Pushcha for bicycles

Stefan JAKIMIUK, Heorhi KAZULKA, Specially for the Website "Belovezhskaya Pushcha – 21st Century", September 15, 2006

An interview-dialogue by Heorhi Kazulka [HK] (Belarus), coordinator of the Project "Belovezhskaya Pushcha – 21st Century" with Stefan Jakimiuk [SJ] (Poland), "Bialowieza National Park" Project Leader (WWF Poland) and coordinator of the project "Pushcha for Bicycles" about problems and prospects of bicycle tourism's development in Bialowieza Forest / Belovezhskaya Pushcha.

Stefan Jakimiuk - click to enlarge in the new window
Stefan Jakimiuk
Heorhi Kazulka - click to enlarge in the new window
Heorhi Kazulka

Bialowieza Forest / Belovezhskaya Pushcha is a protected area (National Park and Biosphere Reserve), famous all over the world, which was divided by the state border between Poland and Belarus and inscribed on a List of World Heritage Sites of Mankind. Development of tourism in Pushcha was and obviously remains to be a priority task. However, like regarding any complicated business, this field also has a lot of specific features, problems and difficulties. So, this is the topic of the interview with Stefan Jakimiuk, WWF project leader, international nature protection organization.

There were a lot of written issues concerning development of tourism on the Belarusian side of Belovezhskaya Pushcha last years. However, their context was either in the form of short news, or of official major-like-voice reports about plans and achievements including imaginary ones in this field, made by the chiefs managing the various governmental levels. The given interview, in my opinion, is one of the most serious and objective analyses of the situation in the tourist sector not only for the Belarusian part of Belovezhskaya Pushcha but also for Polish one for the last years.

click to enlarge in the new window - 1,21 Ěá
The map of Polish part
of Bialowieza Forest
click to enlarge in the new window - 155 ęá
The map of the district
center of Hajnowka
in Polish part of
Bialowieza Forest

[HK] - - Dear Stefan. For many years you has led WWF field project in the Polish part of Belovezhskaya Pushcha and carried out many nature protection and ecologically educational projects during this time. The new project "Pushcha for Bicycles" is now in progress. The first question is how and why has the idea of the project come up?

[SJ]- Good question. By the way, no one of the journalists asked this question, neither today, nor earlier. The idea was conceived from my experiences and observations of tourism development in Belovezhskaya Pushcha. This development has taken on a wrong direction.

[HK] - - What does it mean?

[SJ] - The tourism develops in the very centre of Belovezhskaya Pushcha, in Bialowieza Clearing, in very close neighborhood of the core zone of Bialowieza National Park, whereas tourism development should be set in the outskirts of Belovezhskaya Pushcha. Only these people who really want to experience a wild nature, who are the most loving the nature, understand it should come to the Pushcha's core zone. But today we have such a situation - people come by cars to Bialowieza village because they heard only about it. The majority of them do not know about other places such as town Hajnowka. Some of them recognize it as a place they passed, but nothing more. They come to Bialowieza village and begin to explore Belovezhskaya Pushcha from that point. This is a one side of the problem. Hotels are the second side. There are large hotels for 200 and more beds which are built in Bialowieza. So, total number of beds in Bialowieza is estimated now for about 1,200, while the village has 2000 inhabitants. This situation is not normal as a whole. We have, therefore, decided to show that the development of tourism can go other ways and it is possible to explore Pushcha using a bicycle, not a car. There are some ideas to make forest roads accessible to automobiles. If it happens, consequences can be a very much negative for nature - roads will be asphalted in few years and people will get free access to drive their cars to the forest. In the beginning there will be a few cars per day, then - some tens and, at last, some hundreds per day. These roads will divide Pushcha for separate parts. So-called de-fragmentation of the forest will actually happen. It will create serous difficulties for animals to migrate.

[HK] - - But the interesting is that this kind of situation already exists in Belarus. Moreover, the administration of the Belarusian National Park considers it the positive phenomenon, as a service's improvement.

