Sustainable development of tourism in the Carpathians

Photo: UNEP/GRID-Warsaw Centre

Sustainable development of tourism - an opportunity to accelerate the economic development in the Carpathians

Sustainable development of tourism in the Carpathians is an opportunity to accelerate the economic development of the region, and thus also improve the economic situation of its inhabitants. It is important that the unique natural and cultural values of the Carpathians are adequately used for creating the own Carpathian model of development, and the own, unique, comprehensive and all-season tourist offer (thus resistant to seasonal demand fluctuations) of the Carpathian region instead of unsuccessful competition with the Alps for the attention of downhill skiers in the winter season (much shorter in the Carpathians than in the Alps). If the development of tourism is not carefully planned and sustainable, it can bring adverse consequences not only for the environment and the authenticity of the cultural heritage of the region, but also the quality and style of life of its residents.

Tourism in the Alps versus tourism in the Carpathians...

Let us compare the progress in, and conditions for tourism development in these two neighboring mountain regions of Europe - the Alps and Carpathians.

In the nineteenth century the basic economic activity of the inhabitants of both above mountain areas of both the Alps and the Carpathians regions was extensive grazing of animals, and their high mountain areas belonged to the least economically developed regions of the Alpine and Carpathian countries. But, the growing fashion for visiting mountain health resorts, and the emergence of new forms of recreation, such as skiing and mountain climbing, contributed to the development of tourism both in the Alps and in the Carpathians. The former small towns or mountain pastoral settlements gradually transformed into centers of mountain tourism and spas, utilizing the healing properties of mineral and thermal waters.

Throughout the last centuries, the Alps have become one of Europe's most important tourist regions. They are one of the most recognizable tourist brands worldwide. It is worth noting that today the notion of a mountain climber and mountaineering, regardless of the region, are commonly associated with the Alps (“alpinist”, alpinism”), and even in Polish language these words superseded the previously used words (“taternik”, “taternictwo”) associated with the High Tatra Mountains, stretching along the Polish-Slovak border. Nowadays the Alpine region is visited annually by approx. 120 million tourists from around the world, especially in the winter ski season. Unfortunately, such intensive mass tourism, concentrating primarily in the more developed ski resorts and spas, has an impact on the chances for maintaining the diversity of cultural heritage and the condition of the natural environment of the region.

 View from the mountain railway on the town of Madonna di Campiglio, located in northern Italy

Intensive marketing of the Alpine tourist brand in conjunction with the increasing globalization of culture led to the proliferation of a number of simplifications and stereotypes. As a result, younger tourists are disappointed by the lack of violet cows on alpine pastures, while their parents expect that every encountered inhabitant of the Alps will be wearing leather trousers with braces and a Tyrolean hat, and yodel all day long. On the other hand, the mass affluence of tourists into the Alps resulted in the need for rapid infrastructure development, in particular: accommodation and catering infrastructure, as well as ski slopes, cable cars and ski lifts, communication and transport infrastructure (roads, tunnels, bridges, viaducts, railway lines), municipality and energetic infrastructure.

This rapid development of infrastructure, undoubtedly conducive to economic development and raising the standard of living of the inhabitants of the Alpine municipalities, progressed at a time when the concept of "sustainable development" had not yet been applied in practice. This has led to many environmental threats (e.g. the depletion of water resources, increase in the amount of waste and wastewater discharge, air pollution, soil erosion and landslides, destruction of forest areas), changes in the landscape and environmental degradation, and thus to a partial reduction of natural and landscape values, which determine the tourist attractiveness of the Alps.

However, high altitude mountain areas of the alpine region are much more extensive and less accessible than in the Carpathians, which partly protected the Alps from overinvestment and complete "concreting" outside the most visited tourist resorts and most fashionable ski stations. Nevertheless, the awareness of the above mentioned risks, both for the environment and for the stability of the economic development of the region, led in 1952 to the establishment, by the governments of the Alpine States, of the Commission for the Protection of the Alpine Region (currently: CIPRA), and later (in 1991, thus after almost 40 years of continuous efforts) to the adoption of an international agreement on the protection of the environment and natural resources of the Alps - the Convention for the protection of the Alps (Alpine Convention).

Is it possible for the Carpathians to successfully compete with the Alps in the tourist market?

Certainly yes. However, the expectation that a simple replication of the development model applied in the last century in the Alpine region would make it possible, would be naïve and unrealistic. Such replication is neither possible nor advisable, and more importantly - is not in the best interests of the inhabitants of the Carpathians.

