ECOTOURISM - A DREAM COME TRUE
Fatme Iliyaz - Deputy Minister of the Environment and Waters



I express my satisfaction with the opportunity to present to you the vision of the governing team of the Ministry on the development and co-operation in the field of sustainable tourism.

Ecotourism, based on natural attractions, preserves the environment and contributes to improving the welfare of the local population. As one of the most rapidly developing sectors in the world, this form of sustainable tourism has been recognised internationally as a genuine opportunity for economic development of natural areas in partnership with the institutions of environment protection.

This country has exceptional gifts of nature that have been preserved in an excellent way and can constitute the core of attractive tourist products.

The present-day tendencies in environment protection are aimed at coupling the goals of conservation with those of economic growth. In this sense, the concern of the Ministry of the Environment and Waters is not just preserved nature, but preserved nature making the people richer and happier. A number of examples can be quoted of the active position taken by the Ministry in this direction.

The well-developed network of protected territories, occupying 4.65% of the country's area, offers excellent opportunities for attractions. Suffice it to mention such landmarks as the sites under the UNESCO Convention on the World Natural and Cultural Heritage: the Pirin National Park and the Sreburna Reserve, as well as the two other national parks - Rila and Central Balkan. The National Fund for the Preservation of the Environment is financing a number of specific projects related to the development of tourism in natural landmarks, like for example the improvement of conditions for the visitors of the Magura Cave.

Many of the international projects realised by the Ministry of the Environment and Waters within the framework of the international co-operation, include essential elements of the development of ecotourism in this country. Even at the time when the National Strategy for Safeguarding Biological Diversity was created in 1994, the development of ecotourism based on natural landmarks, was substantiated as one of the priorities in the country's policy. As concrete items of this strategy can be pointed out the PREST project, funded by the British Government, for the development of sustainable tourism in the area of the Pirin Mountain, the projects of the Swiss Government in the fields of the protection of nature and of regional development, realised in the areas of the Central Balkan National Park, the Strandja Natural Park and the Black-Sea coast wetlands.

The Ministry of the Environment and Waters supports the development of ecological tourism in this country, mainly with means from the National Fund for the Preservation of the Environment. Priority fields for such support are:

»To identify tourist sites - marking, inscriptions, information boards, itineraries, picnic sites, etc.;

»To popularise the sites through information folders, brochures, videos, photo-albums, slide-albums, etc.;

»To develop a system of information centres, kiosks, special sites, green schools, etc.

»To develop tourist infrastructure - parking lots, alleys, to organise set-route taxis, etc.;

»To encourage and develop model handicraft workshops, to create souvenirs, to offer local confectionery, etc.;

»To create opportunities for visiting natural and cultural sites by handicapped, blind, dumb-and-deaf persons and children from orphanages;

»To organise action clubs in the mountains: to clean alleys, mark and paint benches, place signs, signposts, to keep up hearths, etc.

At present, the joint Project for Safeguarding Biological Diversity and Economic Growth, funded by the U.S. International Development Agency and the Ministry of the Environment and Waters, is being actively implemented. Its major component is the creation of a Development of Ecotourism Model, based on the Protected Territories in Bulgaria. It also creates the foundation for the formation of a comprehensive policy and an approach of PARTNERSHIP among state institutions, private businesses and local communities for the sake of the future sustainable development of natural areas. The Ministry expects that resulting from these efforts, by the end of this year we will witness a clear strategy as regards the mechanisms for realising practical projects around the protected territories across the country.

In co-operation with the Ministry of the Economy, the Ministry of the Environment and Waters and its Directorates of the Rila and Central Balkan National Parks are implementing pilot projects in two areas of the country - the Municipality of Samokov and the Municipality of Karlovo, with centre the Town of Kalofer.
The development of entrepreneurship in the field of ecotourism is viewed as a realisable activity for economic growth. It ensures three immediate benefits corresponding to the national development goals:

1. It is targeted at the countryside areas where an acute need exists for raising the incomes and accelerating economic development.

2. It enhances and applies the principles of decentralisation and the elements of local self-government - by assisting both, by reasserting the principles of the civil society and the participation of the community.

3. It identifies and is based on the competition advantages at the regional and European levels - by contributing to improve Bulgaria's image in the fields of the preservation of nature, the opportunities for recreation and the paradigm of effective sustainable development.

Therefore, the efforts of the Ministry of the Environment and Waters are aimed at motivating strategic investments in the field of ecotourism and setting up specialised funds for capitalising these investments.
Finding the right balance between the preservation of the environment, on the one hand, and tourism, on the other hand, ought to be a goal of resource managers, of municipality leaders and tour-operators, to underlie the formation of the national policy of developing the tourist industry.