by Dominika Zaręba
Braşov – Kraków, 2020-2021
We spoke with Andrei Blumer, President of the Association Ecotourism in Romania (AER) and one of the leaders and innovators of ecotourism development in Romania and Europe. Andrei, please tell us briefly about the beginnings of your organization.
“The Association of Ecotourism in Romania – Asociația de Ecoturism din Romania (AER – its abbreviation means “air” in Romanian), was registered officially in 2003 in Zărnești (Brasov county, Transilvania), a Carpathian town near the main gate to the Piatra Crailui National Park. From the beginning, the aim of our initiative was to bring together conservation and business. I believe we started the ecotourism movement in Romania, and through tourism we put conservation issues on the public agenda.”
Piatra Craiului National Park was the focus area of one of the most complex large carnivore conservation projects in Europe, which included a key ecotourism component – called the Carpathian Large Carnivore Project CLCP. This was before AER was funded and you were involved in this project. Would you say that this innovative project was an important starting point for ecotourism development in your country?
The Carpathian Large Carnivore Project (CLCP) implemented in 1993–2003 had four major components. The most important component was research, and this covered a much larger area then Piatra Craiului itself. The ecotourism component was centered in the northern part of the Piatra Craiului range, with Zărnești as the main beneficiary location. When the project started, the town of Zărnești had an unemployment rate of up to 50 percent The economy of the town was based on three main industries with roots in the communistic era, the largest industry was an ammunitions factory and the others were a paper factory and wood processing industries.
And you started to bring ecotourists, who were keen on observing wildlife, to the remote Carpathian region…
Due to the combined efforts of CLCP members we succeeded – in only 4 to 5 years – in attracting around 100 visitor groups from Western Europe. The tourists were excited by the prospect of seeing large carnivores. Another benefit of the CLCP project (in 2001-2002) was that a planned quarry, proposed by one of the largest state-owned companies, was banned. A key marker of success was heightened awareness towards conservation in members of the local council, county council and the Ministry of Tourism. This was when Romania was knocking at the door of accession to the EU. Through tourism, we were able to shift local development from heavy industry towards ecotourism based services. We had the support of local people, who no longer wanted to suffer heavy industry and pollution. Instead, they wanted to take advantage of nature at the entrance of the national park, in one of the most beautiful mountain ranges in Romania. Several years later, even the hunting departments of regional wildlife management organisations started turning hunting hides into wildlife viewing platforms, as they realized that the income from watching animals could contribute significantly towards their budgets. We had a breakthrough in 2007 when, for the first time, wildlife watching (at a specific bear hide) in Romania brought in the same revenue as one bear hunting. This outcome was inspired by our bear watching initiative.
You could actually say that the ecotourism movement in Romania was initiated as a part of the CLCP project. Indeed, the first meeting of the Ecotourism Initiative Group (the precursor of AER) was launched in the same project area – Zărnești.
What are the main projects and topics you work on at the moment at AER?
We currently have two major directions. The first is related to our members – because as a membership association we represent the interest of the small-scale tour operators and accommodation providers. We provide access for our members into various markets, in terms of travel shows, promote them on our website and through social media and prepare different publications and films (visit our Discover Eco-Romania YT Channel). The second main direction of AER is playing the role of a development agency based on ecotourism. We work with different regions and – based on the concept of establishing ecotourism destinations – we support the development of both ecotourism and local products. We currently work directly in seven eco-destinations of different size. Each one has a locally based management team, which works with local stakeholders and businesses and is supported by experts in the main office. We manage networking events, marketing, product development, and occasionally create soft infrastructure for nature interpretation or more complex interventions for improving visitor centers. There are 3-4 other regions with the potential of becoming eco-destinations.
Does the national authority for Tourism and the Romanian government support ecotourism and your activities?
We have been part of the process for development and implementation of the awarding scheme for ecotourism destinations that is officially recognized by the government, and which is based on GSTC Criteria (Global Sustainable Tourism Criteria). It is currently possible for destinations to ask for official recognition, and there are already five such eco-destinations certified and several others in the process. Also, we were one of the main contributors to the ecotourism strategy as part of the work performed by the National Institute for Tourism Research and Development. Its vision, main objectives and criteria have been approved by the Government in 2019, and we are one of the main voices at the table alongside the major players in the tourism industry.
