Our dreams to travel across Europe, especially after several lock downs, grow bigger and bigger and we can hardly wait to be able to explore our most desired destinations again. In Europe, even around the world, we see a big growth in the Nature Economy. Outdoor tourism, like hiking, canoeing, photo tours, nature workshops etc. is currently very popular.
What is the impact of all this on nature and can nature also benefit from this big commercial growth?
NATURE FIRST talked with NATURE FIRST Regional Advocate, Petra Draškovič Pelc , Simon Collier, who works for European Safari Company and also run his own nature development tourism business Nature Tourism Development, and Aukje Van Gerven from the European Safari Company, our new Bronze Partner, to highlight some thoughts and examples on how you can fully enjoy your holiday and at the same time know it to be responsible/sustainable.
The European Safari Company is part of the non-profit organization Rewilding Europe.
Their tours directly support nature, wildlife and local cultures in unique places across our continents. Travelers of the European Safari Company not only experience some of Europe’s finest nature, but learn directly about and contribute to rewilding and support local communities. Dedicated levies from each booking support rewilding initiatives, while local nature-based businesses benefit from income, job creation and developmental support from Rewilding Europe
Petra Draskovic-Pelc, besides being a volunteer for NATURE FIRST, since 2018 you have worked as a partner with the EUROPEAN SAFARI COMPANY and the Rewilding Europe programs. Can you briefly explain your work and your involvement? And why you decided to work with them as one of their local partners? In your opinion, what makes them different from other travel companies?
Petra – For the EUROPEAN SAFARI COMPANY I run tours in Slovenia, mainly in the Kočevsko area, but also across Slovenia to highlight the natural and cultural diversity we have in such a small area. Of course, each tour has some conservational note; I have recently dedicated myself to the Lynx.
As you might have heard, several Lynxes have been reintroduced in Slovenia through LIFE LYNX project and my efforts to support this scientific research have been through buying a new collar to monitor lynx activity. So, the levies from our trips through European Safari Company go directly to support scientific research and provide new knowledge about the most elusive animal in our Dinaric forest.
The mission and ethics from both the European Safari Company, as well the Rewilding Europe organisation align well with my own mindset, so I am really happy and proud to be able to collaborate with them. I appreciate their values, like the story behind them and where they are going and I admire their efforts to bring back wild life to Europe.
Aukje, Petra & Simon, before we dive into the main subject, what kind of tourist or traveler are you?
Simon Collier: I love travelling. I think one of the most profound forms of education and experience in life is being able to travel to different places. I am a nature junky by passion and by trade. For me, nature destinations are my drawcard, but I also very much enjoy other parts of the world where they have very strong cultural experiences.
When I travel, I try to go to places where there is as little tourism impact as possible, as tourism always has significant impact on both the area and the people.
I am always intrigued by the undiscovered aspects of places, not necessarily only by engaging with other people, but also new discoveries on personal nature. Therefore, I always have a tendency to try to explore different cultures. When it comes to nature, I want to see different natural phenomena, species, even though I do not travel specifically to see these phenomena or species and I always try to find the balance between time in nature and with people. But I am curious, I love travelling and exploring new destinations. I also like to return to the places we know, where I had a great experience.
Petra: I am in love with the forest, mountains, and the light in the North. To me, being in wild places is what I love, I enjoy hiking very much and just to be in the nature, listen, touch, feel, observe. And as a photographer I search for special light conditions, special nature moments or interaction with species. Much of my personal travel is actually dedicated to photography. It is not always just nature, but also local people and their relationship with nature attracts me a lot. Therefore, when I travel, I try to combine this.
Aukje Van Gerven: I am probably quite an active one, I do not really spend all days watching wildlife, I am more of a nature enjoyment traveler, I like to be active in nature, going for hikes and walks, run or climb or swim. For me, the combination of being outside, being in nature, feeling the wind in my hair, seeing the birds fly, and at the same time, not sitting still, for me works really well.
In Europe, but also around the world, we see a big growth in ‘Nature economy’; outdoor tourism is very popular at the moment, like hiking, canoeing, photo tours, nature workshops etc. As you explained above that through the comeback of a wide range of iconic wildlife species in Europe, the opportunities for wildlife watching and commercial activities are growing. Can you explain whether nature actually benefits from this big commercial growth?
Aukje: You are exactly right, it is really important that nature is not being used as “Oh, I am going on a holiday, I am in a beautiful nature area, and whether I go on a wildlife expedition with a guide or on an outdoor activity, and having a great time and after a week I am out again”. But has the place I visited actually benefited from my stay??!
This is an important question.
That’s why we have put 5 % levies on top of the price of every safari booking .This money goes directly to local areas where you have travelled to. This is usually discussed with local partners and we decide where it is most needed: like for fixing paths, helping wildlife projects etc. So, if you actually go to these areas, you have not only had a great time; local entrepreneurs have benefited (like local guides, local accommodations), but also the local area will benefit as these companies “give” back to nature.
