The Development of Ecotourism along the River Drava in Hungary and Croatia: some practical
steps towards implementation

David Reeder, WWF Danube-Carpathian Programme International
Coordinator for the River Drava

Nature Protection and Ecotourism
WWF is a nature protection organisation, but we know that in this crowded, accessible, world it is not possible to protect nature without considering its complex interactions with people. Some kind of management of natural areas is always necessary. Just one example of this interaction is that effective nature protection needs the support of local communities: they need to feel a sense of 'ownership' of their nature, need to feel proud of it as something special, then they are more likely to support the authorities in protecting it. Of course they also need tangible, financial, rewards for this stewardship, thus a range of sustainable development strategies has to be explored and implemented, so that they can gain livelihoods through protecting their natural - and cultural - heritage. The marketing of local products, funding from outside bodies and scientific programmes are all possible approaches, but the prime example of such sustainable income generation is ecotourism, an ever more popular branch of tourism, one of the world's largest, and its fastest-growing, industry.

Ecotourism is not easily defined: we are all familiar with tour companies who use the term to promote tourism which is far from sustainable, far from the best practice we would like to see followed everywhere. One of the successes of our last workshop in Astana was the presentation of the Code of Practice for Ecotourism Development in Kazakhstan that our friend and colleague Tim Healing drew up, which dealt with such issues. Personally I feel that ecotourism must work hand-in-hand with nature protection, that they are mutually dependent and share many of the same objectives; also that promotion of 'community-based' tourism is vital, making sure that local communities themselves benefit directly from the income that ecotourists bring.

Different solutions for different biogreographical regions and cultures
Of course the challenges and opportunities facing ecotourism along the Drava river is very different from those facing Zhanna Galyan and her colleagues in Armenia, for example, or our colleagues in Central Asia. In Hungary and Croatia we are close to the populations of wealthy western Europe, and our challenge is to present our natural and cultural assets in an interesting and appealing way. Our target group includes cyclists, families and nature-lovers. Our biggest problem is the too-rapid development in our natural areas - dams, gravel extraction and illegal weekend houses. The River Drava is the basis of the border between Hungary and Croatia and as such was a part of the 'Iron Curtain' until 1989. Decades of neglect under communism left a surprising legacy of rich nature: uncontrolled development threatens to degrade this before the local people can capitalise on it. In Kazakhstan there are wonderful landscapes and wild animals; but distance is a big factor, both in reaching and travelling in that huge empty country, making visits there expensive. This encourages wealthier tourists, but I believe there is also a huge potential market at a more modest level: community-based tourism involving home-stays, a strategy which is proving so successful in Kyrgyzstan. Of course the cost of visas and the restrictions on travel in Kazakhstan is a big disincentive to travellers. Armenia has a fascinating blend of mountainous nature and an absolutely unique, ancient, culture. I think the challenges are to make this better-known in the world and somehow change the perception that this is a dangerous region.

Our part of Central Europe is far from mountainous, which is the theme of our workshop. But as I have found before, there are always common elements in what we are trying to do in our different regions, and there are many ways in which we can learn from each other's experiences. Essentially we all have to market the unique nature and culture of our regions whilst at the same time protecting them from the impact of visitors and negative development: because if we don't protect them, we could very easily lose the special qualities which attract the visitors in the first place.

Drava Case Study: Two approaches to ecotourism across the international frontier

The Drava region, both in Hungary and Croatia, has a range of ecotourism attractions: beautiful natural landscapes, nature trails and cycle routes, picturesque villages and historical cities, fascinating museums and ancient artefacts, wine-producing areas and thermal spas.

It is now widely recognised that transboundary approaches to environmental management are generally more logical than dividing natural systems with administrative boundaries. Cross-border approaches to ecotourism share that logic: visitors can explore natural ecosystems which cross national frontiers. At the same time these tourists can enjoy the contrasts between the different cultural settings which have developed on either side of the border. Crossing the River Drava between Hungary and Croatia, for example, tourists remain in the same Central European floodplain ecosystem, but can experience different cultural landscapes, farming patterns and artifacts, architecture, music, traditional costumes, language, currency and so on. At the same time the tourist infrastructure is very different in these countries.

The Hungarian Danube-Drava National Park: a Top-Down Approach
The Danube-Drava National Park (DDNP), with a total area of 49,479 hectares, was founded in April 1996 to preserve the valuable natural characteristics of the lands along these two major rivers; it comprises both long-established and newly-protected areas.

The entire Hungarian bank of the River Drava, and many contiguous areas, are protected under the authority of the National Park. The park is 80% financed by the Hungarian government and its main role is to increase public awareness of the valuable environmental capital of this region, of its attractiveness as a visitor-destination and consequently of the need for careful conservation of its natural assets. Nature protection is paramount; other aims are to involve local people and improve local infrastructure; and to increase scientific knowledge and educational potential. A total of some 250,000 visitors are registered each year, but access to the strictly-protected areas is granted to very few.