[SJ] - Is depends on how we estimate the problem. Of course, this is fine from the point of view of cyclists because it is easier to ride on a smooth asphalt road than on a dirt road. But we have to remember that making roads available for car traffic creates a great danger for nature itself. To develop the bicycle tourism is necessary not only for the purposes of protection of nature but also for benefits of the local population. The one who comes to Pushcha and moves across its area by bicycle should have more time for visiting its different places. This means that he will stay here for a longer time and should stay over the night. He will leave money in a private accommodation (B&B) or in a hotel. He needs to be guided too. This is an entire philosophy. As a result, protection of nature will get benefit. It is good for both the local people and coming tourists. Tourists in these days are used to go by cars and new rules can therefore provoke their protests in the beginning. But they should be explained that these measures are for their benefit - leave cars and bicycle to the forest. Thanks to it everyone will experience forest with greater pleasure, become more educated and have a better rest. I am sure that a bit later, on condition that good advertising is provided, it is possible to create the tradition/habit of visiting Belovezhskaya Pushcha by bicycles. And all will be for benefit. It is possible, for example, to take groups of pupils for cycling tours to forest in order to carry out ecological education there. This will be very benefitial for their health and physical condition, as well as stimulate their contacts with nature. When a man drives a car, he does not feel nature. He does not hear birds, does not feel smell, and does not feel greatness and beauty of nature. He cannot see anything while driving fast. However, the group shouldn't be large because this disturbs taking photos, and proper guiding.

[HK] - - From what you are saying can I draw a conclusion that all of these means that the project is not just a beautiful name and the measure will not only be working on this one occasion, but it is an entire philosophy and concept?

[SJ] - That bicycle paradise which lasted four days (between 11 and 14th August 2006) in Pushcha and its vicinity, on both Belarusian and the Polish side, is only a part of a bigger project. Within the framework of this project we plan to make supplements to newspapers, posters, and we also want to work out a concept of cycling routes in the Bialowieza Forest. Maybe it will not be complete but, at least, the ground for the strategy, a concept and vision of how this type of tourism should be developed, will be constructed. It means that it will be necessary to define what territories can be accessible for cyclists, where the routes should start, what can be shown to the tourist and in what way, and how this type of tourism should be developed in the future. It is necessary to avoid such situation as you have now that the recreational zone is situated in the core of Bialowieza Forest (Belarusian part), whereas it should be placed on its outskirt. Why is that?

[HK] - - This is because the large reservoirs in which fishing is allowed were constructed in the 1970s. The locals who were the members of the Society of Hunters and Fishers earlier freely fished there, and the bosses from some government organizations surreptitiously did so as well. Today this is actually a half-restricted area and it is unclear who can fish there. Often they are people in a close relationship with the Park's administration, businessmen and the State top-managers. In 2003, a pompous attraction show called "The Belarusian Grandfather Frost" was staged near the lake, within the area of the former bison nursery. This naturally caused the inflow of tourists to this territory to increase by a few fold. All of these became the ground to downturn the status of this area from the second (Regulated Nature Zone) to the third (Regulated Recreational Use Area) category. To be fair, it is necessary to add that these actions caused a big damage to the preservation of Belovezhskaya Pushcha, and were made with very serious infringements of the national nature protection legislation. No one, of course, was punished for this because violations of the legislation became a common practice for the authorities of modern Belarus. Today the law is applied selectively in the country, being based on purely subjective grounds. Nothing is, therefore, supernatural and surprising.

[SJ] – Ok. However, the question is how do the people reach these lakes?

