and in particular, to the abandoned workers’ city of Pripyat. A further 4% mentioned the monuments in neighbouring (former) Yugoslavia, sometimes referred to by the Serbo-Croat word Spomeniks. Of these, the abandoned memorial house at Petrova Gora in Croatia had six mentions.
DID you visit other communist-era monuments in Bulgaria?
62% of respondents said Yes.
blah blah blah blah
How did you hear about Buzludzha?
‘Online’ and ‘Word of Mouth’ account for 80% of responses.
blah blah blah blah
How do you feel about the current state?
An overwhelming 63% used the word ‘Sad.’
The purpose of this question was to find out what emotions visitors experience when visiting Buzludzha in its current state – and 234 respondents used emotive words in their answers.
Other noteworthy comments to come from this question:
Glad to hear it has a security detail
I don’t care.
I like it, but it does need some protection from the elements
likely more impressive than of it was fully restored
I wouldn't want to see it deteriorate anymore, I also don't think it should be fully restored.
Perfectly reflects socialism's results! - neighbouring socialist country
Aside from the graffitti, I love it!
I like the decay but not the amount of graffiti.
I quite like the deterioration in an artistic way but would also hate to see the building die!
I don’t think it should be restored but preserved as it is. The ruined faces of some of the politicians speak of the historic moment.
I am angry, because our government and the people in it are not interested in the renovation of this gorgeous monument. I want to see it renovated, we should stop neglecting it.
depressing and seems to have gone past "beautiful decay”
“dusgusted” by the treatment of it, or
Appaled because of the public policy towards it
saddened that it's been left to decay, almost in the hope in some people's minds that it'll just go away
What should be done with THE MONUMENT?
People find it easier to agree what shouldn’t be done with it…
Rate the following suggestions out of 8 (where 1 is terrible, and 8 is a very good idea).
Strongest opinions on what not to do.
Especially, people say it must not be destroyed, it must not make money, and you have to do something.
suggest a better idea?
HAVE YOU HEARD any plans to restore IT?
Seems like only 51% had looked at this website…
This question isn’t as strange as it seems. You might be reading this report on a website which details potential plans for fixing Buzludzha – but the survey itself travelled independently. Links got shared on social media, and not all respondents had even heard of this website. Responding to the question above, only a little over half of people said Yes.
In recent years there has been a lot of discussion in the Bulgarian press about the potential restoration of Buzludzha though, and this is perhaps reflected in the higher proportion of positive results amongst people in the region – 71% of Bulgarians were familiar with the plans, while 63% of Bulgarian residents (all nationalities) were.
Nevertheless, those results suggest that this site could be a little better still at doing its job.
WOULD YOU PAY TO VISIT BUZLUDZHA?
A huge majority said Yes, they would happily pay an entry fee.
Many respondents stressed that they would only be prepared to pay if the building was run as a non-profit. “I would pay, but only if the money went back to the Bulgarian people and not to private enterprise,” said one visitor.
There were differences of opinion in how the site should best be managed, though. One respondent said they would only pay for entrance if the monument was not “surrounded by souvenir shops,” while another suggested that the entry fee should be kept as low as possible by supplementing costs “via onsite gift shops and a cafe/restaurant.” One visitor said they wouldn’t pay to visit a preserved ruin, but only if the site was fully restored. Another said the opposite: “If it was fully restored it would lose some of its appeal and maybe people would pay less.”
Some respondents suggested the price should be comparable to the typical entry fee for Bulgarian museums (somewhere around 6 levs / 3 euros), while others suggested rates, “in line with current ticket prices to other European cultural landmarks.” One visitor said they would pay up to 25 British pounds, explaining, “I have paid this much to look at an exhibit at Tate or MoMA.”
One popular idea was to introduce tiered pricing rates. Many people suggested offering an affordable basic fee for entry, with numerous optional additions on top: for example extra fees to climb the tower, or for guided tours, family and student discounts, a donation box, and there was even a suggestion to create a ‘Friends of Buzludzha’ campaign whereby those who wanted to offer more support could sign up for larger contributions and get some kind of benefit in return.
There were 15 respondents (including only 2 Bulgarians) who said that Bulgarian visitors should either get free entry, or a reduced entry fee. “The Bulgarians already paid for this once, you shouldn’t charge them again!” said one American visitor.
Generally though, Bulgarians were happy to pay – of the 25 who took this survey, 22 said they would pay to visit Buzludzha. “We pay £10-20 per cinema visit,” said one, “let’s pay for some architecture and culture too.” Another called for a transparent business model, while several Bulgarian respondents stressed the importance of “affordable prices” and all money raised being invested back into the country. One Bulgarian visitor said they wouldn’t mind paying, but added that “trespassing is more interesting.”
When it comes to the entry fees people suggested – these ranged from 1 Bulgarian lev to 50 British pounds. A few outliers have been excluded… hyperbolic answers such as: “right now, I’d pay $100 for a look inside.”
(Also, note to self: I would have saved myself a lot of extra work if I asked for all these suggestions in one single currency.)
The mean average entry fee suggested was 8.93 Euros.
As for those respondents who said No, they would not pay to visit Buzludzha, some gave political reasons. “Better if it was free, then everyone could visit and it would fit with its socialist background,” said one. Another respondent commented that entry fees would “go against everything that makes this monument unique.” Someone else pointed to the irony of having “capitalism finance the repair and then charge an entrance fee.” Even amongst people who disliked the idea of paying to enter, however, there were still suggestions of encouraging optional donations.
Back at the beginning of this report, we made a guesstimate (based on counts done by on-site security) that more than 9,000 people a year were visiting Buzludzha. If each were paying the mean suggested entry fee above, that would represent a gross annual income of more than 80,000 euros for the monument – though of course, it might be possible to raise more than that through optional add-ons, donation boxes, souvenir sales and an on-site café (as some respondents suggested). This also doesn’t consider the fact that the 9,000 visitors coming now will mostly be aware that they cannot enter inside the building. So if the monument were made safe, kept warm in winter, if it was endorsed by the Bulgarian state and advertised as a bona fide tourist destination… it’s anyone’s guess how much the actual figure could be.
How dark does Buzludzha feel to you?
Most respondents said… not very.
'Dark Tourism' is a term often used to describe tourism to places associated with death and/or suffering.
This last question got a very mixed response. Buzludzha has often been called a ‘dark tourism’ site – a phrase which describes tourism to places associated with death or suffering. For example Peter Hohenhaus, a German academic who runs the website www.dark-tourism.com, ranks it 9/10 on his “darkometer” which places it on the same level as notorious dark tourism destinations such as the 9/11 Memorial Site in New York or the Buchenwald Concentration Camp in Germany.
'Dark Tourism' is a term often used to describe tourism to places associated with death and/or suffering.
Mean average was 3.45 out of 8.
Survey and Report by Richard F. Morten, University of Central Lancashire (July, 2019).
Header image photographed by Bedros Aziniyan.