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The Characteristics of Ecotourism Development in Russia’s Oldest National Parks
The Characteristicsof Ecotourism Development in Russia’s Oldest National Parks
Maxim A. Kharitonenkov
The Center for problems of ecology and productivity of forests of the Russian Academy of Sciences (CEPF)
For the last decades we can clearly observe apparent changes of priorities and aspirations of tourists throughout the world. More and more people, especially in the industrialized countries, destine from the cities towards the cantons of relatively undisturbed nature. In contrast to the traditional beach-related rest, the demand for active-cognitive orientation tours has increased.
At the interface of the most important environmental, economic and social problems of our time, the concept of eco-tourism arose as one of the most important ways of sustainable development of natural areas (Ecotourism on the way to Russia…, 2002).
Ecotourism is an environmentally sustainable form of nature-based tourism, focusing primarily on life in the wilderness and the experience of nature, organized in accordance with the ethical standards so as to minimize the impact on the environment, consumption and costs, and focuses on the local level. Typically, this form of tourism is implemented on protected areas, and aims to contribute to the conservation of these areas (Fennell, 1999).
Modern trends of international tourism have come up in Russia too. A large number of national parks has been established in this country (there were 46 national parks in Russia at the end of 2013 (State Report ..., 2014)). As we know, оne of the major goals of the national parks is environmental education, which is realized in particular through eco-tourism. However, due consideration to this activity is not given in all Russian national parks. The national parks are often managed by former forestry workers or people with exceptionally silvicultural education. Firstly, there is a poor implementation of modern scientific achievements in forest ecology into education standards of the country, which leads to the national parks being run by people with long-outdated views on forest ecosystems. Secondly, it leads to simplification of a national park operation: in fact, it functions as a nature reserve with a weakened regime control. Promotion and financing of scientific research and environmental education takes place "on leftovers". One of the oldest national parks in Russia - "Elk Island," situated virtually in the capital – has not escaped these problems as well.
The National Park "Elk Island," founded in 1983, is located to the north-east of Moscow, the third part of it is located within the administrative boundaries of the city, and the forests begin just 8 km away from the Kremlin. From the north, west and south, the high-rise residential areas of the city are situated near the park, as well as major roads and railway lines. The National Park is crossed by the Moscow ring road. Thus, this largest forest area in Moscow and Moscow region (129 sq. km in area) is situated in close vicinity to the vast metropolis and partially within it.
A large part of Central Russia’s typical forest ecosystems is presented in the National Park, which is characterized by a relatively small area. These are: dark coniferous forests of European Spruce, light coniferous forests of Scots Pine, parvifoliate forests of common birch and European aspen, broadleaved forests of tillet and Norway maple. Most of the National Park forests are secondary forests; forming, on the one hand, under the influence of logging, which had lasted since the Bronze Age and; on the other hand, artificial reforestation since the beginning of the 20thcentury. Given the epic proportions of the anthropogenic deforestation of the territories in Central Russia, the fact of saving of such large forests area not far from Moscow is surprising. It is particularly surprising that in the least accessible parts of the National Park grows polydominant uneven-aged mingled forests with the dominance of European Spruce, tillet, Norway maple, with integration of common oak admixture, and elm. From forests preserved after centuries-long ecosystem exploitation, they are the closest to eastern European primary forests. The wetlands of "Elk Island" presented by the Yauza river wetlands are unique. The fauna of the National Park, where actually within the city steadily exist the populations of such large mammals as an elk, a boar, an axis deer, and most interestingly, a beaver. A high diversity of birds (more than 160 species), including bird of prey, is marked in the region.
