"Paths of Greece is a Social Cooperative Entreprise because all its members share a common goal, which is to add value to a place for the benefit of the local economy, the local society and the environment"
Fivos Tsaravopoulos is the Founder and Manager of Paths of Greece. After studying abroad for about 8 years, and being 'fascinated' by ecotourism, he returned to Greece with a 'strong will to contribute to the betterment of tourism'. He soon realised Greece's ecotourism potential and particularly through the development of Greece's ancient hiking trails. His ideas found a very positive response all over the country, at the mainland or on the islands. He thus founded Paths of Greece, a small co-operative enterprise, in order to re-discover, clear, way-mark and promote hiking trails. Today, he has already worked on many great projects, summing up to many hundreds of km of trails. His work has helped him discover the importance of quality in tourism, but has also strengthened his belief that local economy, local societies and the environment are all intertwined, and that through trails they all get tremendous benefits.
ECOCLUB.com: How did you come up with this wonderful idea and what were the key early obstacles you had to overcome? In particular, was there a clear legal framework for allowing you to repair the local paths? And what key law or policy changes would facilitate your efforts in the future?
Fivos Tsaravopoulos: The idea came into my mind a few years ago, when I re-discovered the island of Kythera through its wonderful trails. Unfortunately, back in 2008, the trails of Kythera were unknown, closed by vegetation and there was very little or no information available about them. I did struggle to find them, but the effort rewarded me with a totally new love for this island. Soon, I contacted a local Foundation, the Kytherian Foundation for Culture and Development, so that we start a project on the island to bring these old, forgotten trails, back to life. So we did and now Kythera has a great trails network, called Kythera Hiking (www.kytherahiking.com). Through the development of the trails network on Kythera, I realised that the whole country was full of forgotten trails, hiding real treasures and with great potential to attract hikers if well developed. This is how the idea of creating Paths of Greece came into my mind. So far we have only encountered minor obstacles as we always choose the “easy” way to clear and repair trails. We focus on the aspect of tourism rather than on the technical part. This is also what we are fighting for, to have the Greek State realise that hiking trails are a matter of tourism rather than engineering. The trails have existed for many years. All they need is to be cleared and to be promoted to hikers all over the world.
ECOCLUB.com: Have you found it so far possible or necessary to cooperate with local mountaineering federations and clubs, who are largely thought to be involved with the maintenance of mountain paths in mainland Greece, such as the E4 path?
Fivos Tsaravopoulos: It is not only possible but also very desirable that we cooperate with local mountaineering clubs, or other hiking groups or “friends of trails”. Local involvement is extremely important and we put much weight on it. So far we have cooperated with members of hiking clubs in many places all over Greece. We have not yet worked in very mountainous areas so that we meet and work with mountaineering clubs. Regarding the E4 trail, from its very design, it is a very inhomogeneous trail, without any active managing body, and without any serious promotion. In some areas, the mountaineering clubs are doing a good work, but we believe that this is not sufficient if one wants to promote an attraction such as a trail. In other words, mountaineering clubs are groups of people who love hiking but are not necessarily experts in designing hiking trails and promoting hiking tourism. Nor they always have the required time to devote to a trail.
ECOCLUB.com: Paths of Greece is incorporated as a Social Cooperative Enterprise, a new legal form in Greece. Was this choice largely based on green principles or was it a practical one, namely that this would be a largely non-profit, rather than market-based, multi-stakeholder undertaking? In other words, is it possible to charge tourists to walk the paths, buy apps and maps, or at least to receive sponsoring from local tourism businesses (such as local hoteliers) benefitting from the existence of the paths, or do you definitely need visionary donors and grants from European, state and regional funds?
Fivos Tsaravopoulos: Paths of Greece is a Social Cooperative Enterprise because all its members share a common goal, which is to add value to a place for the benefit of the local economy, the local society and the environment. After this primary goal come our personal goals. It is a matter of priorities. Paths of Greece gets paid for the work it does from a Municipality, from a Business under a CSR scheme or by individuals who would like to make an offer to their beloved locality. We would not charge visitors for the use of trails, even if this was legally possible. Of course, from a legal perspective Paths of Greece can receive grants, but for now, we are economically sustainable, at least to the extent that the economic situation of Greece allows us. So far we have received some minor grants. Our main goal is to remain a financially sustainable business.
ECOCLUB.com: Do you prefer to wait to be approached by a local community that is serious about improving and greening their tourism product or do you just go and ask to see the Mayor? For example, how did it work out in Sifnos where you were involved in the successful development of a 100km paths network?
