Russia-Belarus ecotourism exchange sparks innovation on both sides of the border
LEPELSKY DISTRICT, BELARUS—The success of local ecotourism enterprises around the Polistovsky Nature Reserve in Russia is spreading across the border into Belarus, and residents of both countries are seeing the benefits of exchanging ideas and building cooperation. FLEG II’s first direct "people-to-people" trans-border cooperation between Russia and Belarus is exploring the benefits of the “resource center” model of ecotourism and ways to engage local communities, businesses and public officials.
“Over the last few years, we’ve seen our ecotourism work around Polistovsky really take root and begin to grow on its own, with tremendous support from the local communities, and that success is proving to be contagious,” said Richard Aishton, FLEG II program coordinator for International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). “It is exciting to think of the great potential these exchanges have for the forests and forest communities in Russia and Belarus.”
In Russia’s Bezhanitsky District, the Polistovsky Nature Reserve plays the role of a “resource center” for local ecotourism enterprises, providing not only a major attraction with its natural beauty, but also accommodations, excursions and information about tours, meals and other services offered by local residents. The success of ecotourism in the area has helped alleviate pressure on the forest from illegal or damaging activities by providing local residents with viable and sustainable alternative ways to use the forest and support local economic growth.
Country program coordinators from the Forest Law Enforcement and Governance Program (FLEG II) in Belarus and Russia recognized the success of Polistovsky’s resource center model and its potential in neighboring Belarus, where a well-established regulatory framework and the unique resources provided by Belarusian forests are encouraging an increasing number of Belarusians to see ecotourism as a promising business.
In May 2014, based on the proposal of FLEG II consultant Natalia Milovidova, they created a roadmap for cooperation. Milovidova, who is also the executive secretary of the Association of North-West Russia Reserves and National Parks, found the appropriate partners on both sides of the border and designed joint activities to begin the collaboration.
To begin the collaboration, representatives of ecotourism enterprises in the Lepelsky District in Belarus’ Vitebsk Region visited Polistovsky Reserve later that summer to take part in the first exchange organized for local citizens and authorities on hospitality business development. Then in January 2015, Russian delegates took part in a seminar for ecotourism operators, officials, and representatives from non-governmental organizations in Belarus. This exchange explored the potential of cultural ecotourism with events such as the recreation of a traditional wedding ceremony, a popular cultural event in the region.
"It has been real fun to take part in the old Belarusian wedding ceremony reconstruction,” said Milovidova. “Dressed in the traditional costume, listening to the folk songs and consuming local food, I was charmed by the magic of the moment and almost believed that I was the real bride.”
Apart from enjoying the Belarusian culture and hospitality, the participants discussed the effectiveness of various types of resource centers in promoting local development through interaction with local residents, start-up support for tourism businesses, conducting master classes and other events, and acting as information centers for guests and residents alike.
A true exchange of ideas
Just as the Belarusian hosts learned about the resource center model and how to apply it in their communities, the Russian representatives also returned home with useful new ideas for strengthening ecotourism in their areas.
Events, such as the wedding ceremony reconstruction, which are not only attractive for tourists but also to local citizens, help ecotourism leaders engage and connect local residents, officials, businesses and organizations in support of their initiatives.
"Unlike in Russia, in Belarus rural tourism is mainly supported by local citizens themselves who organize into groups and associations,” said Milovidova. “These associations act as the resource centers or growth points for local economic development, and these ideas have created a wave of interest in similar Russian communities.”
After the ceremony, participants discussed and planned how to scale-up such activities at the municipal level in Lepelsky District. The idea has promise in Russia as well where local administrations are traditionally more proactive than citizens in driving ecotourism.
As part of the agreement, FLEG II is organizing a higher-level experience-sharing seminar in Lepelsky District, Vitebsk Region, Belarus, with the participation of colleagues, stakeholders and experts from Bezhanitsky District, Pskov Region, Russia, as well as from other regions where successful resource centers operate.
These exchanges will lay the foundation for replicating successful ecotourism as part of the legal, sustainable forest management model on a regional level, a primary objective of the FLEG II Program.