"Ecotourism can open the door to a genuine contact with locals and their culture, which is practically impossible in a more conventional touristic package"
Natali (Anastasia) Dologlou is a Greek Ecotourism Expert who works as a Researcher at the National Technical University of Athens. She holds a BSc in a Biology (University of Crete, Greece) and an MSc in Environmental Science (Brunel University, UK). She first got involved with Ecotourism research in 2002, working as environmental consultant for Agrotouristiki, an organisation affiliated with the Greek Ministry of Development. One of her main tasks was to create a register for all companies involved in ecotourism and agrotourism activities and prepare material for a new, national agrotourism portal. She also coordinated the preparation of the Greek “National Master Plan for the Organization and Development of Ecotourism”. Since 2005 she is a research/laboratory member of staff of the Metsovion Interdisciplinary Research Center (MIRC) at the National Technological University of Athens. She is a long-time Member of ECOCLUB.com - International Ecotourism Club and an active member in various non-governmental organizations and associations including the newly formed Greek Ecotourism Society and the International Association of Cultural and Digital Tourism. She lives in Athens with her family (2 kids) and always searching for small escapes in nature.
ECOCLUB.com: Please let us know about the overall contribution and role of the Metsovion Interdisciplinary Research Centre (MIRC) in relation to the sustainable development of mountain tourism in Greece as well as about your own duties in this organisation.
Natali Dologlou: The Metsovion Interdisciplinary Research Centre for the Protection and Development of Mountainous Environment and Local European Cultures (MIRC), part of the National Technical University of Athens (NTUA), was established in 1993 in Metsovo, a town in Epirus where major 19th century benefactors of the NTUA hailed from and major centre of Vlach culture in Greece. MIRC researches the development of mountainous areas beyond the conventional sustainability model, which, in practice, is primarily economy-oriented. We advocate a more balanced ethical-ecological approach, the so called “worth-living integrated development”, where the form of development should, ideally, emerge from the dialectic relationship between the natural and socio-economic reality, taking into account the evolutionary and revolutionary changes pertaining to the area in question. MIRC also runs two postgraduate programs, “Environment and Development” (in Athens) and “Environment and Development in Mountain Areas” in Metsovo, in order to educate and inspire young people to actively contribute to the future of mountainous regions. It is important to note that Greece is one of the most mountainous countries in Europe with about 70% of its land being mountainous and with numerous villages that suffer from marginalization and migration of younger people to the bigger cities. My work at MIRC mainly concerns research in processes and issues concerning the development and harmonic coexistence of humans and nature in mountainous areas. As far as tourism is concerned, I focus on research in eco-agro-ethical-responsible tourism activities in the mountainous areas in Greece as developmental processes. I also try to promote Greek mountains and mountain destinations to a wider audience, for example via Mountain Partnership and Facebook. I was also responsible for MIRC Development Foundation's 1st and 2nd film competition for short documentaries regarding the environment and the integrated development of mountainous areas.
ECOCLUB.com: Would you recommend any genuine ecological and equitable tourism initiatives or attractions, particular in the mountains of Epirus, where your institution is based?
Natali Dologlou: Epirus has unique landscapes and attractions, which are waiting to be discovered by visitors. For example, from Metsovo, which is located at 1200m in the Pindos mountain range (see Pindos National Park) you can easily access the beautiful Aoos lake and enjoy a horse or bike ride. You can also hike in the beautiful surrounding forests, visit nearby Monasteries, check out the local Katogi Averoff Winery and the renown local cheese producers, taste local recipes in traditional tavernas, visit the Metsovo Folklore Museum and The Averoff Museum of Neohellenic Art. You can venture further out, and take the brand new Egnatia Motorway to Ioannina situated by Pamvotida Lake, explore the Tzoumerka mountains, discover the cozy architecture of the Zagorochoria (Zagori area villages), hike the Vikos gorge and cross the beautiful stone bridges. For a completely different landscape, you can head for the coastline, enjoy the Ionian sea, walk to Acherontas river and watch wild birds in the Amvrakikos wetland. The list of things to do in Epirus is endless. Over 50% of its land belongs to the Natura 2000 network.
