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Can sustainable tourism save the world?

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It is a beautiful sunny day on the island of Brijuni, which has gathered about 150 participants for the 3rd Dinaric Arc Park conference. They come from more than 100 protected areas across eight countries in the Western Balkans.

One of the main issues on the agenda is sustainable tourism, an important topic for a region with limited state funding for the protected areas and huge tourism potential.
Dinaric Arc is spread across eight countries in the Western Balkans and acts as a brand and an umbrella organisation for protected areas in the region. Key note speaker at the conference is Ignace Schops, a Belgian environmentalist who was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize (better known as the Green Nobel Prize) in 2008 for his contributions to the establishment of the Hoge Kempen National Park, the first national park in Belgium.

Good for both biodiversity and local economies
Ignace is convinced that sustainable tourism can help both biodiversity and local economies. The model they developed in Hoge Kempen National Park turned a former coal mining area into green and attractive area for tourists. Actual area is outside of the National Park and that is where visitor centers and activities are situated – close to the national park but not encroaching to its territory.

It was calculated that the annual turnover is about 190 million EUR per year and 5100 jobs were created, that is if you calculate in a broader sense, also taking account the ecosystem services that the national park provides to the area. Ignace gives a highly inspiring speech finishing it with “think globally, act locally, change personally”. I think this is something we can all take on board and not only in the context of sustainable tourism. And an advice he gives is valid not only in the Balkans or Belgium but also in Norway – translate biodiversity into the language that politicians understand – use numbers!

The panel discussion on the subject of sustainable tourism goes into further details about protected areas in the region and their tourism potential. As Andrea Stefan from the DAP team tells us, the total surface of various protected areas in the Dinaric Arc is 26,030 km2. It is an enormous tourism resource! And according to WTO (2014), Dinaric Arc is the most buoyant area for growth in tourism in Europe. In 96% of the protected areas, at least one stakeholder has economic benefits from tourism and 53% of the areas have major economic gain from tourism. This income is very important as some of it goes back to the community – 12% goes back to the people living in the protected area and 23% goes to the people living near the protected area. That’s a big chunk of money that goes back to the local people! It is especially important for areas with very few other sources of income.

The Costa Rica of Europe
No doubt there are still lots of things to be improved. Many protected areas have still very top-down approach and lack local partnerships, lack educators and facilitators, interpretation tools for visitors, trails for disabled people etc. But things are moving in the right direction. For example, Macedonia has just committed to developing a national network of hiking trails and 184 new routes have been developed with maps that will be made available to those interested in hiking.

As representatives of the EUROPARC consulting (which is the consultancy arm of the EUROPARC Federation, the umbrella organisation for Europe’s protected area), Wilf Fenten and Richard Partington noted, conservation of natural and cultural heritage in most of the parks is very good and protected areas have highly devoted (albeit often overworked) teams so capacity building is of utmost importance. But the willingness is certainly there as a big number of participants of the conference testify. The Western Balkans has been described as “the Costa Rica of Europe” and it might be true. Everywhere you look you can see plenty of natural values that only need wise and sustainable management to develop further.
Later this week, we will visit Brijuni National Park (which is hosting the conference) and Motovun forest where the Istrian white truffle grows and see some examples of how protected areas are managed in Croatia. I will be happy to report back!

Om bloggeren: Zanete Andersone-Lilley er biolog og seniorrådgiver i WWF-Norge. Født og oppvokst i Latvia og har doktorgrad i biologi. Hun jobbet i mange år med rovdyr i Baltikum, særlig ulv og gaupe. Hun har jobbet i WWF siden 2008 med prosjekter på Vest Balkan, Kaukasus og Sentral Asia. I tillegg jobber hun en del med rovdyr i WWF-Norge.

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