Given the vicinity of the cosmopolis, the relatively high level of education in Moscow as the Russian capital, the National Park has a significant potential in the development of ecotourism. However, it is not actually actualized. Excursions on the ecotrails are rare, irregular, and attract a small number of visitors. Disproportionality between the potential of the Park and number of excursions and organized tourists can be explained by the following:
- The lack of adequate equipped ecological trails fully meeting the modern requirements of environmental education. Hikes are conducted on the abandoned forest firebreaks and the broken timber roads, often hardly passable. The emphasis of environmental education is laid on seven (by 2015) visitor centers rather than on eco-trails. The experience in working on some of them has shown that these visitor centers are characterized by low ecotourism attraction. Exceptions are a few neighboring schools, bringing children to visitor-centers from year to year, mainly on the animation programs;
- The staff of competent guides consists of not more than three people. All of the visitor-centers are understaffed. There are difficulties in attracting qualified staff due to the very low (on capital standards) wages in the Park;
- Extremely weak communication work of the National Park among the population. The regular media relations are not established, the information on the official website is largely outdated and unclearly structured;
- The psychological aspects of the attitude of the neighbouring residents towards the National Park "Elk Island.” The city residents consider this territory as "an owned forest" which has been used for a long time for rambles, barbecues (even though barbecue is prohibited in the Park). The population does not consider the forest, which is publicly available and familiar, as an object of ecotourism. Moreover, people are not interested in paying for a visit to "owned" forests, even if they are accompanied by a competent guide. As for the huge number of tourists, including those from far abroad, visiting the Moscow region, we can say that this category of visitors is substantially not represented in the National Park. Regular cooperation with travel agencies is not established, and tourists just do not know about the potential of the park. However, as the experience of working in the National Park shows, tours on the territory elicit favorable reviews among foreign tourists, when they actually accidentally appear on the excursions of "Elk Island.”
- The relatively high cost of the Park's excursions does not also help to attract tourists. These are relatively short (about two hours) and come out for the Park's visitors more expensive than the more popular eight-hour analogs in the main resort city of Russia – Sochi.
We suggest the following to solve the problem. It is necessary to concentrate environmental education activities of the Park towards the most promising areas with high potential and convenient transportation access. The representative site is situated in a region of the Moscow-area city of Balashikha, which borders with the Park from the east. There is a famous grove "Alekseevskaya,” described in another article of mine. The great number of interesting natural, historical and cultural sites – which also have a high aesthetic appeal – are located on a relatively small area of the Grove. As an employee of the National Park, I have developed a historical, environmental trail through the territory of the Grove and it successfully functions. However, in order for it to function well, it requires a high-quality technical modernization, which has not been done to date. There is a need to intensify the cooperation with the media to attract residents of Moscow and the Moscow region to the ecotrail. It is necessary to establish regular cooperation with travel agencies. A significant step in the right direction is the opening of a new modern visitor-center on the border with the Grove. With proper organization of its work, it should contribute to the attractiveness of the eco-trail for visitors.
The comparison of environmental education of the national park "Elk Island" and the oldest Russian national park – the Sochi National Park – is revealing. It was established a few months before the "birth" of "Elk Island", in May 1983, and is located in immediate vicinity to the "resort" capital of Russia - Sochi, widely known in the world thanks to the 2014 XXII Winter Olympic Games.
The environmental education activities of the Sochi National Park and its efficiency differ from those in "Elk Island" significantly. Let’s consider these differences in detail. The main feature of the Sochi National Park that gives it a significant advantage over all other Russian Federation parks is its location, in the country’s main resort region. Millions of people from across the country annually visit Sochi for "beach" holidays on the Black Sea coast. The psychological feature of this category of tourist is that, in addition to the beach visiting, the excursions for them are the kind of "mandatory" component of the holiday. Cloudy, rainy days and times of heavy seas are usually selected for excursion visiting. Frequently the vacationers visit the same trip every year, not expressing significant interest in its content. Thus, there is already an element denoted by "tradition.”
