Ecological tourism in Russia has a powerful potential

Ecological tourism in Russia has a powerful potential

Expert Reports  
To begin with, let’s mention a few ideological postulates.

At first, I will remind that specially protected natural areas (SPNAs) are not established for the development of any kind of tourism. The mission of the SPNAs of all categories is to conserve the biological and landscape diversity as the basis of the biosphere.

Another thing is that the centuries-old experience of the civilized world clearly shows that professionally organized ecological tourism is fully compatible with the idea of ​​conserving the biological diversity, and in addition, it is a powerful factor in shaping the understanding of the modern role of the SPNAs in the preservation of natural and cultural heritage in the large segment of society. And this makes it possible to provide effective public support for the SPNA system as a national wealth. It is the kind of support that is lacking in Russia, and this is the reason of the troubles and problems in managing our reserved areas. Therefore, the very idea of ​​developing the ecotourism (on different levels and scales), in all the key categories of the SPNAs, is worthy of every possible support and needs its practical implementation.

In the today’s world, the ecotourism development goes hand in hand with the SPNAs - national parks, natural parks, refugia and other wildlife reserves. And it would be strange if things were different. The specially protected natural areas give a real opportunity to demonstrate the natural heritage assets to visitors, it is problematic to see them in other areas. And there is no doubt that the remaining and most ecologically valuable areas of land and water will also be taken under special protection in the foreseeable future. And against this background, the opponents’ rhetoric of ecotourism in the SPNAs - saying that there is no need to develop tourism there as the same is in the neighbouring areas - sounds like fake and pure demagoguery because in the overwhelming majority of cases, there is no substitute for the SPNAs in the development of ecotourism.

At the same time, in many SPNAs, other types of tourism and recreation, along with the ecological tourism, are allowed as the established protection regime. Really, it happened so both historically, economically, and politically, this is an objective reality, but nevertheless, it is the ecological tourism that should be developed strategically and be in the focus at the SPNAs, and the reason is quite clear - this type of tourism is friendly, and when it is competently organized and has a minimal anthropogenic impact, that is why it is compatible with the SPNS’s mission.

The very phrase “ecological tourism” is by no means just a figure of speech. The term was coined 38 years ago by the Mexican environmental economist Hector Ceballos-Lascurain. This term reflecting the idea of ​​harmony between recreation and ecology quickly gained great popularity in the professional environment and underwent various modifications.

Such wording revealing the concept of the “ecotourism” was voiced by the World Wildlife Fund in 1990, the UN World Tourism Organization in 2002, and the International Union for Conservation of Nature in 2004.

And, without digging into the comparative detailing of these definitions, it can be noted that in the end, not just the tourism in nature is considered nowadays as an ecological one, but the tourism that contributes to the protection of the biological diversity, does not destroy the environment, ensures the minimization of the ecosystem disturbances and has an educational focus. It has long been necessary to introduced the corresponding definition into the Russian legislation. In the meantime, we see other attempts aimed at prioritizing the formalism and legal casuistry, and not at all the philosophy of the ecological tourism. In particular, there were attempts to specify in the legislation that any visit to the SPNAs by tourists is an ecological tourism. This approach caused, causes and will cause the categorical rejection by a significant part of the professional ecological community - and there should be no illusions in this respect.

Russia has a powerful SPNA potential. Over the last century, an extensive system has been created in the country and today, there are about 12,000 of various SPNA categories in the country. At the same time, the most valuable natural complexes and objects are represented precisely in the federal system of the SPNAs, which is based on 108 state nature reserves, 65 national parks and 62 federal wildlife reserves. 
Over the past 12 years, there have been significant changes in the development of ecotourism in the special protected natural areas in Russia. This topic received a certain conceptual and legal basis, some objects of modern infrastructure were built, the practice of conducting tours and providing services to the visitors was developed. All this is reflected in the National Project “Ecology” (which includes the Federal project “Conservation of the Biological Diversity and the Development of Ecological Tourism”).

At the same time, the experience of the past years has clearly demonstrated some significant weaknesses and problems in the development of ecotourism in the SPNAs that carry the threats of devaluating and discrediting the very idea of ​​the ecotourism in our country. And the first thing I want to say, is about the manipulating the statistics and substituting the concepts.

Thus, the overwhelming majority of the federal SPNAs have not been really involved in the sphere of ecotourism.

The multi-million figures of annual visitors to the federal SPNAs often mentioned in the official reports and interviews (and even in the certificate of the National Project “Ecology”) are somewhat false.

First, the lion’s share of these visitors falls on only a few areas that are part of the well-known resorts or adjacent to the large metropolitan areas.

Second, trying to show a large scale of tourism, the figures often include mass weekend recreation (for example, the number of the Muscovites in the Losiny Ostrov National Park, or the Krasnoyarsk residents in the Krasnoyarsk Stolby (Pillars) National Park), which is not a real tourism by definition.

