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ISSN 1108-8931


 Year 8 - Issue 95 - Jan 08

Sponsored by: Hana Maui Botanical Gardens (US), Siam Safari Nature Tours (TH), Canyon Travel (MX), La Selva Jungle Lodge (EC),
Eco Holidays Malta (MT), Abha Palace (SA), St-Géry Historic Estate (FR), International Centre for Responsible Tourism (UK)

AIVAR RUUKEL: "Travelling to your neighbours, meeting these people, talking to them makes you understand them better and minimizes your fear that they can be dangerous"

ECOCLUB Interviews Aivar Ruukel
Index of Interviews

Aivar RuukelAivar Ruukel is the owner-operator of SOOMAA.COM / Karuskose Ltd (Web: www.soomaa.com ), an ecotour operator in Soomaa National Park since 1994, and the Chairman of the Estonian Ecotourism Society (ESTECAS). Aivar is a winner of the Best Promoter of Tourism in 1997 by the Estonian Association of Travel Agents, and recently recognised by the Estonian Hotel and Restaurant Association as "Best in 2007".

Aivar is a founding member of various associations including the Estonian Ecotourism Association, the Estonian Rural Tourism Association and the Friends of Soomaa. He is also a Supporting member of Estonian Fund for Nature and a Member of the Estonian Greens.

His hobbies include building traditional dugout canoes, picking up wild mushrooms, Estonian and Fino-Ugric culture & history, and participating in social networking sites online, but he also finds time to study Nature Tourism at the Estonian University of Life Sciences.

(The Interview follows:)

ECOCLUB.com: What are the main challenges for Ecotourism in Estonia today, both in terms of domestic tourism legislation?

Aivar Ruukel: The idea of sustainable use of resources in the Travel & Tourism industry is not new in Estonia. Already in 1938 the Institute of Nature Preservation and Tourism was established, under the Ministry of Social affairs, in order to address these issues. Since regaining independence in 1991, Estonia has been developing rapidly. An integral part of our country's transition to a market economy has been the harmonisation of Estonia's legislation with the requirements of EU legislation. We do have good laws! But the challenge is in implementation... I do share the idea of Ecotourism being a tool for sustainable development. Estonia was one of the first countries in the world to adopt a Sustainable Development Act in 1995. Unfortunately, we can not report a huge success, in putting sustainability into real life. Not yet!

ECOCLUB.com: Tourism being an international phenomenon, what role is there for national associations such as the Estonian Ecotourism Association (ESTECAS)? And what if anything, should differentiate Ecotourism Associations from ordinary Tourism Associations, in terms of procedures and operational mode?

Aivar Ruukel: Estonian Ecotourism Association (ESTECAS) was established in 1994, as a non-governmental and non-profit membership organisation. Every association should benefit its members. Difference with normal tourism associations is that their members are normally tourism businesses, with their own business interests, thereby the common aim is a joint marketing, product co-ordination, lobbying and similar. Ecotourism associations should unite different stakeholders across sectors - businesses, as well as conservationists, academics, journalists, politicians, teachers, travellers etc. And the aim of Ecotourism associations should be searching for a balanced use of resources for a locally beneficial development. I think that different countries can have different models for Ecotourism Associations. ESTECAS is a network of like-minded people, quite like a club. It has no office, no paid stuff, but we do have a website, we do run meetings, seminars and we do partner in projects with many other organisations.

ECOCLUB.com: Along with your political role, you have been actively conducting tours in Soomaa National Park since 1994. What is special about Soomaa and how has tourism impacted on the park in these 13 years?

Aivar Ruukel: Soomaa translates as Land of Marshes, it is a largest wilderness area in Estonia. Soomaa National Park was established in 1993 to protect a vast complex of raised bogs, wet alluvial forests, with fens, transition mires, and unregulated rivers with flood-plain and wooded meadows. Soomaa is home for lesser spotted eagles, golden eagles, black storks, corn crakes, brown bears, wolves and lynx. Soomaa was included in the important nature protection areas of Europe in 1997 becoming a CORINE biotope area. Since 1997 it is also in the Ramsar list of wetlands and in 1998 it was suggested that the Soomaa National Park should be included in the list of World Heritage Sites maintained by UNESCO.

I have been growing up in the area, and explored the peat-bogs and rivers of Soomaa when being a schoolboy. There was no kind of tourism here in the soviet times, only very limited local recreation. When the national park was created I saw it as a great opportunity, bought five canoes and started offering guided canoe-trips. Today we are four people in our small private company, paddling on the rivers is still our main activity, but we also do bog-walking, bog-shoeing, cross-country skiing, kick-sledding and other activities.

It has been highly interesting experience of following the tourism development from the very beginning. Every year there has been a slow growth in numbers. Every season we have been analysing our results, discussing these with park management and making changes in our operations. For Many years we were the only private operator in Soomaa National Park, but since the area became more and more popular, new operators started. I see it as a great advantage of running a nature based tourism business in the protected area, not only because of the marketing point of view, but even more because of you have a clear partner responsible for conservation, and clear rules.

