Local businesses from Belarus and Russia exchange ideas for developing successful ecotourism opportunities in forest communities
One lesson stood out from the rest at a recent trans-boundary meeting of Russian and Belarusian ecotourism businesses – they do not have to wait for someone else to start a program before they can start doing something really innovative in their own communities.
“We are not used to sitting and waiting for the guidelines from the authorities. Here in Lepel municipality in Belarus, we rather develop and implement our initiatives ourselves,” said Olga Makhanenko, one of the Belarusian hosts of the practical exchange training organized for the delegation from Pskov region, Russia. Throughout the session, other Belarusian hosts echoed Makhanenko’s sentiment.
The Forest Law Enforcement and Governance Program (FLEG II) organized the training seminar to initiate direct citizen-to-citizen information exchanges to help establish working partnerships between villages across the Russian-Belarusian border.
“Working together on the transboundary partnership of forest dependent communities will make our network of lodges and forest-related tourist attractions even more effective,” said Makhanenko.
In late June 2015, a delegation of rural citizens from the Bezhanitsy municipal district and Polistovsky National Nature Reserve in Russia visited several villages in the Lepel municipality of Vitebsk region in Belarus. During the three-day seminar, Belarusian ecotourism operators taught the Russian delegates about their experience establishing the new “agro-ecotourism movement” which local Belarusian citizens are developing in the forest-dependent communities under the minimum support from government authorities.
Belarusian hosts engaged the guests in a variety of events including the restoration of several mineral water springs in the woods, a visit to the local wooden handicrafts center, following the Lepel district tourist trail named “Water, nature and people in the endangered landscape” and celebrating Kupala Night – an ancient and mysterious East Slavic fest.
The guests were particularly impressed by the level of self-organization of Belarusian farmers and their ability to gain support for their civic initiatives from the local and regional authorities. They also took home some promising ideas, such as adding special events to the range of tourism products currently offered in Bezhanitsy. This type of “event tourism” has paid off in Belarus where the Kupala Night festival helped to double the amount of tourism compared to the conventional set of touristic products.
In exchange Russian participants shared their experience of successful interaction and mutual work with the local administrations and provided some expertise on how this process could be improved.
All training participants agreed that the major problem on the way to developing full-scale trans-boundary cooperation is the difficulty many local citizens have in leaving their responsibilities for their farms, homes and businesses. However, participants all spoke highly of the role FLEG II fills as the tool to facilitate developing horizontal links between forest-dependent communities and as the expert center for forest-friendly business ideas.
“FLEG II is willing to support further cross-border cooperation between rural citizens of the two countries,” said Andrey Zaytsev, IUCN FLEG Program Coordinator in Russia. “We see a great potential in matching expertise and efforts of local people from two countries to use non-timber forest resources for a better and more sustainable life in their remote villages.”
FLEG II is planning more events and trainings in the upcoming months in Russia, which are also open for Belarusian participants. This will strengthen Russian-Belarusian cooperation between citizens in two countries in the area of sustainable forest use and ecotourism.