[HK] - - They use cars in most cases. The locals quite often cycle. However, there is no system or rules which would define when people are allowed to enter a protected area by car and when it is impossible. At present all decisions are personally and subjectively accepted by the Director of the National Park. The decision depends on whether the man in question is a director's friend, business partner or simply loyal to the managing line provided in the National Park, which has often nothing to do with the conservation of the Belovezhskaya Pushcha. The car's entrance for other people is forbidden, except in some cases connected with the economic activity of the locals, for example making hay. As for some people, for example the ecologists and activists of the protection of the Belovezhskaya Pushcha, the entrance is closed even for cycling. On the other hand, the number of the fishermen visiting the area should be limited because the simultaneous presence of some hundreds of fishermen around the lake would be abnormal. On the one hand, these artificial lakes originated from when Belovezhskaya Pushcha had a status of a State Protected Game Ground. On the other hand, if destruction of natural ecosystem happened in those days, it doesn't mean that one can now do everything following his fancy. In the frame of the concept of the preservation of wild nature, it especially concerns the protected areas, such as damaged ecosystems, which can and should be restored. However, unfortunately the present administration does not consider the Belovezhskaya Pushcha a National Park in the line of European approach, and as such an especially protected natural area of woodland with the highest protection status, but merely a park of the urban type. That is why this "park", as the present chiefs of Pushcha describe it, should be transformed, "improved" and changed with the purpose of recreation and serving human needs and fantasies in every possible way. Now, under long-term pressure from the national and international public, and the scientists, the vision of the administration has probably changed a bit to more suitable for the protection of nature. The local and Minsk's chiefs have probably grown a bit wiser and begun to understand something of the protection of wild nature. However, the present style of management in the Belarusian part of the Belovezhskaya Pushcha shows that a great progress is still far to reach. Back some years ago, purely economic approaches prevailed in the management of the Belovezhskaya Pushcha - all for the benefit of human beings, sorry, for the benefit of the officials. Can the interests of wild nature be really observed in the system of priority of the officials' boon?

[SJ] - A serious problem will arise in the Belarusian part of the Pushcha if tourism and recreation become extremely intensive. Can it happen?

[HK] - - It can. In the last few years the administration put a pressure to develop mass tourism as a source of revenue returns.

[SJ] - I am talking about the long-term prospects, in five or ten years, when your country will possibly turn to democracy. New managers will be appointed and everybody, according to the law, will have equal rights of access tourist services.

[HK] - - It's true. According to the law, if the recreational zone is situated in the core of the Pushcha, even today everyone has got the right to have a rest there. Otherwise, whom was it created for? For the officials and chiefs? For the privileged people? Though it is actually the case. When developing tourism, the administration does not, however, take into account all of the consequences of democratization in the country. Quite the contrary, everything is being done as if this administration, its law and rules were going to last forever.

[SJ] - The present development of tourism matches more the concept of a biosphere reserve which simplifies some things a little bit, comparing with the concept of a national park, and permits making fragmentation of sites for balanced use of natural resources. There are three zones – a core zone, a transition zone and a buffer zone. This is a standard classification, but it should be adapted to the natural condition of a specific region. Valuable natural areas are to be defined and selected. All this is clear.

[HK] - - It's correct. Although in practice everything is more complicated and the zoning of a National Park, for example in the Belarusian part of the Belovezhskaya Pushcha, is not a copy of the zoning of a Biosphere Reserve. This concept does not encourage a fragmentation of the core or the transition zone. Fragmentation is only allowed if it had turned to such conditions historically and the local people cannot be moved from the protected zones. However, the concept of a Biosphere Reserve does not accept an artificial zone fragmentation or lowering its protected status because of a caprice of the administration or other involved parties. It is especially important in cases of damage to the natural environment. The other problem is that in Belarus only a few people are aware of these concepts; nearly no one takes them into account and accepts them when planning or taking economic actions.

[SJ] - It is perhaps better to make the areas surrounding the Pushcha and located in the buffer zone or, at least, in the transitive zone more accessible to tourists than the core zone. This must be the case on both sides of the border. However, when analyzing the current situation in both Poland and Belarus, we learned that the most intensive development of tourism occurs in the centre of the Bialowieza Forest. The only difference is that tourism on your side of the border is still restrained by use of administrative means. We have no such mechanism and it's rather difficult to keep the tourists under control over here. It harms to nature, and, perhaps, hurts the people who love wild nature and care for its protection. We have to do something in order to change this abnormal situation. The project we are talking about was also created to help solve this problem. The public needs to be shown that nature can be appreciated in a different way. I have already got some positive comments from the public, for example, about the guides who talk interestingly and accompany the tourists when visiting interesting places irrespective of the weather. This is a different type of tourism as opposed to the recreational one, which assumes that if there is no sun, there is no pleasure.