Unfortunately, one cannot find a complete ecotourism experience, strictly speaking, as a ready-to-buy package. In recent years a number of local trekking and hiking companies which focus on adventure tourism has emerged. Some are better than the others but the regulatory framework is still problematic. For example, a business wishing to rent bicycles has to obtain a license to rent mopeds, but such a license is not allowed in protected areas due to zoning laws! Over-regulation and conflicting laws lead to a situation where no adventure tour operator is fully legal, while some are totally unlicensed, a fact which clearly endangers the physical safety of adventure tourists and encourages tax-evasion. I have also not yet found a single truly ecological lodge in the area. Even though there are many great looking buildings that follow the traditional architecture, they do not employ/combine any modern ecological design, nor do they include specific ecological/ethical policies in their processes/operation. For example they serve mass- produced imported butter in small packages, rather than local butter. Or when you ask them if there is any walking trail they recommend or some local craftsman to visit they have no idea. It is also sometimes hard to tell which establishments are run by locals, are part of bigger companies or belong to non-local stakeholders. Furthermore, there is no organized offering of traditional experiences which would include a sampling of local everyday life, traditional cooking or folklore dancing lessons, which is something that the next generation of tourism demands. There are many dormant assets here, waiting to be harnessed. So it is up to the exploratory spirit of the individual visitor to combine the different elements in order to create a more complete and authentic experience, instead of just sitting back and enjoying the traditional accommodation and local food. There is also an increasing number of foreign hiking companies bringing small groups.
ECOCLUB.com: So there are no initiatives in the broader Epirus region that you would definitely recommend as genuine ecotourism?
Natali Dologlou: Firstly, I would like to mention that some genuine responsible tourism initiatives in Epirus do exist. One example is a family, running Rokka, an agrotourism guesthouse in Elafotopos village at an altitude of 1100m in Zagorochoria. Guests can participate in various seasonal traditional activities of the family, such as the making of frumenty (trachanàs), cheese, fresh butter, yogurt, fresh pasta, collecting lentils and chickpeas from the family farm, baking bread, milking the sheep (400 of them), or weaving in the loom workshop of the guesthouse. However, most such establishments are promoted in a poor way, especially towards tourists from abroad who are not (yet) considered a key target audience. There were at least two more genuine efforts, but sadly they are currently inactive. Green Traveller was based in Ioannina, and was founded by veteran environmentalist and ecotourism pioneer Vassilis Kouroutos. It offered various ecotravel, educational and volunteer tours in protected areas in Epirus. In the southern coast of Epirus, in Rodia, Amvrakikos Gulf, there was a community ecotourism initiative in the form of the “Rodia Wetlands Centre” coordinated by Father Agathangelos, a local priest. Visitors stayed in traditional log cabins on stilts, sampled traditional home-made dishes, went sailing in traditional wooden boats and learned all about the birds and the ecology of the gulf. Unfortunately there was a ministerial decision to stop school visits to the centre during the global bird flu outbreak in 2013. The centre has remained closed ever since due to bureaucratic hurdles and possibly due to local opposition by fishermen. But in terms of infrastructure one could also mention the E6 and E4 European long distance walking paths as well as other local national paths and which are in a rather good condition. Maintenance is usually carried out by local mountaineers and coordinated by the Hellenic Federation of Mountaineering & Climbing and the local forestry departments.
ECOCLUB.com: In 2004, you coordinated the preparation of the "National Master Plan for the Planning and Development of Ecotourism in Greece" while in 2008, you authored a study on "Greek mountain tourism and ecotourism development". Based on your extensive research as well as first-hand knowledge, field visits and presentations around Greece over the years, what has gone according to the (master) plan and what has not in the past 10 years? In particular, how much progress has been made towards the establishment of functioning, adequately funded and democratically accountable National Park boards? Which Greek protected area is best run based on your experience and why?
Natali Dologlou: The National Master Plan for the Planning and Development of Ecotourism proposed that the National Park Management Agencies should become the regional/local points for the organization and promotion of ecotourism. It also called upon the Greek National Tourism Organization to develop a supportive mechanism for the NP Management Agencies. Several steps have since been taken in this direction. A total of 28 NP agencies have been established, and management plans for each NP were laid out. Physical infrastructures were developed for ecotourism purposes (environmental information centres, paths, signs, benches), and supporting information material was produced (websites, brochures). Also, most NP agencies have qualified employees who can monitor the environment and provide environmental education to schools and visitors. However, other things did not work out so well. For instance, most NPs agencies still do not have a constant funding source/mechanism and spend a lot of time and effort trying to find money even to pay their own employees. Due to the economic crisis, budgets for school visits to NPs and Environmental Education Centres have been slashed. Also, the Greek National Tourism Organization does not provide adequate support to NPs, probably because it has never appreciated the crucial role that protected areas could play for tourism and local development – admittedly, this also requires much harder work compared to the self-selling “sun and sea” model. Last but not least, some management plans are too restrictive or too ambitious, which can lead to frustrations and disappointment.
