Ecotourism Potential in Russia. Ecotourism, with an objective of promoting the conservation and sustainable management of unique nature resources, has great potential in Russia. The international tourist attractions of the country are its landscapes and species diversity, the unique network of nature-protected areas, a number of rare and endemic species, the presence of vast massifs of almost untouched nature, unlike most of the European countries. There are still many areas of traditional, aboriginal type of nature use, which are of great environmental and cultural significance. At present, the ecotourism is being mostly developed in nine regions of Russia, which possess the remarkable natural beauty and a well-developed infrastructure.
According to expert estimations, the most perspective regions for Russian ecotourists (mostly from Moscow and St. Petersburg) are the Caucasus (absolute leader), Baikal, Altai and Far Eastern regions. Unfortunately, the ecotourism development in the Caucasus now is seriously hampered due to the current political situation. The Volga-Urals, North and Central European regions are on the medium level, and the Kamchatka and Arctic regions have the least perspectives.
The classification of these regions in terms of their popularity among the foreign ecotourists is different: the leading regions at present are the European North of Russia (first of all, because of the tourists from Finland coming to Karelia), Baikal region (extremely popular in the whole world), and Kamchatka (because of the tourists from the USA, Japan and China).
Especially Protected Nature Areas as an Optimal Ground to Start Ecotourism Development. One of the peculiar features of the ecotourism development in Russia is its close connection with the especially protected nature areas (NPAs) – national parks, zapovedniks (strict nature reserves), and others.
The Russian system of zapovedniks, the standards of primordial landscapes untouched by the economic activity, has no analogues in the world. A network of zapovedniks and national parks covers practically all the unique and most interesting landscapes and ecosystems ranging from Arctic tundra to sandy deserts and subtropics.
In comparison with excursions in many foreign national parks, the advantage of ecotours in Russian zapovedniks is being tête-á-tête with primordial nature and without signs of presence of other visitors. Our experience made us believe that, in present social and economic conditions, the national parks and buffer zones of zapovedniks can provide an optimal ground to start the development and introduction of the principles of sustainable tourism in Russia.
This is caused by several reasons:
● At present, in most regions the NPAs seem to be the only structures, which are able to monitor and control the environmental and social impacts of nature tourism. When the increase of tourist visitation takes place in other nature areas, without proper management and control this can cause their quick degradation.
● Experienced researchers and rangers, which monitor the wildlife, all the year round form a whole network of research institutions in different nature zones. This makes the Russian zapovedniks especially interesting for the organization of scientific tours and summer field training courses for the foreign students.
● Many NPAs now have visitor centres and specialized environmental education departments. This greatly enhances the effectiveness of nature interpretation programmes.
● In the new economic and political conditions, The NPAs realize that success of their activity is impossible without the public support, involvement of local communities in conservation activities. Therefore, the NPAs are actively involved in ecological education. If properly organized, ecotourism can be an important tool for environmental education.
● In the conditions of great economic and political changes in the country, faced with high unemployment rate, local population was forced to return to traditional economic activities, as cattle grazing, hay making, hunting (poaching) and gathering. Performed in an unsustainable way, it inevitably increases the conflicts between local communities and nature-protected areas and leads to the destruction of important nature complexes. Ecotourism can provide for the local population the economic incentives for conservation, change their attitude towards protected areas and ensure their collaboration.
● The zapovedniks have serious potential to start playing an important role in the local economies, promote attraction of international attention and investment capital to the region, creation of additional employment for the local population. This, in its turn, will make it possible to attract wide public attention to the issues of environmental protection and build strong public support for the protected areas.
For dozens of years, the zapovedniks were closed not only for foreigners, but also for most of the Russian citizens, as, according to the official conservation ideology, protection of nature cannot be compatible with any kind of use. In the new political and economic conditions in Russia, the budgetary funding for nature reserves had been reduced dramatically. The very survival of the unique network of nature-protected areas is threatened. Destruction of these unique ecosystems would cause negative consequences not only on the regional, but also on the global scale. To survive and provide for their further sustainable operation, the nature reserves have to look for new, alternative sources of additional funding. The policy of government regarding zapovedniks has also changed. At present, it welcomes all activities which do not contradict their major activity and generate additional income.
In this respect, the ecotourism development in the buffer zones of the nature reserves can be extremely important, as it is one of the very few (if not only) kinds of economic activities of zapovedniks, which corresponds to their primary conservation, scientific and educational goals.
Problems of Ecotourism development in Russia. At present, Russia’s great ecotourism potential is used to a very little extent. A complex of problems, which hindered the ecotourism development in the country until recently, causes it. These problems, which are more or less typical for most of regions in the country, lay in the following spheres.
● Imperfection of legislation, especially the tax policy, visa system, land use regulations.
● The mechanisms of ecotourism development at the federal level are not worked out. There is a lack of complex approach and coordination of this activity at the federal level.
● There is no unified concept, which integrates the aims of tourism development, agriculture and forestry development, culture, mining, fishery, traffic, sports, spa and health, accommodation and gastronomy, and waste management.
Lack or low quality of necessary infrastructure (living facilities, transport vehicles, a set of equipped ecological trails and routs, etc.)
In many regions, the tourist season is limited only to 2-3 months per year.
● The NPAs personnel have little training and experience in marketing, standards of accommodation and service and other fundamental skills, which would make their tour product competitive on the world market.
● Conservativeness of thinking, lack of motivation, low responsibility of the local personnel in many cases.
● Lack of understanding of the customer interests.
● Lack of specialized tour operators.
● Isolation of participants of ecotourism activity, lack of information.
● Absence in many nature reserves of ecotourism product meeting the standards of the international travel market (sets of routs and programmes for different tourist categories, etc.)
● Lack of marketing information and skills is one of the most serious factors hampering ecotourism development in Russia. World community has little knowledge about Russia’s natural heritage, ecotourism possibilities.
● There is no stable demand for ecotourism product in the domestic market.
● Influx of foreign visitors to Russia remains quite low and unstable.
● Lack of detailed pre-trip and specialty information (lists of fauna and flora, rare species, etc.) for the travellers, lack of nature interpretation programmes targeted to different categories of visitors in Russian NPAs.
● Mechanisms are not in place to determine carrying capacities for NPAs and thoroughly monitor tourism impacts. This makes them vulnerable against possible ecological problems of tourism organized without proper planning and control.
● Very few tourism programmes provide for active involvement of visitors in the conservation activity. More often, an excursion or tour is aimed to demonstrate exotic “wonders and beauties” of nature rather than to better understanding environmental problems.