Ecotourism to Heal the Scars of the Past

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions


The legacy of underdevelopment during the communist era in parts of Eastern Europe is now being seen as an advantage in the global tourism trade. Well off the beaten path for tourists, areas as diverse as Chechnya and Romania are working to turn their rustic rural hinterlands into a strategic advantage in grabbing the market for ecotourists. Ecotourism – tourism that takes people to fragile and beautiful areas – is one of the tourism industry’s fastest growing areas.At stake is the lucrative and ever-growing world tourism market. Global tourist arrivals passed 800 million in 2006, with tourism in the world up by 5.5 per cent (World Tourism Organization), earning US $680 billion globally. In 1993, just seven per cent of travel was nature tourism; that share has now passed 20 per cent.

Romania, now a member of the European Union, boasts rural countryside like Europe of old: all hillsides are common land and there are no walls or fences to impede the view. Life is heavily dominated by agriculture and the rhythms of farm life.

Southern Transylvania is a high plateau of wooded hills and valleys and shielded by the Carpathian Mountains.

“The Carpathians of central and eastern Europe,” said Achim Steiner, head of the UN Environment Programme, “are among the world’s richest regions in terms of biodiversity and pristine landscapes. I have no doubt that the Carpathians, like the Alps, the Himalayas and the Rocky Mountains, will become world famous for walking, hiking, climbing, wildlife watching, photography and similar leisure pursuits.”

In order to preserve this way of life and generate income, various schemes are encouraging low-key tourism. This takes the form of renovating decaying farm buildings for guesthouses. The guesthouses are kept clean and simple and the focus is on typical local food like hearty stews and soups and pork sausages.

Much of this has been paid for by the Mihai Emenescu Trust, a charity seeking to preserve the traditions of the Saxon villages.

Patrick Holden of the Soil Association, a patron of the Mihai Eminescu Trust, thinks the organic agricultural methods of the local farmers could be a model for the rest of Europe.

Romania is also part of the Organization for Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC), which is taking the lead in promoting ecotourism as an economic development option.

Ex-communist nation Bulgaria has also turned to ecotourism, launching its “Ecotourism: Naturally Bulgaria” campaign in September.

Even the once-war-torn Russian republic of Chechnya is trying to radically re-shape people’s perceptions. It is hard to believe, but the former site of a bitter civil war that left the capital Grozny in ruins now wants to be Russia’s Switzerland.

Shatoy region in southern Chechnya, during Soviet times, saw 20,000 visitors every month to ski, ride horses, and hike in the Caucasus Mountains. The new government plans to spend UK £40 million on new hotels, reconstructing old holiday camps, building spas and health centres. The region’s head of government, Mr Khasukha Demilkhanov, is confident that natural beauty can compete with the West: in the Argun Gorge, he pointed out to the Guardian newspaper, the scene is reminiscent of a 19th century woodcutting. Stone towers litter the hills, alpine meadows are full of wild flowers, the mountains are snow-capped and new roads have been built.

The Chechens hope to start with Russian holidaymakers and extreme tourists from the West, before moving more into the mainstream market.


  • The International Ecotourism Society.
  • Ecotourism Kazakhstan: Kazakhstan has put together a dedicated website on ecotourism.
  • Planeta: one of the first ecotourism resources to go online (since 1994) and still offers plenty of information for those wanting to start a business.

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