[HK] - - This case also brings benefits to ecological education. By the way, when I was a Deputy Director of Science and was responsible for the ecological education and tourism, I energetically developed exactly this kind of ecological education in the National Park but was met with criticism, let's use a diplomatic expression, from the older colleagues who had managed the tourism branch of the National Park prior to me and focused mainly on entertainment. Their opinion was that a tourist visits Pushcha to have a rest and there is no necessity "to load" him with ecological knowledge because he will become unhappy with this. Accompanying the tourists, they did not therefore talk so much about the nature of the Belovezhskaya Pushcha but "raised" cock-and-bull stories and anecdotes including the ones made up by themselves. The situation reached a peak a bit later, when the subject of the protection of nature was, to some extent, substituted for the "erotic" theme of the Belovezhskaya Pushcha and some other rubbish. They did not even hesitate to tell this to the reporters who naturally wrote publications on these topics (for example, "Kiss a Bison" in the "New News" newspaper, January 15, 2000). The climax of this tendency was a vulgar custom connected with so-called consecration to be the Pushcha's local. The custom was made up by the same guides, who sometimes succeeded in reaching even some governmental top-officials because of it. There is a national proverb, which says "What is illness that is taking". Therefore, the ground of "painful" reaction of these people, after demand for stopping all these vulgarities and for coming back to the normal ecological turn was eventually begun, is clear to me. But the problem was that not only new guides but also some old employees of a museum accepted and promoted this vulgar poppycock. These and other problems of tourism have already been described in detail on the pages of "Belovezhskaya Pushcha – 21 Century" website (the public information campaign called "Pseudo-ecological tourism and education in Belovezhskaya Pushcha - what do you think about it?" - (http://bp21.org.by/en/docs/doctur.html), and in some other sources. Fortunately, today these guides are already pensioners and the bad tendency is gradually disappearing. What about this problem on your side of the Pushcha?

[SJ] - It is going in a different direction. All depends on a guide. One guide can talk in an engaging way, while another one cannot do so. One guide understands what the basis of nature protection is, while another one doesn't, but looks only for money and plans how to make it. The system of teaching guides should also be improved. Much in this case depends on those who make decisions. Unfortunately, the top-managers do not like to accept decisions that are conflicting and important for the public. However, difficult and unpopular decisions should sometimes be made and it has to be accepted in order to make the process work the right way in some years forward in order to get good effect. We should, therefore, stop the present, unsustainable development of tourism and turn it in the right direction. Otherwise, very unpleasant consequences, both for the Bialowieza Forest and the tourism, will appear in some years. Tourist popularity of the Bialowieza Forest might come to the end.

[HK] - – Today the Pushcha is a very popular area for tourists but you make such the unexpected prognoses! What is its basis?

[SJ] - This is not only my opinion. Bialowieza Forest additionally became very famous due to the long-term conflict connected with public struggle for its preservation, as one of the reasons. It was some kind of advertising for the Pushcha. It is not important what we say - good or bad. The main thing is to get the word out. Information in newspapers, on radio and TV was permanently present. The public heard it and came to the Pushcha. It's enough to recollect that about 100,000 people came to the Pushcha in 1995, which is how many tickets were sold by the museum. Ten years later, in 2005, as many as about 240,000 tickets were sold. There was a huge increase in tourists visiting the Pushcha. However, tourism also depends on a fashion. Many people visit the Pushcha and they see that nothing is changed as far as the organization of tourism is concerned. If there is no progress and development, other new places that better attract the attention of tourists will become fashionable.

[HK] - - This means that the advertising has made Bialowieza Forest fashionable for tourists to visit. But the fashion, surely, does not follow one style.

[SJ] - Exactly.

[HK] - - To develop bicycle tourism, it is necessary to have more guides. Maybe this type of tourism would be possible without guides, providing the road infrastructure is available and functions well.

[SJ] - Yes, but not only. First of all, the question is about making the areas attractive for tourists. The people coming here should get full information about this area and services provided. They can rent a bicycle and go independently, observing rules. But the cases when a tourist comes to Bialowieza and is unable to find an accommodation must be eliminated. They must be supplied with information in advance in Hajnowka, instead of having to travel twenty kilometers to Bialowieza to obtain it. They should know in advance what places they can visit, where they can have a meal and spend a night. Information service is a very important thing. The same concerns your Pushcha. Everything is important for tourists: how much time they spent while crossing the state border, if they can exchange money, if the guiding is professional.