Fivos Tsaravopoulos: We will never “knock on a door” of a Mayor. Our services are quite well known in Greece, and with a simple research on the Internet, one can find us. We have an increasing demand from many areas around Greece - last year from China too!. Even without this demand, though, we would not be the first to approach a place as we would like the need for trails to start with a local spark. This ensures us that the project will last after our work is finished. In Sifnos for example, the Mayor approached us after many locals had expressed their need to see the trails of the island in a better state. So we did organise Sifnos Trails (www.sifnostrails.com) which is one of the best-organised hiking trails networks in Greece. The work there was based largely on local volunteers too, and the network is still taken care of from them, ensuring the continuity of the project.
ECOCLUB.com: Are local people at all involved in the design, repair, interpretation and promotion of the paths, or are all these best left to experts who are paid to deliver a turn-key project? On a philosophical level, can "path-making" be a direct-democratic exercise?
Fivos Tsaravopoulos: Without the locals getting involved on all levels of the design and the promotion of a trails network the project is most certainly doomed. We believe that the professionals should work on local capacity building (to the extent possible), use the local knowledge and production, and be open to any local who would like to help. However, we strongly believe that a high level of professional expertise is necessary to develop a healthy hiking trails network and to correctly promote it.
ECOCLUB.com: Post-development, is it easy to establish monitoring systems so as to measure the environmental, social and economic impact of the path? Do you get or wish to get involved in such a monitoring system or do you see this as the responsibility of the local authorities or of educational institutions?
Fivos Tsaravopoulos: Well, to some extent it is not difficult to measure the impact of a hiking trails network. However, this needs a high level of coordination among the different parties involved (municipality, local NGO’s, tourism businesses and tourists). Both quantitative and qualitative methods need to be used. In Kythera island, for example, we have recorded with a relatively simple method the total number of hikers that visited the island the last 5 years. It showed that for an initial investment of about 50.000 euros from a local NGO, the hikers that came to Kythera have spent about 1.5 million euros in direct expenditures, which shows how great the return on investment is. On the other hand, in Sifnos, we are monitoring the comments that trail users leave on Trip Advisor.
ECOCLUB.com: We note that you use the latest technology in promoting the paths online, including Google "street view". The end result is very attractive but is there a danger, perhaps, of revealing too much to virtual travellers and spoiling the mystery?
Fivos Tsaravopoulos: Technology can never be harmful by itself. It is the use of technology that could potentially be harmful. This means that it is up to everyone to use technology to the extent that they wish to. For example, a person on a wheelchair will use Google Street View to virtually access these remote trails. On the other hand, a “traditional” hiker, will not be forced to see the Google Images if he does not want to, nor to use an application for his smartphone. It is entirely up to the user. We just want to make sure that all possibilities are offered.
ECOCLUB.com: Since you started and based on your observations is hiking tourism in Greece - both international and domestic - growing?
Fivos Tsaravopoulos: Absolutely! It is the most positive thing I must say. There is an ever growing demand for hiking both in Greece and internationally. Especially in Greece, I believe that the phenomenon is due to the fact that most Greeks nowadays were born in large cities, and they are searching for ways to escape in nature. Hiking is the easiest activity one can do. As for international tourism, according to the UNWTO, adventure tourism is the fastest growing sector, and within it, hiking is the most important activity.
ECOCLUB.com: How pivotal is your cooperation with international networks such as Leading Quality Trails and the World Trails Network? Are international standards and criteria always applicable and compatible with the local reality? Are national standards also necessary?
Fivos Tsaravopoulos: We are part of the Committee of the World Trails Network, where I hold the Treasurer’s post. Our involvement with the WTN has opened new horizons for us, especially in the exchange of knowledge. International cooperation is also very important as we feel a lot stronger within the WTN to promote hiking. Regarding the European Ramblers Association (ERA - Leading Quality Trails), we have joined an interesting seminar about the way they assess a trail. We are certified now to offer this service for a trail that would like to apply for this label.
ECOCLUB.com: Your stated goal is to turn Greece into one of the 10 leading hiking destinations in the world. Does this mean that you will keep developing paths throughout Greece or would you concentrate in key areas and also engage in tour operating and destination management & promotion?
Fivos Tsaravopoulos: I would say both. We are at a crucial turning point as an organisation. We need to develop fast and at the same time maintain high-quality standards. And we would like to see the less developed places in Greece to develop tourism through hiking trails as well as developed places to increase their performance. To do so we need to work on new partnerships, always keeping in mind that to go fast we walk alone, but to go far, we walk together!
ECOCLUB.com: Thank you very much, we wish you many Happy Trails in 2017!