Oliver Hillel: Bulgaria Should Tap Ecotourism Experience of Others

Novinite Insider » INTERVIEW | October 4, 2002, Friday // 00:00

Oliver Hillel is the Tourism Program Coordinator for UNEP's Division of Technology, Industry and Economics based in Paris, France. A biologist with a Master's Degree in Environmental Education and MBAs on Managerial Accounting and Hotel Management, Mr. Hillel is a fellow of the Rockefeller Foundation's LEAD program, and has over 15 years experience in the tourism sector working in training and development programs, consulting, cost control and auditing, and tourism operations. Oliver Hillel is one of the organizers and participants in the International Summit in Quebec, Canada, dedicated to the Intenational Year of Ecotourism. At the Forum in Sofia he was the keynote speaker on the theme Ecotourism Legislation, Regulation & Institutional Frameworks.

Oliver Hillel met Milena Hristova, Editor of the News and Novinite.com

Q: Can you name some of the international practices and experiences that can serve as models for codes and standards in ecotourism in Bulgaria?

A: Bulgaria shares with some other countries the same circumstance of having a rich natural heritage and very significant biodiversity. It also has a really significant culture and historical traditions to show. Having in mind the fact it is a country in transition and developing its own economy and therefore you can compare Bulgaria in many things to countries such as Brazil, Costa Rica or Australia. These countries also have in their natural heritage one of the main assets for tourism. It is important to consider that tourism is one of the largest industries in the world. About 7 hundred million are the international visitors throughout the world in 2002. Therefore the choice of the Bulgarian government to launch an ecotourism strategy for Bulgaria is a very good proposition. It is clear that the government is committed to it. Prime Minister Simeon Saxe-Coburg committed to ecotourism as a valuable tool for Bulgaria.

There are a number of experiences upon which Bulgaria can build its program for ecotourism. One such example is Australia, a leader in international ecotourism marketing, with more than ten years of ecotourism strategy. Another such country is my home country Brazil that has more than seven years of experience in promoting an ecotourism strategy. It is positive for Bulgaria to base its own strategy to the experience of those other countries. And this is what I am here to do, to suggest and bring ideas to the Bulgarian players in this area.

Q: How can foreign organizations contribute to hammering out a National Tourism Strategy?

A: There are basically three ways in which agencies such as the United Nations Environment Programme, along with United Nations Development Programme, the World Tourism Organization and UNESCO can contribute. Each can bring suggestions, advice and ideas for Bulgarian players to use according to their needs. We can also help build the capacity over the long term. I would like to underline that in order for tourism to be successful you must have a government, knowing what ecotourism is all about and committed to it, and also build the capacity of a tourism industry to receive the travelers. And this requires very specific skills and abilities. Last but not least local authorities, local communities and non-governmental organizations. The Tourism Programme at the United Nations Environment Programme can help train these people and pass on the technical skills.

We can also bring the lessons Bulgaria has learnt and the progress Bulgaria is making to the benefit of other countries. Bulgaria has been the first country in Eastern Europe to come up with a biodiversity strategy. According to my information currently Bulgaria has been the only country to proclaim an ecotourism strategy. I have never seen in Europe the three relevant government ministries to sign an agreement such as the Protocol for cooperation in ecotourism that was signed by the Environment and Waters, Economy an Agriculture Ministry October 4. Bringing the two elements together is a unique experience in Europe. Bulgaria is becoming a leader among economies in transition in Eastern Europe.

Q: What is your advice on the extensive research that needs to be made for Bulgaria's ecotourism to be successful?

A: Bulgaria's tourism industry is already an advantage. There are established destinations for specific markets in Eastern or Western Europe. In my opinion this is the way the research and market intelligence should begin. Building upon your existing markets is a very good idea, as well as extending to relatively well-researched markets especially in Western Europe. There are limits to a national research. That is why particular local governments and particular destinations in Bulgaria should be encouraged to conduct their own market research.

Q: What are Bulgaria's other competitive advantages?

A: Bulgaria is a country with a sense of safety for the tourists and incredible hospitality. The natural attractions of the many national parks and the countryside almost overshadows the diversity of cultural and historical traditions. This combination makes Bulgaria still relatively exotic and interesting for most tourists coming to Bulgaria. Bulgaria also has a pretty good basic infrastructure - airports, roads, hotels. Yet there is still some capacity in the existing infrastructure to absorb more tourists. As soon as the little hotels, the countryside inns, the existing facilities reach a very profitable situation, others start to develop.

Q: Ecotourism is viewed as a tool for economic growth. Which are the communities with the best potential for such a development?

A: Ecotourism is mostly a phenomenon of rural communities, especially close to legally and officially protected areas not only in public and private sector. For Bulgaria the combination between rural and agrotourism with ecotourism will be best way to go.

Q: How can Bulgaria improve its image marketing policy?

A: The current messages that Bulgaria is sending out show the image marketing policy is very good, well-based in its cultural traditions. Still there are two aspects that I would like to see changed and they are connected with the coastal development in tourism. The first is the shift from infrastructure to natural attractions. The traditional sun and sand beach tourism image, which has to include the inland attractions and the natural attractions at the beachside. The way beachside resorts are promoted is still focused on the old paradigm of lying on the beach. Bulgaria must concentrate on a more active attitude, since ecotourists want to do things.

Q: Can you describe the typical ecotourist in terms of social status, age?

A: The internationally accepted profile of the ecotourism traveler is relatively older, normally with family, of an upper economic range. But I would not want to limit it to that. In Latin America there are many, many destinations with did very well with exactly the opposite kind of tourism travelers - young, spending relatively little every day, going on bike and horses. These places benefited from these people. The only characteristic of an ecotourist is that he/she likes appreciate nature and culture and in not dependent on the big tourism infrastructure.

Q: How will the United Nations Environment Programme cooperate with the Bulgarian Ministry of Environment and Waters and the other ministries, participating in the strategy?

A: The United Nations Environment Programme is not a financing strategy. What we can do is technical cooperation - technology, knowledge, the skills and experience form other countries. We also can work together to develop concrete proposals and work on them with other providers of technical and financial assistance.

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