I do not wish to compare the performance of different NPs, as they are very diverse: some cover a huge and hard to access area, whereas others include villages or even small cities, and people who still depend on natural NP resources for their living; some are small but extremely popular even among people who are non-eco-sensitive, whereas others are largely unknown and isolated, struggling to attract some visitors; some have natural borders so entrance can be easily controlled, whereas others are openly accessible and very hard to monitor; some have more active boards and management teams, others may have direct access to political power. Every NP presents a unique challenge. The boards of NPs are large, with a total of 11 members representing various stakeholders, such as national, regional and local government, associations and conservation non-profits/NGOs. This pluralism can be beneficial for tackling multi-dimensional issues, implementing plans that require wider collaborations and synergies, and applying political pressure but clearly, these boards are not very efficient and some of the early freshness and agility is lost now. It must be noted that NGOs also played a very important role in the past, before proper NP bodies were established, in particular regarding ecotourism. For example WWF Greece was instrumental for the creation of the Dadia-Lefkimi-Soufli Forest NP, the Hellenic Society for the Protection of Nature (HSPN) greatly supported the Wetland of Rodia NP in the Amvrakikos gulf and The Society for the Environment and Cultural Heritage (Elliniki Etaireia) in the Schinias Marathon National Park.
[Ed. Other NGOs closely involved with protected areas include the Society for the Protection of Prespa in Prespa National Park, The Hellenic Society for the Study and Protection of the Monk seal (MoM) in Alonissos NP, the Hellenic Ornithological Society (Ornithologiki) and The Greek Biotope/Wetland Centre (EKBY) have also greatly contributed to the conservation of wetlands and important bird areas, Arcturos has been quite successful with Bear conservation while other major NGOs active in marine protected areas and coastal areas include MedSOS, Medasset and Archelon].
ECOCLUB.com: You mentioned funding problems. Are tour operators active within National Parks obliged to pay a license fee?
Natali Dologlou: They do not have to pay a fee but they are supposed to obtain a license. However NP employees are not always aware of this fact as I personally observed in a recent conference.
ECOCLUB.com: Would another solution in terms of funding be to lease protected areas to quality NGOs with a track record?
Natali Dologlou: As I mentioned, such NGOs already have representatives in NP boards and try to assist with funding. The current legal framework does not allow for such leases, I am not sure if or how it would work.
ECOCLUB.com: Tourism is one of very few sectors, along with coffee shops and fast food services, that has more or less weathered the current, protracted financial crisis in Greece, possibly because of falling prices and the diversion of tourism flows from competing destinations facing security problems. A silver lining of the crisis was that it has cancelled or at least frozen some unsustainable tourism projects including holiday home developments, golf courses and coastal mega-resorts and the development of protected uninhabited islands for tourism. But do you feel there is now a bigger danger once the crisis is over, as Greece's international lenders are forcing her to cut the red (and green) tape that also served as a last line of defence against pharaonic projects?
Natali Dologlou: As many people have said before, the greek crisis is not merely one of finance. It is also, and perhaps primarily so, one of mentality. The year is 2016, and you can still see people throwing out cans from their car window. And you can still see constructors and owners of expensive chalets throwing debris in the nearby forest. Without a mentality change, there is any hope to progress on many crucial fronts, let alone the environment.
To get back to your question. Yes, environmental issues could become the victims of the current financial pressure. Then again, to a certain extent, it is up to our own government(s) to channel this pressure down the right paths, e.g., to work hard in order to fight corruption and inefficiency at both the public and private sector, and to support healthy businesses that can provide added value without destroying the environment. Of course, this is easier said in theory than done in practice. I am not a fan of big touristic projects and practically never consider big hotels for my stays. Also, personally, I do not think that “going big” is the best way for Greece to develop its unique touristic assets. Still, bigger resorts too can be environmentally-friendly and supportive to the local community provided they are designed, constructed and operated accordingly. There is also a huge pool of technological solutions and experience from projects outside Greece, which can be studied and adjusted to the local needs and requirements. One can also learn from the huge disaster brought on by the truly pharaonic projects along the Spanish coastline.
ECOCLUB.com: Do you expect that the mainstream greek tourism sector, collectively through its representative bodies but also the larger companies, can play an active, humanitarian role during the current refugee crisis beyond pointing out the disruption caused by refugee flows, and which is in any case confined to a handful of island destinations?