Throughout the entire park there are 27 rangers who act as guides; an information-centre holding about 50 people; 8 'research houses' and 4 exhibition places. There are 7 managed campsites along the Drava and some 20 'education trails' and 6 narrow-gauge forest trains. Cycling trails and a network of village accomodation is being developed.

Policies of the DDNP:
- Protected areas are maintained
- Management of DDNP lands
- Scientific monitoring is regularly carried out
- Involving local people in the DDNP work
- Information services are extensive
- Education is a priority

Ecotourism Services of the DDNP:
- Study trails
- Guides
- Exhibition places
- Campsites
- Education Centres
- Publications

The DDNP does an excellent job of protecting nature along the Hungarian Drava and offers a wide range of ecotourism services. However this is a very large organisation, and this combined with its role as the supreme authority on its lands can occasionally create sources of conflict with local people, mayors etc, who own homes and land within the park boundaries. The imperatives of the management of the National Park can often be at odds with private people's wishes. Also because of the size of the territory and scarce resources, it is not possible to guard everything full time, and not everyone respects the idea of protected territory: thus there are occasional cases of timber being stolen, or wild flowers collected for the market.

In terms of ecotourism, the nature of the DDNP as a government body does not foster entrepreneurship, it is not its role. So although the park actively attracts many visitors, and some local services are developing, in many places there is a shortage of accommodation, restaurants etc. This is of course in part a result of decades of Communist rule.

The Croatian Drava League: Bottom-up
In contrast to Hungary, almost none of the Croatian territory along the Drava is protected, although the Drava League and many other NGOs are trying to achieve this. They are also very busy creating an infrastructure for ecotourism.

The Croatian Drava League is a coalition of 8 member NGOs from settlements along the River Drava, representing through their memberships the views of - and on some public events and projects, bringing together - several hundred people. The League was formed following a joint decision made on February 17th 2001, following the announcement by the Croatian government that work would soon begin on a new hydro-power facility on the Drava, which the NGOs all oppose.

Vision of the Drava League
"Let the Drava flow peacefully and free, and may she continue to support her rich treasure of wildlife and nature. It is only by working with nature, and not against nature, that we can realise the true value of our natural assets, and the mosaic of cultures which has developed around them: it is thus that we can ensure both livelihoods and a fine quality of life for those who dwell by the river, for their children, and their children's children."

"It became clear that to win the local people over to our point of view, we had not only to oppose environmentally-destructive projects, but also to promote a positive alternative: to 'set a vision against a vision', to offer a sustainable alternative model which is economically sound as well as more appealing than the conventional development offered by the developers.

Hence we are developing a strategy - from the bottom up, i.e. planned and initiated by local NGOs and some sympathetic communities - of building an 'eco-economy' to run in parallel with the existing local manufacturing, agricultural and service sectors, all of which could benefit from our initiatives. This will be based on ecotourism, 'cultural tourism', educational tourism and the marketing of local products."

Activities of the Drava League
- Raising public awareness, especially about the proposed dam and exploitation of gravel
- Lobbying to protect valuable habitats
- Protests
- International co-operation
- Working with schools
- Publications
- Voluntary bio-monitoring and inventorisation of species
- NGO co-operation throughout the network and beyond
- Promoting communities with special characteristics

Ecotourism Activities
What is notable here is the degree of community activity: the Drava League holds meetings for interested potential service providers, runs a constant campaign of awareness-raising in the villages, and organises events to promote ecotourism locally.

The first major step was the establishment of an 88km cycle route, using existing tarmac roads and some dirt tracks, connecting some of the villages and natural places in Koprivnica county. This was suggested by a Swiss consultant working with the Swiss Cycling Federation, and developed by the county authorities and the Drava League. This year the League held a Drava Youth Expedition to promote the route: some 20 youngsters on bicycles travelled for 3 days, exploring local villages and natural places and on their way collecting information on water quality, plant and animal species, and existing potential for ecotourism. There was good press coverage throughout the trip.

Two main initiatives have developed from this: one is the planned extension of cycle routes into neighbouring counties, and eventually throughout the whole Croatian Drava region; the other is the decision to establish an ecotourism 'mini-zone' based around the axis of the cycle route. This is especially interesting as it concentrates resources on a small model area - although at the same time initiatives are being encouraged in other places, some of which are proving very successful. In the designated mini-zone we now have a well-co-ordinated group of ecotourism service providers: restaurants, pensions, local museums and private collections, guides and owners of fishing-places. Our eventual aim is extend this mini-zone along the Drava in both countries, so that visitors could find plenty to see and do over a period of days or weeks.

There are significant differences between the development of ecotourism services in Hungary and Croatia, probably due in part to different historical influences. The Hungarian Danube-Drava National Park is very successful at attracting visitors, markets itself well and manages visitor numbers skilfully; in Croatia there is no such unifying body and almost no protection of nature along the Drava, but there is an extraordinary energy at community level and considerable entrepreneurial flair. In my opinion both sides have much to learn from each other.