Natural and cultural assets of Poland
Poland’s greatest advantage in comparison to other European countries consists in its rich natural heritage; the unique diversity of natural habitats makes our country one of the European leaders of biodiversity preservation. Areas under legal protection, which cover over 30 percent of the country, are regarded by international nature scientists as one of the most valuable nature sanctuaries in Europe.1 The territory of Poland is a place where natural habitats of numerous plant and animal species have their eastern, western, northern and southern borders. The natural landscape is composed of a rich mosaic of forests, swamps, meadows, fens and bogs, alpine and subalpine
ecosystems or even steppe plains. Many Polish rivers have not been regulated yet, owing to which they have preserved their natural characteristics: meandering course with numerous curves and bends, old river beds, as well as animals and plants typical of river valleys. Landscape diversity allows for various forms of ecotourism, ranging from active tourism – canoeing, horse riding, hiking, cycling, skiing, etc. to nature and specialist tourism, e.g. ornithological excursions to the Biebrza Swamps or following wolf tracks in the Beskidy Mountains.
Another group of Poland’s ecotourism values, which is not less important, relates to its culture: well-preserved traditions, customs, holidays and family celebrations, dresses, regional cuisine and traditional farming (small agricultural holdings, shepherding, beekeeping, herb cultivation, arts and crafts), cultural and artistic events (festivals, retrospectives of artistic achievements, local produce fairs), folk art, traditional buildings and architecture, ethnographic museums, regional chambers and other interesting displays of art and culture. The colourful mosaic of ecotourism resources is also composed of active cultural centres of various ethnographic groups, villages and hamlets with preserved traditional architecture, folklore, folk handicraft, etc. Transborder regions, with their rich culture, are also attractive from the perspective of ecotourism development.
Development potential of rural areas
The rural areas of Poland have enormous potential to develop environmentally friendly tourism. Inhabited by nearly 40 percent of the society, the rural areas are characterised by considerable natural and landscape diversity, the prevalence of sustainable family-based farming and, consequently, high food quality, as well as regional products (increasingly often registered as protected in the EU) and a rich culinary heritage.
The accommodation offer that is most favourable to the development of ecotourism consists of facilities run by locals: agritourism farms, family guesthouses, hotels in historic buildings, mountain hostels, etc. The demand for accommodation in rural areas may be satisfied to a large extent by a well-developed network of agritourism farms, guestrooms2 and family-run boarding houses. Such a form of accommodation ensures intimacy, proximity to nature, a friendly welcome by the host, etc.
Rural areas, which still apply traditional farming methods with a low consumption of chemicals and small family farms, have valuable food supplies as an additional asset. Healthy food, which is increasingly often sought by tourists from Poland and abroad, is a foundation for the development of tourist gastronomy, including for the purposes of ecotourism. Ecotourism participants search for diversified healthy cuisine and top quality food products, traditional dishes typical of a given region prepared with the use of products from small, local agricultural holdings, offered in restaurants, regional taverns and agritourism farms. A local retail network is also very important – supporting local entrepreneurship, craftwork and authentic souvenir manufacturing by means of purchases in small, local shops, boutiques, on fairs, markets or directly from folk artists and producers. With the use of EU funds, some regions (with Local Action Groups in the lead) have launched first projects aimed at developing and promoting local product brands – the main problem is, however, still their distribution, reaching the clients on a broader scale and linking product marketing with tourism.
Forming partnership for the development and promotion of ecotourism in Poland
Ecotourism and related forms of sustainable tourism are currently organised in Poland bottom-up, on the initiative of individual local governments, local action groups, regional non-governmental organisations or environmentally-conscious entrepreneurs. Isolated ‘eco-friendly’ communes and regions start mushrooming in Poland, having realised that only a clean natural environment may attract tourists in the long run and encourage them to visit a given region again. Thus, they invest funds in the improvement of water and air quality, deal with the challenges of landfilling, set up tourist trails, adapt existing useless and deteriorating facilities for the purposes of tourist infrastructure, promote sustainable transport, plant trees, create green public space, include sustainable tourism, ecotourism and agritourism in local development strategies and raise funds for local initiatives and the construction of green infrastructure. Currently, it is difficult to estimate the scale of these developments since no comprehensive research of the ecotourism market and its potential has been carried out as regards either the demand or the supply. In spite of numerous
local and bottom-up good practices, ecotourism is still considered a niche industry branch of low commercial value. There are no more than just a few travel agencies on the market specialising in ecotourism, targeted mainly at tourists from Western Europe and the US.
The decision to preserve natural values and use them for tourism purposes is currently of strategic importance for Poland. It is crucial to set out national guidelines and priorities that would correspond to the policies and standards applicable in the European Union and beyond. A long-term tourism development strategy is needed at the local, regional and national level, based on eco-development principles and partnership of central and local government agencies, local action groups, non-governmental organisations, the tourist industry, administration and institutions in charge of protected areas, science centres and educational facilities. The current conditions are favourable for making key decisions on the long-term development of Polish tourism, which will reconcile economic, ecological, social and spatial priorities. Ecotourism implemented in synergy with other forms of entrepreneurship in rural areas may become our pride in Europe and in the world.
text & copyright: Dominika Zareba