The starting point of this 5th International Congress on Rural Tourism “Reyno de Navarra”, devoted to ecotourism and nature-based tourism, was a series of key bottlenecks such as: scarcity of products adapted to new demands; lack of market intelligence on new demand profiles; lack of product innovation and specialisation; lack of specialised channels for promotion and marketing; and lack of ecotourism professionals specialised in heritage interpretation and speaking foreign languages.
In turn, the Central Government is firmly committed to reinforcing the positioning and competitiveness of rural and nature-based tourism in Spain, as part of the Comprehensive National Tourism Plan, as well as reinforcing the marketing channels and awareness of the international market.
The presentation on the Observatory of Rural Tourism in Spain by CETT and Escapada Rural left us with a good impression on the generation y transfer of knowledge, emphasising critical data such as the almost exclusive use of the Internet as a source of information, or the high value of experiences in rural tourism websites.
Max Rössberg from the European Wilderness Society, addressed the problem of how to fit ecotourism into the industry trends towards mass tourism, which make it necessary to change the whole approach and development of the rural and nature-based tourism model towards something more endogenous and participatory. He stressed the fragmentary character and small size of the current ecotourism market, although growth of the market linked to green and healthy lifestyles is unstoppable worldwide.
Travelife considered the existence of a new age of ecotourism versus growth and impact. 2014 is the year of tourism benefits for local communities, and this has a lot to do with the sustainability systems for tourist destinations and for rural and ecotourism companies. These systems are increasingly taking into account the social and local components of tourist development.
Travelife presented the large and confusing tangle of tourist sustainability brands there are in the world and how the Global Sustainable Tourism Council is working towards their harmonisation. Reference was made to a series of sustainability good practices such as www.bookdifferent.com/en/, in light of the constant growth of green consumers in tourism.
We are still uncertain whether the term ‘ecotourism’ is the right one at this time in the market and therefore in future congresses there should be a reflection on the concepts and terms encompassed by nature-based tourism.
The major challenge we face is changing Spain’s tourist image towards a nature destination with an international positioning. The three pillars of sustainability have been claimed as well as the ancestral role of local populations in the conservation and management of sustainability in rural areas.
From the Austrian region of Mostviertel we were presented with case studies of sustainable tourism and trade in the rural areas, based on highly efficient marketing and a stable and long-term public-private partnership in the heart of Europe.
They highlighted the importance of leveraging opportunities for reaching out to each customer at contact points in order to increase their experience satisfaction and make it a part of the story of their visit to the destination at all times.
Several nature-based tourism initiatives in Seville, Navarre, Asturias and other places in Spain were presented; with a strong emphasis on product innovation, environmental education, strong participation by the local population and social sustainability. The everyday and entrepreneurial reality of ecotourism production in these sites is a breath of fresh air and positivism in these times of crisis.
We saw the overall picture of tourist sustainability certifications across Europe and the world, and their relationship with the new models of green economy and the birth of a global market of sustainable tourism.
The opportunities which these seals and certifications provide for companies as tools for sustainability management and communication was underlined, as well as to reach sustainable tourists in the more unknown or remote markets.
The growing requirements of the demand for guidance and sustainability guarantees were also insisted upon when buying rural and nature-based tourism products. It is also necessary to promote commitments and simple codes of conduct such as the Vademecum for Responsible Tourists promoted by the EARTH- European Alliance for Responsible Tourism and Hospitality. Once more, commitment with sustainability is a way of connecting supply with demand by actively involving tourists.
The model of tourism clusters was presented as an efficient alternative to the association model, as drivers of innovation and creativity, turning places such as Monteverde (Costa Rica), Aysén (Chile) or the geo-destination Lobo Ibérico into references. The alternative is “coopetition” or cooperation to compete, among the nature-based tourism businesses.
Also very present were the components of financial viability and technical skills, linked to awareness of environmental and cultural values which was very inspiring in all the initiatives shown throughout the Congress.
At all times, it was advocated that tourism must be competitive and profitable in order to be sustainable, joining the practical aspects to the romanticism that inevitably accompanies ecotourism.
We have clearly seen the deep connection between rural and nature-based tourism, taking into account that rural accommodations are best offset and offered with the activities and entertainment of the surrounding nature.
Public-private partnerships for governance of nature-based destinations were frequently mentioned at the Congress, in order to join forces against an increasingly informed and aware market which is therefore becoming more demanding. It can also be affirmed that without public-private partnerships there cannot be real nature-based destinations.
The role of local actors is becoming increasingly important and valuable to enhance their resources, while simultaneously confirming that there can be no tourist quality in nature-based tourism without environmental quality.
We were specially struck by the attention paid to ornithological tourism and specialised ecotourism initiatives in Doñana, as powerful generators of overnight stays and the demand for highly qualified professionals. Social networks have been very important to position these initiatives, which are generating an international demand with high purchasing power which particularly contributes to making tourism less seasonal. Sustainable offers attract responsible tourists.
Heritage interpretation was presented as the key skill to increase the value of natural and cultural resources in any type of natural and rural areas, and therefore all ecotourism players should be deeply imbued with advanced interpretation and communication skills.
Networking models were also present throughout the Congress, notably the AITR-Asociation Italiana de Turismo Responsable and the EARTH- European Alliance for Responsible Tourism and Hospitality, which presented initiatives from some of their members and their firm belief in networking and association for solidarity as drivers for change and development.
The Alliance TOPS-Tour Operators Promoting Sustainability from Nicaragua was also present at this Congress, showing another example of cooperative work at an emerging destination. This case study showed us that, in coordination, ecotourism companies can reach specialised issuing markets from more remote destinations.
Online marketing tools were also prominent, as the most appropriate relationship channel for the new model of customers who create contents and share them with other customers. This new consumer/producer or “prosumer” trusts the experiences of other customers turned into stories in the web, much more than they trust promotional messages from the destinations or the companies. After all, nature-based tourism and ecotourism, the main features of this 5th International Congress on Rural Tourism “Reyno de Navarra”, rely on telling stories, and next year we shall be here again to continue telling them and sharing with you new initiatives and new knowledge.