What is your ambition for ecotourism in Romania?
My dream is to be able to make ecotourism marketable much more widely, to have it become commercially viable and competitive on the international market, to be able to attract enough expertise and enough tourists to the pilot areas, which I was speaking about, and which are now seven in number, in order to show that the model works, as we did in Zărnești, twenty years ago. To prove that ecotourism can provide economic development and demonstrate that protected areas should not be perceived as obstacles to, but instead catalysts for local development. To ensure that there are short production chains available at these destinations and that local products see improvements in manufacturing, marketing, sales and consumption. To make people understand and be proud of small scale local production. I would like to see that communities become empowered and are better able to distinguish between real, long term benefits compared to unsustainable short-term visions, which are good for only a few people. This is not just a wish, this is a vision. We have seen these changes in the last 20 years, but there is still much to do…
Do you think that 20 years is the right time frame to see real results from these projects related to education, raising awareness and sustainable development?
In countries that come from a totalitarian oriented society it takes much longer to make a change. But I wouldn’t say it necessarily needs 20 years. It all depends on local circumstances, on finding the right people at the right moment and having good leaders. Sometimes you can have a huge success in 3 to 5 years. When we talk about conservation, we need at least a ten year vision and actions for a whole life-time.
Last question, from a broader perspective. How do you see the connection between Romanian ecotourism and the European and Global Ecotourism Network?
There are many great and serious initiatives in Europe, in different countries – not only in Romania – but in Spain, Portugal, Italy, as well as in Switzerland, Norway, Sweden and going more to the East – in Estonia, Poland and Georgia. This is probably the right moment, when we can also benefit from EU sources to establish an ecotourism movement at European standards. There is a huge market in Europe, for this kind of tourism and especially since the COVID-19 pandemic which would now favor more hygienic excursions outdoors i.e. in nature. It is an incredibly good opportunity now – after this devastating crisis – to target those people who would like to experience quiet places, away from crowded cities, and to start local economies based on the principles of ecotourism.
I believe that there is also a need for environment and social responsibility in the sector. It was proven in this pandemic year how important it is to have clean air, and to manage a local economy in a way that it can survive despite the general lockdown. I expect that if we are clever at the European level in the coming years, we can send this message to potential clients and, on the other hand, come up with the right structures and common sets of activities, based on a shared vision, regardless of differences between the North, South, East and West. I believe that we can make a strong proposal, at the European level, to make the ecotourism destinations concept one of the established methods for sustainable development. This, as always, is a matter of time, resources, as well as good and skillful people that are willing to work together.
I agree with you, including about the ecotourism destinations. The model that you implement in Romania is really powerful and it should be promoted in Europe, definitely as a part of the European Ecotourism Network. Thank you so much Andrei for your inspiring words!
Trained both in environmental sciences and leisure, Andrei Blumer has developed his expertise in outdoor recreation, protected areas and local community development through ecotourism. He is one of the founders and the current president, since 2003, of the Association of Ecotourism in Romania (AER). He has extensive practical experience in the field of ecotourism, assisting for 20 years in protected areas, small scale businesses in tourism and ecotourism destinations in the region of Carpathians (Romania and Ukraine), Danube region (Danube Protected Area Network) and Black Sea region (Turkey, Georgia and Romania). He has acquired extensive experience in developing ecotourism certification schemes for businesses and destinations in Romanian, at the European level (European Ecotourism Labelling Standards – EETLS) and in Botswana (BEST). He was contracted as expert by various international institutions such as USAID in 2006-2007 (Romania), UNWTO in 2013 (Georgia), World Bank in 2015 (Romania), GIZ in 2016 (Moldova). He has extensively worked for WWF in Romania, Ukraine (2008-2012) and Turkey (2009).
The Ecotourism Destinations Development Program (Ecodestinations Program) accelerates the creation of ecotourism destinations and supports the establishment of a national network of destinations in Romania. The aim of the program is to contribute to the economic development of local communities, the conservation of local nature and culture and the positioning of Romania as an important destination on the ecotourism map.
The Association of Ecotourism in Romania (AER) is a partnership for nature conservation and tourism development in Romania. It brings together tourism associations, non-governmental organizations for local development and nature conservation, guesthouses and tourism agencies. The innovative concept promoted by AER is to rally the public and private sectors in a partnership for nature conservation and sustainable tourism development.