[HK] - - The next question is about the simplified pass for crossing the border at the centre of the Bialowieza Forest. Its status is known, but the duration of the procedure of crossing through the border which lasted two hours, is simply unbelievable.

[SJ] - Yes. Especially if the border crossing is for tourists only procedures should be quick. Thus the system of crossing the state border needs to be improved. Otherwise many people resign from traveling not only to the Belovezhskaya Pushcha but even further into the country.

[HK] - - In your opinion, what are the prospects of developing a of bicycle tourism on the Belarusian side?

[SJ] - I think the prospects are great, under condition that the Bialowieza Forest is not made available for car traffic. For bicycle tourism development there are needed roads without cars. Other thing is information. There is a lack of such materials as maps, leaflets, brochures about the Pushcha, available for everyone. In comparison with the Polish part of the Pushcha, you need to improve it. It seems that there are no clear rules for tourists of visiting the national park on Belarusian side. There is limited number of guides as well.

[HK] - - The problem concerning the guides on the Belarusian side of the Pushcha is very serious. There are very few of them and all of them are employees if the National Park where a severe administrative system exists. This system does not stimulate creativity and reaching high standards for development of a person and his professionalism. How many guides are there on the Polish side?

[SJ] - About one hundred.

[HK] - - We have less then ten. Everyone works for the Museum of Nature. We will not count the research workers who are often forced to serve the tourists, especially during the period of New Year's holidays, when many children visit the residence of Grandfather Frost. I personally witnessed many times the problems occurring when serving tourists visiting during the so-called pick season. Moreover, not one of the administrative decisions and orders can help control this situation. Some kind of a deadlock has been created, and improvement of quality of the existing administrative system is simply impossible within the framework of the existing system. Radical changes are urgent. However, the prospect of occurrence of private (out of the Park's staff) guides in the frame of this management system is doubtful. It is therefore not clear who will serve the cycling tourist in our part of the Pushcha. This is particularly as the cyclists should be under control of the administration in order to avoid any casual witnessing of something forbidden or illegal that the administration does not want them to see. A paradox turns out. On the one hand, the administration permanently talks about development of tourism being a priority task for the National Park and, on the other hand, it makes barriers preventing it.

[SJ] - Our experience shows that tourism is most effective when the private sector provides the service, but within the frameworks and according rules set by the administration of the National Park. In general, qualifications of the private guides in Poland are high. There is a special program and procedure of training and examination for the guides. Many young people who come to Pushcha in order to study it, later become guides. Many guides speak foreign languages. A professional and a good guide can also earn good money, if he works hard.

[HK] - - When a pass for simplified crossing through Pushcha was being planned, the administration of the Belarusian National Park expected a major inflow of tourists. Our part of Pushcha is little known abroad but it is not less interesting than the Polish one. You have a major inflow of tourists. The guides and the cashier of the National Park were sent to the border to serve the tourists. However, it turned out that a few people visit the Belarusian part of the Pushcha. In most cases only the locals cross the border to visit their relatives or to trade with vodka and cigarettes. As a result, there is no one of the Park staff's service there. What's the matter?

[SJ] - It is difficult for me to explain it. To be exact, few people visit your part of the Pushcha. I think that problems of an administrative nature are the major obstacle. Advertising is not enough. Tourism should be developed to show the visiting tourists what they want to see, instead of them having to organize their visits themselves. If foreign tourists go to watch wild nature, it should be stressed to this. But instead of that they are offered to visit, for example, the entertaining show called "Grandfather Frost" located in the heart of a nature reserve. This is a misunderstanding of the requirements of tourists coming over here, who wish to see the protected part of the Belovezhskaya Pushcha, instead of a Santa Clause. I am sure if there were genuine traditions over here connected with the history of Belovezhskaya Pushcha and its inhabitants, with the Belarusian culture, for example, songs and folklore (the Belarusians sing well), this could be successfully presented as attractive to foreign visitors. I am sure many of them would like to see this because it would be unique and original.