Considering Sochi’s landscape territory and the surrounding area, it can be divided into the coastal zone (beach-related rest, city building) and mountain-forest zone. For purposes of ecotourism, the mountain-forest Sochi is more important. The terrain of the region is represented mainly by low mountains and middle mountains of the Western Caucasus. These mountains are composed of soft sedimentary rocks, as well as wide-spread occurrence of karst landforms - wells, sinkholes, and of course the caves. The mountains are covered with dense forests of ancient Colchis type that has formed as far back as the Neogene. This forest type is characterized by very high diversity of flora and fauna, including the fauna of large beasts of prey and hoofed mammals. Despite centuries of ecosystem exploitation, mountain-forest landscapes of Sochi still retain the traits of the indigenous.
More than 80% of the territory of Sochi is the territory of the national park with the same name. The National Park covers the entire region of mountain-forest Sochi Black Sea Coast. Thus, the vast majority of excursions held in Sochi are the excursions on the ecological trails of the National Park. However, the key point is who organizes and conducts these trips. Despite the fact that, formally, the national park provides tours on their ecological paths, in fact, a disproportionately large role in this process is played by intermediaries – the private excursion concerns of Sochi. As a guide of the largest and oldest excursion company of Sochi - "Ruta" (1990), I held excursions on ecological trails of the Sochi National Park for about 8,000 people annually. As staff of "Elk Island" for the same period - for about 400 people. These figures speak for themselves and show the real effectiveness of ecotourism activities on the territory of two of Russia’s oldest national parks. In "Elk Island," the entire process - planning the eco-trail excursions, searching the clients, organization, conducting tours, payment - are the same person's duties. In Sochi, the tour guide is responsible only for his part of work. Excursions take at least 6 hours, visitors are brought to the start of the route on comfortable buses; at the beginning of ecotrail, they have the opportunity to visit cafes, apiaries, food tasting; and there are also WC on the route. Ecotrail meet most of modern safety and improvement requirements. It is important to note that the cost of these trips is about one third lower than in "Elk Island". This can be explained by high competition between Sochi excursion companies. However, there is one important drawback of such excursions: in an effort to increase profits, excursion companies focus on the most popular destinations. The massive participation, in turn, leads to a simplification and primitivization of most tours: there are queues, the route is reduced due to the increased number of nonmobile categories of visitors, whom all the group should focus on, ecotrails often have insufficient transmission capacity for large groups, passing a continuous flow. All of this leads to a decrease in tour quality. However, the most interesting excursions, from the point of view of eco-tourism, attract considerably smaller groups, and its conducting becomes unprofitable for the company. The way out is conducting the customize tours where clients plan the coming excursion together with the organizers and guide. However, it often raises the excursion cost considerably.
Of course, the much higher level of the Sochi National Park ecotourism development, in comparison with the "Elk Island" - is not the merit of the management of the former, it’s caused by the peculiarities of nature and region history development. Nevertheless, the main task in the aspect of ecotourism Sochi National Park as a state institution carries out competently: the close collaboration with travel companies is established, ecotrails and ecotourism objects are maintained properly, and the new are created.
Thus in this article the level of organized ecotourism development in Russia as exemplified by two of the oldest national parks was analyzed – the Sochi National Park and the "Elk Island" National Park. The personal professional experience of ecotourism on the territory of both parks served as the basis for the analysis: in the "Elk Island" national park - directly in the staff of the institution (tour guide, methodologist for environmental education); in the Sochi National Park - on the part of intermediary (tour guide of the excursion company). Of course, the ecotourism potential of the Sochi National Park is much higher and is implemented effectively. It can be explained by both objectives (natural and climatic potential, peculiarities of the region history) and subjective reasons, depending directly on the activities of the institution (competent cooperation with excursion companies). The situation with "Elk Island" is much worse, especially against the background of the continuously deteriorating economic situation in the country. Nevertheless, the rise of ecotourism in the national park is possible, taking into consideration its significant potential, and it depends entirely on the "human factor.”
1. Ecotourism on the way to Russia. Principles, guidelines, Russian and foreign experience. Tula: Grif i K, 2002. 284 pp.
2. Ecotourism: an introduction, by David A. Fennell, Routledge, London, 1999. 315 pp.
3. State report "About the state and protection of the Russian Federation environment in 2014". Moscow, 2015. 473 pp.