On 29 March, a roundtable discussion on the problems and prospects of ecotourism in Russia was held at the Russian Government's Analytical Centre in Moscow. The Far Eastern Leopards autonomous non-profit organisation organised the event together with the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and the Amur Tiger Centre.
Representatives of the Russian Federal Agency for Tourism (Rostourism), concerned public organisations, nature reserves and tour operators working on this market gathered in the conference hall. The roundtable participants were able to deliver reports on ecotourism in Russia and, what is more important, to discuss the main problems of these activities.
"For a long time, we have been planning to organise this meeting that would not just involve nature conservation professionals and the staff of reserves and national parks. It is highly important that today we are discussing ecotourism with the tourism industry's professionals, who boast their own experience and who know these matters from another angle.
"Ecotourism has long been perceived as a popular leisure opportunity in the modern world, and ecotourism principles are seen as unshakeable rules of conduct in the wild. It is precisely the possibility of visiting wild nature that makes national parks and other nature reserves the true national pride of many countries; moreover, everyone comes to understand and cherish the ideas of preserving the natural heritage.
"Participants in this meeting are discussing problems and challenges now being posed by ecotourism, including at protected areas. We will search for methods of helping reserves and national parks to improve this work, raising it to modern standards, and allowing tourism industry workers to perceive them as reliable partners," Yelena Gangalo, general director of Far Eastern Leopards and an advisor to Special Presidential Representative for Environmental Protection, Ecology and Transport Sergei Ivanov, noted in her report.
"As my colleagues have noted, there are still more questions than answers when it comes to promoting ecotourism; so far, we are only building up this new experience. This is why we consider such meetings with tourism industry professionals to be extremely important for jointly drafting recommendations," added Viktoria Elias, director of WWF Russia's nature conservation programmes.
The roundtable discussion featured a plenary session on ecotourism and its perception in Russia and the world. Merited Ecologist of the Russian Federation Vsevolod Stepanitsky, advisor to the Far Eastern Leopards general director, presented a report that gave an expert's opinion of ecotourism in Russia and protected areas.
"The experience of the past few years clearly shows the substantial drawbacks and problems in developing ecotourism at protected areas; it is necessary to eliminate them and find effective solutions. Without listing them all, I will focus on just a few of these aspects. And I would like to start with the threat of misconceptions and disparaging the idea of ecotourism," he said.
"Yes, we can see legal loopholes and discrepancies that need to be resolved, especially with regard to national parks that are open to any type of recreational development in Russia. The current law provides for unspecified ‘tourism and leisure in general,' rather than ecotourism. And only educational tourism is possible at nature reserves. Nevertheless, while declaring and promoting the development of precisely ecotourism at protected areas, one can often see attempts to include various forms of recreation that are not compatible with the idea of ecotourism, such as beach leisure, picnic parties, hunting and alpine skiing resorts, at the very same national parks.
"The large-scale construction of guest facilities and related infrastructure is at odds with the idea of ecotourism.
"Certainly, this involves the creation of conditions for leisure, but it runs counter to the very ideology of national parks that has evolved all over the world in the past 100 years and that cannot be equated with ecotourism.
"Nor does mass recreation that seriously damages nature have anything to do with ecotourism. For example, this situation is typical of Pribaikalsky National Park, the famous Olkhon Island, in the first place," Stepanitsky noted.
Sergei Aramilev, director general of the Amur Tiger Centre, delivered a report on the Amur tiger as an object of ecotourism. "The lack of a real opportunity to show a living tiger in the wild does not promote ecotourism in the southern part of the Far East. But we have found a way out of this situation by creating walking trails, making it possible to become acquainted with the region's nature," he said while explaining his position. Aramilev also added that efforts to streamline legal mechanisms would allow protected areas to cooperate with tour operators more effectively.
Sergei Shpilko, president of the Russian Tourism Industry Union and chair of the Tourism Industry Commission at the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, also spoke at the session. He delivered a report on ecology as the driving force of the global tourism market. He said that ecotourism was certainly a popular global tourism market trend and also added that many professional tour operators were ready to cooperate with protected areas, provided that their management would be ready to become part of the system.
Dmitry Gorshkov, director of WWF Russia's programme to preserve biodiversity, gave a report on ecotourism at protected areas as a global phenomenon.
The second session's participants focused on ecotourism in Russia, practical experience and existing problems. Nikolai Savelyev, CEO of Poseidon Expeditions Co., delivered a report on the corporate experience at protected areas in the Arctic. Nikolai Tsymlyansky, director of the Astrakhan Biosphere Reserve, reported on ecotourism at the Astrakhan Biosphere Reserve (from denial to development). Alexander Zheleznyak, an expert on tourism with the Russian Popular Front and director general of the Association for the Development of Russian Nature Trails, spoke about nature tourism, ecotourism and sustainable tourism and specific aspects that the country needs to develop. Yulia Grigoryeva, executive director of Russia Discovery Co., discussed the expectations and realities of domestic travel. Yelena Chubakova, president of the Great Baikal Trail association, reported on using this trail as a model for developing ecotourism. Yulia Gorelova, director of the Birds and People non-profit partnership, presented her vision of birding as an element of ecotourism at Russia's protected areas, as well as its challenges and prospects.
Participants in another session prioritised protected areas and tourism industry, as well as their optimal cooperation models. Yelena Ledovskikh, president of the Dersu Uzala EcoTourism Development Foundation, delivered a report on the experience of cooperation between the tourism industry and nature reserves, covering successes, difficulties and possible solutions.
Anzhelika Cheltygmasheva, deputy director of the Khakassky Nature Reserve, spoke about the reserve's cooperation with tourism industry companies. Dmitry Moseikin, director general of the Wild Nature Photo Expedition, reported on his non-profit organisation's experience of organising ecotourism events and mandatory fundamental stages of expanding the nature education potential of the Russian regions. Valery Korovkin, managing director of the 21st Century Arctic, gave a report on the potential of cruise/expedition tourism in the Arctic and its prospects.
All ideas and proposals voiced during the reports and discussions will be summed up and formalised as the roundtable discussion's recommendations. They will be sent to the relevant state agencies and all the concerned parties.