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"In the Far Eastern Federal District, the local market allows you to open projects for ecotourism"

Leonid Agafonov, a member of the public council under the Ministry for the Development of the Russian Far East, EastRussia Managing Director, on the main problems of ecotourism in Russia

In a pandemic, they want to make the Far East one of the main tourist destinations in Russia. One of the directions is ecotourism, but it is not particularly developed in the Far Eastern Federal District. Leonid Agafonov, a member of the public council at the Ministry of the Development of the Russian Far East, managing director of EastRussia, spoke about the problems of this area and the peculiarities of the development of specially protected natural areas (SPNA).

"In the Far Eastern Federal District, the local market allows you to open projects for ecotourism"

- Many experts believe that the main problem that hinders the effective functioning of the PA network is the lack of funding for measures to protect and develop the PA system. Is it so?

- Yes, this is so, and first of all this problem concerns SPNAs of regional significance, especially in those constituent entities of the Russian Federation that are subsidized. We have dozens of such protected areas of regional importance, in which the total tourist flow is estimated at millions of people per year. But the lack of financial capacity sometimes does not allow regional PAs to even count this flow, let alone systematically improve the infrastructure and fight offenders. In fact, all protection in many cases comes down to limiting the types of land use, and prohibiting construction. At the same time, there is no control over anthropogenic loads, but what are tourists there, there are specific cases when poachers are based right inside the protected areas. 

- Private business does not want to invest in the development of protected areas. What do you think, what is the reason and how you can attract private investors?

- This is not entirely true. Private business, first of all, considers the risks, compares the necessary investments with the planned earnings. Private businesses risk their money and reputation. And when we look at a conventional clearing and fantasize about how it could be in demand among tourists, it is the private business that will calculate the fair cost of construction and operation, seasonality and downtime, risks and costs, shift it all onto a unit of a tourist product and be able to understand for itself for yourself: worth it or not. Therefore, I perfectly understand private investors who are skeptical about working in remote and infrastructurally weak protected areas: with all the magic and attractiveness of the place, you cannot build a business model exclusively on foreign rich people who occasionally fly in by helicopters. But if a protected area is available, it already has a stable tourist flow, the financial model “flies” - business is ready to work, there are many such examples in our country.

Of course, the state can influence the financial model by offering some support measures, compensating for some of the costs. But the real support is not to share the burden of costs with the investor, but to make the territory more accessible and visited through infrastructure solutions. 

- What benefits does ecotourism play for local residents?

- In regions where tourism is underdeveloped (and, you must agree, we have the majority of such), it is local residents who are the main beneficiaries of new projects in this area. Agree, the development of tourism is reflected in different spheres of life, changing the appearance of cities and territories. For local residents, tourist sites are a new type of leisure. Both in our Far East and in the Arctic zone, it is the local market that in many ways allows us to start new projects in the field of tourism. Here we are talking primarily about the movement of citizens within the region, as well as weekend tours.

As tourism develops, if the area becomes interesting for visitors from other regions of Russia and from abroad, this industry can show good economic dynamics. At this stage, these are new jobs and a great opportunity to start your own business. Fortunately, the threshold for entering the market is quite low.

- How can the level of environmental awareness of society be raised?

- Alas, this is a long process. In many ways, as I see it, the level of environmental awareness depends on the quality of life of our citizens. Only by systematically improving the quality of life, improving cities and territories, visually changing the space around our citizens, increasing their comfort and well-being, can we achieve understanding for those ideas that make up the very same environmental awareness. 

- How acute is the problem of land management in protected areas? What steps need to be taken to solve it?

- I don't see a systemic problem. From the point of view of ecological tourism, we have an incredible number of land plots that are promising for development, which are not protected by legislation. Especially in the Far East. On the other hand, the issue of land use regularly arises when the initiative concerns the lands of the forest fund or defense lands, the latter is especially relevant for the regions of the Far East and the Arctic. And here a systematic approach is really required.

One of the interesting solutions is the Far Eastern Hectare program. If you didn't know, the program allows citizens of the Russian Federation to take plots in the forest fund and use them for the construction of individual houses, for recreation and other purposes. The first three years of the program have already shown that this is a working mechanism that opens up opportunities for many who wish to implement projects in the field of ecological tourism. 

- How, in your opinion, will the All-Russian competition for the creation of tourist and recreational clusters and the development of ecotourism in Russia help solve the existing problems of the industry?

- The Agency for Strategic Initiatives has proposed an excellent methodology that makes it possible to fundamentally adjust the approaches to the development of ecological tourism in the regions of Russia. It is the principle that, taking into account a clear ideology, at the level of a specific map, specific land plots and initiatives tied to them, three branches of regional power (economy, tourism and ecology), the municipality, PAs and business should agree with each other at the same time - such an approach in the current environment is innovative and disruptive. I am sure that there will be not ten real winners, but many more. Each region that understands the proposed methodology and adopts useful principles for itself will be able to get a tangible effect without even entering the federal top. 

- How to maintain a balance between conservation and development?

- To strike a balance between conservation and development, there must be controlled development. It is important to distance ourselves from polar opinions: “open everything” or “don't let anyone in”. The more structured the initiative is, the more clearly the consequences of each individual step can be predicted. Managed development also has a lot to do with working with public opinion. There are many stereotypes in this area, caused, first of all, by a small idea of ​​what modern ecological tourism can be, built on the principles of sustainable development.

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