Around the world, National Parks that enclose inhabited areas are seeking the best balance between environmental protection and the interests of local communities. The Őrség National Park in Hungary is an example. The Park covers a landscape of hills, forests and lakes, including 44 settlements, mostly villages or hamlets whose inhabitants have a strong interest in attracting forms of tourism that can support traditional farming practices.
The Park has adopted a Cultural Ecosystem Services (CES) framework that provides guidelines that can be applied by the Park’s managers as well as by private operators. The overall aim is to decrease tensions between those in charge of ecological conservation and those promoting socio-economic development.
A lot of importance is given to education and to local cultural values. The National Park Authority (NPA) focuses on community development; work with schools and associations; on cultural heritage protection and place identity/place attachment. This extends naturally into the promotion of local produce and of activities of interest to visitors. Sustainable tourism activities and initiatives can be led either by local tourism entrepreneurs or by local cultural groups and associations. They include the running of events; the provision of tourism services; the tracing of tourist routes to give value to the natural and cultural heritage of the region; study programmes and educational activities; and the promotion of local products and produce.
The (CES) framework provides a set of rules and guidelines that all parties can adhere to, and a reference in case of conflict.
There is a growing interest and urgency to address the centuries old separation between culture and nature – a split that proves problematic when attempting to provide holistic responses to the management of sites, landscapes or destinations. The reality of this rupture is demonstrated by the fact that, as of 2017, there are 1,073 UNESCO World heritage properties, but just 35 that are described as ‘mixed’ sites.
How many of those remaining 1,038 sites are really effectively understood or managed by making the black and white selection that chooses between an Either and an Or, but not BOTH facets? The reasons behind this reluctance to cross the nature-culture bridge are many and complex. From the ease of working with familiarity, to the challenges of business interests clashing with conservation issues, to the difficulties in finding a working relationship between numerous ministries or jurisdictions with little or no history of collaboration. The long negotiations encountered in locations such as the Australian WHS at Kakadu or Uluru-Kata Tjuta have certainly influenced governmental decisions elsewhere to avoid the hard path of synthesising factors such as the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities with business or development priorities, and attempting to find a middle ground.
Nonetheless, a belated realisation that far greater collaboration and interdisciplinary exchange eventually reaps broader benefits is now being acknowledged directly by the UNESCO advisory bodies, ICOMOS and IUCN. Across a number of events and platforms, the nature-culture journey or culture-nature journey (depending on which discipline or agency you approach from!) has launched declarations (PDF), training courses and extensive workshops (PDF).
To break this cycle I believe the route forwards is through persistence, practice and exchanges out in the ‘field’, and to bring together specialists from the disciplines concerned, to walk, talk and seek a closer understanding of each other’s perspectives and methods.
One pertinent case study is the UNESCO coordinated project that is seeking to expand across the FYROM-Albania border, the designation and management of the spectacular Lake Ohrid mixed natural-cultural World Heritage Site. Out in the ancient tectonic landscape of Europe’s oldest lake, Ohrid colleagues from across border and across disciplines, worked around tables, but equally walked up hills to seek views, panoramas and perspectives in all senses of the word.
In the case of Lake Ohrid, easy solutions were not arrived at. Comfort zones and ways of thinking and working still have to break through difficult barriers. But we did take, and encourage others to also take, those steps on a profitable and stimulating culture-nature journey.
For the past 20 years, Jonathan Karkut has worked on developing, managing and delivering research, training and capacity building for projects and consultancy in the areas of tourism, cultural heritage and development. His specialisms include intangible cultural heritage, geopark development and development in conflict and post-conflict regions. Read Jonathan’s bio.
Recent development in the Republic of Djibouti highlight surprising tourism trends, in a region that many would classify as the most dangerous in the world. The north of the country faces Yemen, a bare 150km across the Red Sea at the Bab al-Mandab straight. As recently as 2008, there was active fighting between Djibouti and its northern neighbour, Eritrea where, in 2012, a group of tourists was kidnapped. And to the south lies Somalia.
In these unlikely circumstances, the tourism authorities and tourism professionals remain upbeat. Djibouti’s largest inbound tour operator – a small operation, with a dozen vehicles – operates to capacity during the winter months, sometimes unable to meet the demand. The desert and coastal ‘campements’ – rough huts without electricity or running water – report an increasing flow of foreign tourists, of European, Asian and other origins. They can be seen at the major tourist sites, in small groups with their local guides, getting out of 4x4s and dressed for the desert. Others are on trekking expeditions, across the salt flats of Lake Assal or over the rugged landscapes of the Great Rift Valley, which starts its land journey west from Djbouti.
“What is the explanation?” I ask Houmed Ali, head of the Safar agency. His answer is that the small but important niche market of desert travellers, those who used to cross the Sahara in their 4x4s, are on the look-out for more secure but still adventurous destinations, now that Libya, Mali, Chad and most of the Sahara are out of bounds. At the moment, he is receiving requests for information from Italy on a weekly basis, mostly from individual travellers and independent groups.
So is Djibouti really secure? That seems to be the feeling among travellers. Max, a trekking specialist based in the GCC, has so far accompanied four groups of Dubai residents on one-week walking tours, going close to both the Eritrean and Somali borders. “Djibouti is the training ground for French and US military based in the Red Sea”, he says, “so this is one of the safest places in the world”. It highlights the sophistication of such niche travellers: well-informed and smart users of social media; more influenced by their globe-trotting friends and by specialist guides than by what they see and hear on television.
Another niche market is that of divers. A good number are abandoning the Egyptian Red Sea resorts, not so much because of security issues, but because of over-commercialisation and lack of environmental respect. Djibouti plans to fill that gap, and the number of diving facilities is growing, with an equally expanding worldwide clientele.
Another factor is the growth of transnational tourism within the region. Ethiopian tour operators are keen to open up the Djibouti market for their clients, with an eye to the launch of passenger rail services from Addis Ababa in around 2020. For both Ethiopian and foreign residents, Djibouti is their best access to the sea. They are confident and sophisticated, primarily using social media to build their clientele.
They are also dismissive of security concerns. One Ethiopian operator specialises in ‘four-country tours’ out of Addis, through Somaliland (northern Somalia), Djibouti and Eritrea. For him, the 2012 kidnapping is an anomaly. “Bad things can happen anywhere”, he says. “I am a professional and I know what I’m doing. I offer adventure, but don’t take risks. My clients understand that.”
12 February 2018
David Ward-Perkins has experience both of large-scale regeneration projects and of the development of smaller destinations. He has a solid business background, in particular in marketing and management, having delivered projects throughout Europe, North America and the Middle East. Read David’s bio.