Local people are also becoming more and more aware of the more ethical organizations and they know that while traveling with them, they will get fair-wages, the wildlife watching will be done in an ethical manner but there is also another component – you have used the area, so how you are going to give back to that area. And funding is a good way as this also supports local organizations working towards keeping that area safe and natural.
Simon: Before the pandemic, nature tourism was on the rise, on a constant incline. What last year has taught most people around the world is that their connection to nature is more profound than they had imagined. That presents us with a really interesting opportunity and challenge at the same time, namely that the impact we have on nature has to be reduced, but at the same time people should have an opportunity to engage with nature. Can we control the number of people visiting certain areas?! If so, how can we do that? Can we restrict the amount of time we are allowed to spend in an area?! And how much tourism do we want to develop in this area?!
These are all questions we should be asking ourselves. I firmly believe in a low impact model, so as little impact on nature as possible (you know the slogan – take only photos and leave only footprints) but there is also a ‘compromise’ that needs to be made on the part of nature as well, – this is what I mean by using small selected business that directly give back to nature. I think that this financial relationship to nature needs to be more understood, it should be considered normal to always choose partners that give something back to the area where they operate, not just ‘green marketing‘.
Of course, it is important to know where this money is actually going back to. Because more and more people want to know this, we need to establish a balance whereby people and businesses can have both benefits and opportunities in their relationship with nature. This does however mean that people also have to feel responsible for managing this balance, protecting it, maintaining it and becoming its advocate to the rest of the world.
Petra, one of our local guides and a photographer herself, would know that if there were no bears left in Slovenia, that would really impact a portion of her business, she would have less guests for her tours or photo-workshops. Even WWF has recently brought out a paper converting tourism to green economy , i.e. an economy that is measured by the positive impact on both social economics and sustainability of natural areas. Which is great, as this brings more pressure on the tourism industry to have a more positive relationship with nature. And there are already many good examples. Like the amazing project in Romania in the Carpatians mountains, where there are tourism activities linked to bear watching or to bison tracking, or you can directly contribute financially to continuing these conservation projects.
However, it is not just the money, the euros, that are going into those projects, but the message, why this is happening, why this is important and necessary. And this message needs to reach consumers, guests, travellers and then it has the power to change! That is a very big part that the tourism industry can do – to change the perception of the traveller and general public so they will have a better understanding of what impact they have by being there and how they can possibly contribute to the area they have impacted.
It is important to think “sustainability” and to care deeply for our destinations. What do Rewilding Europe, Nature Economy, Nature First and holiday mindsets have in common? How can they benefit from each other? What are the benefits from all these concepts?
Simon: A prime link between these three initiatives is the intrinsic role and importance of nature first. Bringing this to the forefront of the initiatives is vital for a like-minded message to people – we are both part of and responsible for nature. While each organisation plays a different role, the value centred around nature is critical and rings true.
Aukje: I believe, in the end it needs to come from the local organizations, as they know the area best. As a travel agent, I can visit the area, see how beautiful it is, but you do not know what is happening year after year. Therefore, it is really important that you connect with people locally as they will be able to see the changes in the environment. We might think that it is super when we go out with a group of 20 people, as this will bring in extra money for the locals, but then we start to notice that certain animals are not coming to certain places anymore, because there are just too many people or just too much noise.
It is really important to listen to the advice of the local guides and the local organizations. So, if they say they love to have tourism, but they can only accept small groups or a certain number of tourists per day in a nature area, we have to comply. And if that means the price of the trip will go up, well, that is the price that people will have to pay.
It is important that all these activities are not just commercial business, but that they also work with local guides, rangers, or nature / conservation organizations that look after nature. It should not just be about the money. It is good that money has been brought to the area, but there has to be a balance.
Petra: I often guide to the areas close to the Virgin forest (Slovenia). These are magnets, it is true, however, they are also very fragile habitats and it is therefore not allowed to walk in or through the forests, not even take photos there, even though that is very tempting for many tourists. Well, we can do this only from the side. This is where I see what, as a guide and as a Nature First ambassador, I can do to help the virgin (or old-growth forests) stay as they are and let them continue their natural process without human interference.
By explaining to tourists why we do this, they can begin to understand why it is crucial to not enter. Through leading by example (myself) and showing respect to nature, you can actually change people. And often I get feedback from the guests that their eyes have been opened, that they are seeing things differently and that they understand. Not only with their minds, but also with their hearts. By making them understand, feel and relate to it – yes, you can really change them. And especially on vacation, when they are relaxed and open, they can see more easily and spread this message further.
To me, as a local, it is also important to see that, with our activities, we have not changed animals’ behaviour. The forest is home to bears, wolves, etc… If I see no tracks or no other activity of them anymore – to me this is a clear sign that we have gone a step too far with our human presence, that it is too disturbing for the animals. And we should not have allowed this to happen. However, it is also important that all of the guides in the area respect this and share this mindset.
These concepts, with nature and the NATURE FIRST principles in mind, will also distinguish travel agencies from each other and the people booking a holiday will choose the company who they think will fit best as travel partner?
Aukje: Yes, I think that people are looking more and more for more responsible ways of travelling, away from the big crowds. And with the right amount of information, you can give a good example and make a big difference to nature.
