Wednesday, June 4, 2008

TOURISM: Promoting ecological tourism

When hard times hit, tourism is one of the first industries to suffer. After all, leisure is a luxury that you cannot afford when the price of food is going up. Nevertheless, as we discovered when researching this week's Insider, rural tourism is actually doing quite well. This is because businesses reach out to specific niche markets, rather than target the generic person who just wants to spend a day in the countryside. This has created a loyal customer base that is unlikely to give up on their days in the countryside so that they can buy a larger car. In this week's Industry Insider, we look at three of those niche markets – ecotourism, hunting and company summer days.

TALLINN - Ever since the release of the anti-pesticide sensational book “Silent Spring” in 1962, people face the reality of their impact on the environment. What is more, people are becoming aware of how they damage nature when they visit it.
Today airlines and hotel chains are trying to reduce their impact on nature by being more conscious of what they use. Some companies – such as Estonian Air – also plant trees. It’s called sustainable tourism, and ecological tourism is a large part of it.

“Ecological tourism is a narrower term than sustainable tourism. When talking about ecological tourism people mean [things] happening outside tourism structures – what’s out of buses, hotels, planes. Sleeping on a farm is not ecological tourism,” said Aivar Ruukel from the Estonian Ecotourism Union.
Traveling responsibly and standing for nature, culture and rural communities doesn’t mean not having a good time. It is just the activities are a bit different than in a classical vacation.
One thing that surely comes with ecological tourism is learning things that have been forgotten for a long time – whether it’s a handicraft or something else. For example, at the end of June there will be a training course on making one-man-boats.

For those who want to get their hands dirty, there are events called “travel bees.” For example, some are organized to help half-wild and half-cultivated areas, such as meadows, from becoming fully wild.
Estonia has the largest number of different plant breeds in the northern hemisphere – 25 percent of the territory is composed of different kinds of wetlands, while around 15 percent of the country’s territory is protected area. Those interested in nature find Estonia a good place to start.
Since the word “ecotourism” sounds like gibberish to most local people, the Estonian Ecotourism Association prefers to call it real tourism. It has even copyrighted the initials “EHE,” meaning “real and interesting Estonia.”

“We came to the conclusion that Estonian ecotourism can also be named ‘real tourism,’ as it would be more understandable. At the international level, it still would be called ‘ecotourism’ in English, but in Estonia people’s values should be pointed out,” said Mikk Sarv from the Green Party.
Estonia sets safety standards for hotels so that they will be able to cope with a large flow of tourists. But ecological tourism is still at the local level and there are only small groups of travelers.
“The requirements shouldn’t be so hard. It’s not the Hilton Hotel or a giant establishment where thousands of people go through,” said Sarv.

To make matters worse, there is no marketing for ecological tourism, which means people are not really aware of it. Some 75 percent of people who use ecological tourism are Estonians. Much more could be done to encourage foreigners to have eco-friendly vacations.
The countryside is facing an image problem which pundits say is difficult to solve.
“The country is searching for a reason people should come. No one’s coming to Estonia [just] to sleep in a hotel or fly with a plane. Tallinn’s Old Town has been, and will be, the most important travel [destination], but no one has thought of anything besides it. Spas are largely for the internal market and Finns are leaving because prices got higher,” said Ruukel.

Some think the answer is training travel executive. There is also some training offered. Luua Metsanduskool(Forestry school) and Vorumaa Vocational Center include ecological tourism in its program.
They are part of ECOLL, an EU program specifically set up to help people study ecological tourism in four countries – Estonia, Italy, Finland and Poland.

“To discover that our country is exciting, rich and worth visiting outside of Tallinn, the first step is to see rural tourism and then ecological tourism,” said Sarv.

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