[HK] - - In my opinion, all of these is connected more with a very poor management of the National Park than with a low professional level of its employees. This is because the administration, not the staff, rules and carries out this type of management and introduces new ideas and plans. The main problem is that the Belarusian administration does not understand the law and some fundamental rules. I recently red a wonderful book called "Deep Ecology" by Bill Devall and George Sessions. It narrows down deep approaches to understand ecological problems. I have realized what the main reason of not achieving successful results by us is. The absolute majority of the people, including the ecologists, are engaged in the decision-making process to solve problems at a superficial level, passing over understanding the roots of the problems. However, when a man does not understand the fundamental laws of ecology and the society, he cannot understand the integral and detailed concept of the phenomenon and cannot solve the problem. He struggles with the consequences of the problem but not with the reason of it. So, you have a lot of highly professional experts understanding deep roots of the problems of the Bialowieza Forest, but I do not see this kind of experts on our side. This leads to misunderstanding problems in the National Park. This statement is quite precisely discussed and proved in the section "Photo-fact" of the "Belovezhskaya Pushcha – 21 Century" website (http://bp21.org.by/en/ff/). Moreover, a concept of how tourism in the National Park should function and be developed is missing over here. At least, I have never sown this concept in the paper form. Thus, the main problem touches human minds, and first of all, those of the managers of the Belarusian National Park.

[SJ] - It is difficult for me to see the reasons behind the problem. I am more aware of the Polish part of the Pushcha, its open corners and reefs. To sum up, I would like to explain shortly why it is going so. On the one hand, the situation develops the same way as on your side, where administrative obstacles preventing seeing something interesting and perfect are being created, and there are no precise rules of visiting the national park. On the other hand, on our side, we have the other model – the commercial one. People earn money from tourism. But the question is whether it supports the protection of nature. I think it serves little the protection of nature. This is purely a business to earn money. The talking is therefore about acceptance of a clever strategy. I support an ecological model of development, from which nature protection benefits first of all, and then the public. But I know how hard it is to change the mentality of the public. This is connected with an internal philosophy of a man. The clever management of this region should be based on giving up some territories which have already been changed by a development of commercial tourism. This means breaking the area into sectors and giving some of them to those people, who do not understand and will not understand what the bases of nature protection and deep ecology are. There is a small group of such people in the society to whom it's impossible to explain anything. There is no point in fighting them. Let them develop business in areas where they will not be able to destroy nature and to harm it. Hajnowka, from the point of view of nature protection, is a lost and destroyed area. The industry and other production companies are well advanced over there. Large car parking places, where tourists will be able to leave their cars can be created there. If someone comes to have a good time and to start fireworks, let them do it there. Let the true eco-tourists travel to Bialowieza. This is, therefore, not only a philosophy of the protection of nature, but also the philosophy of business.

[HK] - - I have never heard about such the philosophy on the Belarusian side of the Pushcha. Too basic and purely administrative approach holds sway over there today, instead of a balanced approach. Who did support your project "Pushcha for Bicycles" and how good is the cooperation with the authorities and other involved partners?

[SJ] - Firstly, the project was written for the Euro-region "Belovezhskaya Pushcha" and that’s where the finances come from. These are the means of European Union in the frame of a program of good-neighborliness of Poland, Ukraine and Belarus (Interreg), as well as a part contribution of the State budget and WWF's own finances. The partners on the Polish side are the II Lyceum in Hajnowka (with Belarusian language as additionally taught language). The Bialowieza National Park’s authorities helped as well. As for the Belarusian side, the Belarusian Geographical Society is the main partner. The main executor of the project is WWF Poland, Project “Bialowieza National Park”.

[HK] - - And the last question is what, in your opinion, is the future of this project? What is the basis for achieving success for this project?

[SJ] - It is difficult to answer this question. The situation is not simple. There is one more problem. If a strong partner who would take initiative to continue this project could be found, it would be possible to obtain any funds for further financing of the project. The idea of such tourism is most important to me - not only to travel across the Pushcha but to provide something greater, first of all, in the sense of ecological education. The Pushcha should represent a model of preservation of wild nature, further transferring this model to other regions. But whether such a partner will turn up in the future, it is a big question.

Recorded on August 13, 2006 ă. in the village of Bialowieza, Bialowieza Forest, Poland

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