Third, these millions of “ecotourists” include the crowds of outdoor enthusiast visiting the Baikal Island of Olkhon (despite the terrible damage caused to its nature), and the enthusiasts of fishing and hunting tourism - that is, those forms of recreation that are really tourism, but by no means can be called an ecological one.
The large-scale construction of the guest infrastructure facilities in the SPNAs cannot be compatible with the principles of the ecological tourism.

The ski resorts in the SPNAs, especially in the national parks, are not compatible (in general) with these principles. All this, of course, is “creating conditions for recreation”, but it contradicts the very philosophy of the national parks that has formed in the world over the past 100 years.

Among the problems hindering the development of the ecotourism in the SPNAs, one should also include quite insufficient involvement of the specialized non-governmental organizations and private businesses in this sphere. Of course, in the SPNA system, it is possible to provide tourism services by the directorates of the individual SPNAs. In foreign reserves, there is also an understanding of this approach and the respective practice exists. However, in most cases, any state organization is, unfortunately, a third-rate “businessman”, and this is seen primarily in the quality of the services provided. And for this reason, the following points of view prevail in the world:

- it is recommended to avoid “state” activities in providing the tourist services in the SPNAs;

 - conducting such activities directly by the SPNAs’ directorates is advisable if there is no active tourist business in the region or the business is not interested in the ecotourism development. If there are high-quality providers of the tourism services in the region, it is more beneficial to develop the cooperation with the SPNAs than to conduct this business directly by themselves.

Nowadays, the idea is becoming more clear (and I share it) that the practice of public-private partnerships should be introduced into the ecotourism development in the specially protected natural areas, and third-party investors should be attracted (the first steps are being taken). But we should talk about attracting the companies and organizations ready to invest in the development of ecotourism (with all its special features)! However, this is often perceived by stakeholders as an opportunity to build villas, hotels and sports facilities in the SPNAs, without taking into account the environmental aspects. But it is no coincidence that in many foreign national parks, a guest infrastructure is built outside the protected areas - just very close to them. In particular, this is how the tourism is organized at the Denali National Park, the most popular one in Alaska. 28 years ago, we took a group of leaders of the Russian reserves and national parks to the United States for the first time for a training seminar. And even at that time, the specialists from the US National Park Service told us that really, in the early period of the development of the system, many hotels were built in their national parks, but later on, they followed a modern concept, according to which most of such facilities should be built outside the national parks.

Speaking about the problems that hinder the development of ecotourism in the specially protected natural areas, I should note the lack of proper motivation among a significant part of the directors of the state institutions that manage the SPNAs.

I remember, we asked the colleagues from the US National Park Service what the incentives for the directors of an American national park were to develop the tourism. And we got the answer that in fact, they had no special incentives. They were hired managers, and fulfilling the tasks assigned to them was their direct responsibility - be it the protection of the natural area or the tourism development. But with us, the situation is different ... In fact, this issue is up to the management of the SPNAs - if you want, you may develop tourism, if you don’t want to - you may focus on something else, and this will not affect the official salary and quarterly bonus. The result of such long-term practice is obvious.

Another problem is the lack of any effective system of material incentives for the workers involved in providing services to visitors and developing tourism in general in most state institutions that manage the SPNAs.

The lack of the material incentives inevitably gives rise to such a problem as a personnel shortage that is why in most state organizations that manage the protected areas, there is a shortage of employees having professional knowledge, skills and abilities in organizing the tourism.

The shortage of personnel and a weak level of competence of those involved in the development of the ecological tourism in the SPNAs, give rise to no success in the formation and promotion of the tourism product. The talk is about the formation of a travel product without taking into account the target categories of visitors and their priority, and about the unsuccessful determination of the key attractions. It would seem that everything is clear, the travellers are particularly attracted by picturesque and unique landscapes, wild animals in their natural habitat, outstanding historical and cultural objects. However, when the choice of sights and their peculiar features, as well as the programme of the tours as a whole is made by non-professionals who are not creative and have a slight idea about the potential tourists’ expectations, one cannot expect any success.

The situation is aggravated by the lack of the systematic practice of studying, analyzing and taking into account the opinions, comments and wishes of travellers and tourists visiting the specially protected areas. So, on September 15 this year, the Sikhote-Alin Nature Reserve posted the information on social networks about the beginning of their research on the assessment of the tourism services they provide. It is an exemplary step - but a very rare one. Moreover, the administrations of the overwhelming majority of our organizations that manage the nature reserves and national parks are not only little concerned about this problem, but on the whole, they painfully and negatively perceive any professional criticism (except the criticism coming from their own bosses).

But what can we say about the low professionalism at the local level, when there is an equally acute problem at the level of the federal centre. Just thinks of the drafts of two important GOSTs recently proposed for discussion: 56642-20 “Tourist services. Ecological tourism. General Requirements” and 57287-20 ”Tourist Services Provided in the Specially Protected Natural Areas”.

Reading these drafts throws you for a loop - a complete feeling that their authors (unfortunately, the Ministry of Natural Resources of Russia is among those organizations that worked the drafts out) quite vaguely understand the topics they are going to regulate with the GOSTs. Unfortunately, in recent years, the disregard of professionalism has been increasingly felt in the SPNA system of Russia.