There is little hope that the Carpathians could quickly catch up with the Alps in the saturation of the region with tourist or communication infrastructure, built throughout almost two hundred years by the much wealthier countries than those of the Carpathians. Thus, due to the different level of infrastructural investment and different natural conditions in both regions it seems unrealistic for the Carpathians to compete with the Alps for the downhill skiers. The Alps, much higher than the Carpathians, offer much better snow conditions for downhill skiing, more complex and attractive ski packages, and a more extensive offer of ‘après ski’ activities. Downhill skiing can be practiced in the Alpine region all year round (e.g. on the glaciers, absent in the Carpathians), while the global climate change (resulting in less snowy winters) leads to the shortening of the ski season to a much greater extent in the Carpathians than in the more elevated regions of the Alps.

Therefore, focusing solely on the development of ski tourism in the Carpathians can cause excessive dependence of the tourist infrastructure owners on the turnover generated mainly in the still shortening ski season. This may lead to the emergence of seasonal economic monoculture, too much susceptible to fluctuations in demand accordingly to the current fashions, e.g. for skiing in the most fashionable and best marketed locations, like the Dolomites, the Austrian Carinthia, or Three Valleys (Les Trois Vallées) in the French Alps.

How to develop tourism in the Carpathian Mountains?

First of all, it is necessary to answer a couple of questions, e.g.: what are the potential competitive advantages of the Carpathian region over other mountain areas of Europe? Which tourist attractions of the Carpathians can be appealing to tourists already bored with the so-much ‘civilized’ Alps? Which attractive forms of tourism and recreation can be practiced in the Carpathians, also outside the winter ski season? How to make the benefits from the tourist services development shared between more Carpathian municipalities? How to prevent the further concentration of tourist traffic in few selected resorts or the most valuable natural areas? How to protect the natural wealth and diversity of the cultural heritage of the inhabitants of the Carpathians from the adverse effects the mass tourism can bring?

The above questions are partly answered by the Framework Convention on the Protection and Sustainable Development of the Carpathians (Carpathian Convention, in force for Poland and other ‘Carpathian’ countries since 2006) and its thematic Protocol on Sustainable Tourism (already in force for six out of seven ‘Carpathian’ countries).

Under these two international agreements the Parties to the Protocol have committed to support the sustainable development of tourism in the Carpathians, by e.g. facilitating cooperation of tourist agencies and other entities of the tourism sector, and promoting the Carpathian regional products, tourism brands, services and tourist packages, based on the common natural, landscape and cultural heritage of the Carpathians.

In order to allow for a more equitable distribution of the benefits and revenues from the tourist services sector between all municipalities of the Carpathian region, each of the Parties (according to Article 12.2. of the Protocol) shall take measures towards the dispersal and redirection of the tourist traffic. Channeling part of the tourist traffic out of the current main tourist destinations and sensitive sites (such as protected areas) would mitigate the adverse impacts of mass tourism on fragile mountain ecosystems of the Carpathians, and positively influence the development of regions less developed and less explored by tourism, but having sufficient potential to absorb and accommodate part of the tourist traffic. Therefore, the effects of such actions will be beneficial both for the natural environment of the region, and its inhabitants

The development of tourist services in the Carpathians should be based on the use of a number of competitive advantages of the Carpathians over other mountain areas. As explicitly stated in Article 9 of the Convention, one of these advantages is the exceptional wealth and diversity of nature, landscapes, and the cultural heritage of the Carpathians, resulting from many centuries of interaction of many different cultures, traditions and religious beliefs, mixed in the ‘Carpathian melting pot’.

It is true that a large part of the historic buildings in the cities and towns of the Carpathian region disappeared forever in the conflagration of two world wars. However, the mountainous Carpathian region still harbours hundreds of historic wooden churches of different rites, some inscribed to the UNESCO List of World Heritage (17 sites in the Polish part of the Carpathians, plus further 25 in the Romanian, Slovak and Ukrainian parts). Most of them can be visited, as a valuable element of thematic cultural tourist trails and routes (e.g. wooden architecture, icons, regional cuisine, local products, traditional crafts trails). Almost unknown in the world (and untapped for the marketing of the Carpathian heritage) is the fact, that the Carpathians are the original cradle of the oil industry, currently one of the most important sectors of the global economy.

Open-air museum in Sanok

The Carpathians are also a refuge for many rare and endangered plant and animal species, some of them already extinct in the Alps long ago. Furthermore, vast areas of natural and semi-primeval Carpathian forests are much more attractive to tourists than forest plantations, prevailing in Western Europe.

Therefore, protection of cultural and natural heritage of the Carpathians directly contributes to maintaining and building the attractiveness of the region, and creating new jobs to handle tourist traffic.

Sustainable development of tourism in the Carpathians, allowing their residents to obtain regular income, must therefore be based on activities that can be performed regardless of the season or the duration of the snow cover. Such activities include e.g. cultural, nature-based, hiking and horseback riding tourism. The Carpathians also have a large (and not yet fully used) potential for the development of cross-country skiing, so popular in e.g. Nordic countries (which can additionally be confirmed by the example of the Olympic gold medalist Justyna Kowalczyk, born in, and living in the Carpathians) and ski-tourism.