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
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
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:)
What are the main challenges for Ecotourism in Estonia today, both in
terms of domestic tourism legislation?
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!
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?
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.
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?
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
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.
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?
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
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
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?
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?
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.
From your experience, does Tourism really contribute to peacemaking & cultural
understanding between neighbouring countries, or does it lead to more
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.
You are a great fan of the Internet, and maintain various websites and blogs.
How has the Internet changed Tourism in your view?
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
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!
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?
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.
Finally, what would you like to see in the global Ecotourism movement in the
next 5 years?
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.
Thank you very much!
complete list of ECOCLUB Interviews here