Natali Dologlou: With some basic European funding, the Greek tourism sector could indeed help in terms of food, transportation and shelter, especially in the areas that do not have any touristic activity this time of year. As far as I know, this is already being done for transportation and food supplies. Accommodation is more difficult, in particular when it comes to hotels. The main problem is who will guarantee that people will actually leave, when the agreed period of stay ends, or who will compensate the hotel owners for an “exceptional” prolonged stay during the touristic season? This is tricky. One would also have to convince a large number of stakeholders as well as the local communities to participate in such a humanitarian movement. Else, the “not in my backyard” attitude will most likely prevail.
ECOCLUB.com: How optimistic are you about the performance of the current government in environmental and tourism issues? Do you share the feeling that it is making too many compromises in its environmental agenda under pressure from Greece's lenders?
Natali Dologlou: Environmental issues have always been the last priority of all Greek governments, even during the “good old days where money was plentiful”. It is not a coincidence that Greece is regularly fined for failing to implement/comply with EU legislation. The act of balance required to achieve a truly environmentally-friendly development is very hard in itself, and only becomes harder under such pressure. It also requires a high level of political maturity and consensus, at both the national, regional and local level, which seems to be completely missing in Greece. A related problem of Greek public administration is discontinuity. Since 2009, nine different Ministers of Environment took office under seven different government schemes. And each new minister typically translates to a reset of the top-level management team, along with a brand-new plan to do things “the right way (our way)”. Indeed, the ministry of tourism has also been established and de-established a number of times. Ministry names and combination of ministries (tourism, culture, environment, sports) keep changing also adding to the confusion. How can one possibly progress this way? Another example is the fate of a portal (agrotravel.gr) which I helped create when I was working for Agrotouristiki. The whole portal vanished when Agrotouristiki was dissolved.
[Ed. The tourism authorities should have preserved or transferred the online content. There is only limited text preserved at the Internet Archives. The agrotravel.gr portal was active between 2006-2010. The full name for Agrotouristiki S.A. was the State Agency for the Development and Promotion of Sustainable Forms of Tourism and Rural Tourism. It was renamed AGROTIMA S.A. in 2009 and then abolished in November 2010 by a newly-elected government which alleged mismanagement]
ECOCLUB.com: You recently travelled to Jordan's Dana Biosphere Reserve on a testing trip as an Expert. What did you learn and what mostly surprised you or impressed you? Do you agree that ecological and equitable tourism can provide financially and socially viable solutions and contribute to grass-roots peace-building in countries which mainstream tourism avoids due to real or imaginary security concerns or is it not a realistic proposition, in the Middle East in particular?
Natali Dologlou: The Dana Biosphere Reserve is a very good effort towards ecological and equitable tourism. I was in a group of four invited experts from Italy, France, Spain and Greece. We were given detailed questionnaires to complete so as to evaluate this pilot tour. In our 5-day 100km hiking/trekking tour, our guide was local, we slept in original Bedouin tents and spent time with the local people. We also stayed for one night in the green-credited Feynan Ecolodge in the heart of the mountains. The overall experience was very unique and authentic. I was also positively surprised by the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (RSCN), a NGO responsible for the management of the Jordanian NPs, which also runs Wild Jordan. The revenues of RSCN contribute to the sustainability of the protected areas, and also support the socioeconomic development of local communities – RSCN has a 100% local employment policy in all their protected areas. In Jordan I felt absolutely safe and the locals were very hospitable. For the visitor, ecotourism can open the door to a genuine contact with locals and their culture, which is practically impossible in a more conventional touristic package. For the locals, ecotourism can provide the opportunity to earn a living, without having to mimic other cultures and habits, and having more control on the environmental impact in their own ecosystems. This way, ecotourism can indeed contribute, to a significant degree, in building a mutual understanding – and respect – among different cultures.
ECOCLUB.com: You have been closely involved with the recent formation of the Greek Ecotourism Society (GES) and currently serve in its Board. Do you personally share the view that GES should develop in a direct democratic, inclusive and transparent fashion, with an elected and frequently-renewed Board and truly represent all those people who work in ecotourism, rather than tourism businesses?
Natali Dologlou: The Greek Ecotourism Society (GES) was founded following an openly published call – I learned about it from an e-newspaper. The election meeting was open and was attended by roughly 40 people (my estimate). I just went there, briefly introduced myself, and to my own surprise got elected as a substitute board member. I did not know any of the participants. The board has 5 regular members and 2 substitutes, and is renewed every 3 years. Of course, GES is still in its infancy, and not yet representative of the ecotourism movement in Greece. It is important for the Society to include more people and organizations, and this is a top item in the agenda. GES is open and explicitly targets stakeholders and people active in ecotourism, not conventional tourism. Everyone interested is mostly welcome to join and contribute.