Simon: it depends on who you are dealing with. People will feel your energy and they will probably start mimicking you to some extent. Therefore, how you approach this subject will reflect also on the guests.
If you are careful and respectful, peaceful, they will be too. You also have to understand the needs of people, what their interests are, and know that you have the ability to change their perspective. So, start gently, soft – keep them interested, allow them to engage with nature but at the same time ensure that they do not damage or harm nature. What you want to achieve is allowing people to be in a space where they feel comfortable enough to discover. This is also how they will learn, through their own experiences. The guides have the responsibility to inform them and explain why some activities are harmful, why we don’t do certain things, and how we can care even more for nature. It really relates to “leading by example” but also to give them information about why it is like this and the importance in terms of how to engage with nature.
Aukje: The European Safari Company works with local partners that work ethically; they know what the local rules and regulations and nature situations are. Of course, this can differ slightly between countries. We train our guides, that way we know that they, for example, work according to the ethics and rules surrounding wildlife watching. This is how we can ensure as little impact as possible on nature or animals.
We, as the European Safari Company, can give advice to people, but in the end, it is still the local guide that actually tells them what they are and are not allowed to do. And as a travel agent you feel confident knowing that your guides know what they are doing.
Right now, we are in the middle of the Rewilding Tourism Training, as we believe it is crucial to educate guides to transfer the right message to the guests. It was originally established to make sure that all the guides and partners were trained in the rewilding principles but also in a way that respects nature and ethics as we have already discussed above. Guides can also have a very educational role. You also want them to provide the right level of educational and entertaining moments so that the guests will not only learn a lot but also enjoy themselves at the same time.
Petra, in relation to what is said before, can you tell us a little bit more about your experience as a local guide
Petra: We see nature on television, in documentaries, read about it in books. It is all out there. People often come with expectations that even though there are only about 1000 bears living in Slovenia, one will appear as soon as you enter the forest. Just waiting for you. Just like you would order a coffee. Many do not understand how bears live, how shy they are or even scared of people. How crucial it is to be responsible in this matter so as not to create even more problems. You have to remember that co-existing with large carnivores is not always easy, and without appropriate knowledge, it is easy to do some damage that might eventually cause species to become extinct or endangered. This will happen especially if the local awareness and acceptance drop. I believe the educational element in the guiding is necessary. Yes, you also need to understand people, you need to enable them to feel it, to engage with it. Without their own experience they will never be able to understand it nor start loving it. And we only protect what we love. So, we “must” plant that seed to love nature in their hearts.
Do you ever worry that any of these “specific” nature locations become hotspots and therefore too overcrowded? What is your mechanism to keep this balanced to preserve nature?
Aukje: The local guide is the key player, as he or she can explain in the field the consequences of the guest’s action. In this matter it is also important not to share or publish exact specific nature locations. And when people do, advise them to add a piece of educational information along with it. I think you have some sort of responsibility that if you tell people to go somewhere, also add how to responsibly enjoy it.
Simon, you mentioned the power to change. But how to balance the amazing impact of this with the social media impact on nature locations, which is not always very positive?
Simon: The power of social media means you can have direct contact with large groups of people. Often, we see this syndrome “I need to take a picture of myself in front of the Eiffel tower” as opposed to understanding how long it took to build the Eiffel tower, how much it weighs, or actually how many people worked on it to build it or what is it significant for, why is it there? So, if we look at nature in the same shape of form, nature presents us with the most advanced, beautiful, dynamic, ever changing backdrop or canvas. Just think about all the images people have already taken, how different and diverse the same scene can be depending on the season, the weather, the mood you are in, different angles etc. It is important to utilise social media for positive change and education, and not to stimulate the next ‘mass tourism’ destination. Sensitivity, control and education should be at the forefront.
Petra: I believe social media are often not the best advocates for nature. As we see, as soon as there is a photo of blooming flowers in a certain location, everyone tries to go there and do their own shot, without really thinking what impact that might have to the flowers or area. We need to reflect more on our actions, we need to add a comment about how to be responsible, post later, behave properly at the location; this means walking on the paths, respecting the rules, being careful about sharing locations, not harming the flowers or any other subjects for the benefit of a photo.
With the mindset of “let just do this photo like we have seen on the Instagram or Facebook” and collect likes on social media, I am afraid we are forgetting the basics. When we start looking with the heart and touching with our eyes, we are developing a true relationship with nature, one that will change us. That will also change our perspective of traveling. Have in mind what environment you want to experience, crowded areas where nobody respects nature or rules, where harm is done, flowers kicked and animals scared? Probably not. Nature will show you the most beautiful perspective when you start to care.
So be careful when planning your vacation, how you want to leave your footprint. How your experience of the world would change, while giving something back to nature and people who passionately care and protect their home and nature. I am sure you will still be able to share fantastic moments with your friends, but even more, you will be sharing a positive impact, led by your personal good example. Be brave enough to step in these shoes and bonne voyage!
This article was featured in Nature First Photography. June 2021.