ECOCLUB.com: Traditional log boats in particular are one of your fortes. Some believe that there are ethical problems in reviving traditions for tourism. Would you agree? And what would you advise to other national parks in other countries wishing to successfully revive traditions for tourism?

Aivar Ruukel: Yes, I do agree. Restoring a lost natural habitats is a hard task, but one can see here and there people trying it. If we would leave nature alone, it will also regenerate itself. But restoring a lost culture is impossible. Culture is a very sensitive issue, it is something that people first and foremost do for themselves, not for others. It is normally not a problem, that you share your culture with others such as tourists, allowing them to experience it. But the question is how far can you go?

Life in Soomaa depends more on climate than anywhere else in Estonia, the waters here are extraordinary – the numerous rivers meet in a rather small area between fens and swamp forests. Water from the nearby uplands can during the spring time melting or rain season unleash such an avalanche of water that rivers break out of their banks. This almost Biblical flood happens every year. Flood is called the fifth season by local people. Very often the dugout canoe was the only means to get out of the house and that is why it has been preserved in families living in the vicinity of the national park. More about building and use of dugout canoes made of aspen log you can find at http://haabjas.blogspot.com/

‘Local logic’ is my term for the responsible use of cultural heritage for tourism business. It means that people who carry tradition are the only ones to decide whether to do it or not, and how to do it, according to how they feel about it. No outside expertise counts!

ECOCLUB.com: You also act as an ecotourism educator and trainer. What the most important lesson you offer to your students? And what about your tourists, do you teach them too?

Aivar Ruukel: I do seldom lecture for students, maybe few times every winter. More often I do act in workshops and seminars for practitioners. Things, that I tell, I try to be based on my own practical experience. One of the training programmes, where I currently take part is Ecotourism Quality Labelling scheme. Another interesting issue is internet-marketing. Educating tourists is an every day task of mine, as well as of other guides, that our company cooperates with. We tell simple and basic things about nature, ecology, landscapes and species that they experience during our trips. It is important! People know less and less about nature. How can you respect and love something that you do not know?

ECOCLUB.com: Do you feel there is an urgent need for Ecotourism certification with reference to Estonia? Who is eligible to join ESTECAS, does a company need to be certified in order to be accepted?

Aivar Ruukel: ESTECAS has created a Quality Labelling Scheme in 2000, since then we run it as jointly managed program together with Estonian Tourist Board, Rural Tourism Association, Village Movement and Estonian Fund for Nature. The Label is called "Estonia - the Natural Way", in order to carry it, the criteria both for company and product should be fulfilled. Membership in ESTECAS is not obligatory for receiving a label.

ECOCLUB.com: From your experience, does Tourism really contribute to peacemaking & cultural understanding between neighbouring countries, or does it lead to more competition?

Aivar Ruukel: Yes it does help to understand each other! Estonia has had complicated relations with our big neighbour. Travelling to your neighbours, meeting these people, talking to them makes you understand them better and minimizes your fear that they can be dangerous. For me personally Russia is a favourite country to travel.

ECOCLUB.com: You are a great fan of the Internet, and maintain various websites and blogs. How has the Internet changed Tourism in your view?

Aivar Ruukel: It has changed it a lot, indeed. But I do believe that it will change a lot more. Direct connection between consumer and local service provider has not been possible before. The Internet is a great tool for communication: e-mail, messenger, skype, chatrooms, forums, podcasts, blogs, all different social features...Marketing online is not free, but it costs less than traditional ways. The big difference is that also micro-businesses, like mine, can reach a global audience.

I really do enjoy following the development of virtual world and invest my time for that. How ever, it is hard to predict what future brings. Just one example: two weeks ago Estonia opened an embassy in the internet-based virtual world Second Life, only the third country to do so!

ECOCLUB.com: You recently spoke at the Global Ecotourism Conference in Oslo. What is your evaluation of this event and what can be done to make it better, from the point of view of national ecotourism associations?

Aivar Ruukel: I very much enjoyed this event in Norway. Good that it took place so close by, almost next door. Like on every seminar or conference the best part was meeting people. Some old friends and many new. Meeting face to face with people that you knew only through the Internet. I do appreciate sharing my own experience with colleagues from other countries, our realities have differences but much more we have in common. Contacts with people from other national ecotourism associations, that was created in Oslo, have been already developed further, and discussions, started in Oslo, continue online.

ECOCLUB.com: Finally, what would you like to see in the global Ecotourism movement in the next 5 years?

Aivar Ruukel: I would like to see much more people everywhere in the world to understand the meaning of Ecotourism. I would like them to change focus from content to the form - it does not matter where to go, or what to experience, it does matter HOW to do it.

ECOCLUB.com: Thank you very much!

Find the complete list of ECOCLUB Interviews here

Disclaimer:  Any views expressed in this magazine belong to their respective authors and are not necessarily those of ECOCLUB S.A. Although we try to check all facts, we accept no liability for inaccuracies - which means you should not take any travel or other decisions based only on what you read here... Use of this magazine is covered by the Terms & Conditions of the ECOCLUB.com Website and by your uncommon sense and good humour.


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