I would like to specially focus on the systemic lack of due attention (in general) and methodological guidance (in particular) of the relevant ministry to the development of the ecological tourism in the state natural reserves despite the fact that there are 108 of them in the country, and  for 10 years, they have been legally entrusted with the task of developing the educational tourism,  they are extremely attractive for traditional ecotourists (naturalists and wildlife lovers) thanks to their peculiar features, and also that positive experience of such activities - worthy of implementation throughout the system - has already been gained in a number of reserved areas.

In the National Project “Ecology”, in its section on the development of the ecotourism in the SPNAs, nothing is said about nature reserves and everything is about national parks. Probably, it seemed to someone that you couldn’t get “good figures” in the nature reserves as this is an insignificant matter, it’s better to focus on the tourism in the national parks; and as for the nature reserves, let them continue to survive in this sphere as they can, as they want (if they want) and according to their understanding; well, if they do something good, they will be praised for this. So, the glamping (glamour+camping) was created at the Utrish Reserve and the director was praised (although he was dismissed later on, but he had time to be praised for the glamping. The glamping was set up in the Kazantipsky Reserve - the director was praised, too. These are glamorous campings in tiny nature reserves surrounded by a resort region (Anapa, Crimea), as if otherwise, the travellers could not get there to have a tout of them! Are they necessary and reasonable? This is not the Putorana Plateau! Where is policy, vision and the methodology of the specifics of the educational tourism in the nature reserves?

It seems necessary to supplement the National Project “Ecology” in terms of the development of ecological tourism in the state nature reserves.
The systemic underestimation, misunderstanding of the significance and failure to use the opportunities to demonstrate wild animals to visitors in their natural habitat - contrary to the world practice - are not for the benefit of the development of the ecological tourism in our SPNAs. Moreover, this circumstance really strikingly distinguishes our national SPNA system from its foreign counterparts, and not for the better. 

We are not talking about some kind of attractions for visitors, but about a systemic factor, which is:

an important element of the ecological tourism attractiveness;

the most important component of the environmental education and environmental promotion for the nature protection and the formation of public support for the SPNAs;

an essential environmental condition that provides additional guarantees for the conservation of wildlife.

Of course, the organization of any tourism in the SPNAs requires the solutions in terms of minimizing the anthropogenic impact, and everyone seems to take this as an axiom. However, in real life, for years and decades, we have pinned our hopes (and have made our plans) with a certain idea of ​​calculating the anthropogenic load (using complex formulas) and the subsequent determination of the recreational capacity. They say, we will define it and sell 100,000 entrance tickets, but we will not sell 10 0001 ones. Moreover, few people remember that such a document was already approved by the USSR State Forestry Committee 35 years ago. Did it help? Nothing came of it! But they continue to persist!

This is an outdated approach to the problem of regulating the number of visitors to the specially protected natural areas (judging by the leaders in the ecotourism - the USA, Australia, Scandinavia - it is outdated by about a quarter of a century). It needs to be replaced with a modern approach, in which the flow of visitors must be provided thanks to a good infrastructure, well-thought-out rules of behaviour and a system for making operational management decisions - this really helps to minimize the impact of the recreation activities on the SPNAs. After all, if a peregrine falcon nests near the eco-trail, then it is necessary to close the trail for the nesting period, and not rely on the established limit for visiting the entire area. Yes, this requires thoughtful recreational monitoring, it is necessary to quickly monitor the state of natural complexes, and to look for creative ideas and study the positive experience gained by other protected natural areas. That is, it is necessary to work hard.

Two years ago, I had a chance to visit the Iguazu National Park, the famous transborder (the Argentine-Brazil) one, which is the UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site, the Wonder of the World. It has one million visitors per year. At the same time, the number of visitors is not limited. However, its properly developed logistics, its right road and trail network and its engineering and technical solution, plus well-thought-out rules for their visitors made it possible to concentrate all recreational activities on an insignificant part of the Park, and at the same time, practically exclude the harmful anthropogenic impact even in the area where such activities are carried out. No, the Argentine and Brazil are, of course, not an example for us, we prefer to “go our own special way”.

It seems that for the systematic development of the ecological tourism in the SPNAs, a consistent and well-thought-out strategy is needed in Russia, aimed (among other things) at solving the problems accumulated in this area, strict regulation of the recreational activities in the interests of the nature conservation and broad participation of the interested business community. All of this requires a political will, committment and professionalism.

I am convinced that the key to solving the accumulated problems in the development of tourism in the SPNAs and its further creative development lies in the sphere of public administration. The tangible development of the ecological tourism in the SPNAs is not possible in the absence of the effective management of the SPNA system at the federal level. The effective management of the SPNA system across the country requires a separate specialized executive authority having sufficient resources and powers to manage this specific industry.

The creation of such a state body (for example, the Federal Agency for Specially Protected Natural Areas) is an imperative of our time, the issue must be addressed urgently, relying on the positive international and national practical experience in this area.