We stood in a field of flowers and tall grasses, looking out over the valley below to the rolling Maleshevo hills beyond – picture-perfect in the golden late afternoon sunshine. All around bees buzzed, filling their hives with honey. Protective clothing kept us from being stung. “Tourists will love to come here” said Antonio, confidently, “it’s a perfect rural experience.”
This was back in June this year, and as a former employee in the tourist industry, Antonio Arnautovski was speaking with some knowledge of the sector. Now joint owner with his wife of Kladence Apiary, he is hoping to earn his living in future from tourist visits. Antonio is one of various rural entrepreneurs being supported in touristic endeavors through the Swiss Agency for Development Cooperation (SDC) Nature Conservation Project (NCP) in the Bregalnica region of North Macedonia. NCP is implemented by the Macedonian company Farmahem, with technical backstopping from Helvetas. The project has already achieved one of its major objectives - the official creation of the Protected Areas of Osogovo Mountains and Maleshevo - and is working on the promotion of sustainable livelihoods for the people living in and around these areas. Eco-tourism, or what is in this case termed agri-tourism, is viewed as having considerable potential. Yet as the Covid-19 pandemic brought into sharp focus, expectations of tourism revenue can be over-optimistic. Tourism is a complex business; visitor travel restrictions are only one amongst many challenges that must be considered.
Assessing what tourists want
In supporting the development of agri-tourism, the NCP recognized that the Covid-19 pandemic has fuelled a demand amongst domestic and regional (European) tourists for authentic “rural life” experiences. There is growing interest in spending time in natural environments, away from crowds of other holiday-makers. The project has worked with two domestic tourist operators to develop two different packages that respond to this demand, both covering a variety of rural activities.
The operator “Mountain experience” has put together a package focused on Maleshevo, which includes Kladence Apiary – where Antonio will organize apitherapy as well as honey-tasting and sale. Other parts of the package are a visit to a sheep farm where it is possible to taste sheep cheese; mountain bike tours; and a visit to an educational centre for nature conservation, including appropriately equipped camping facilities. Meanwhile, Balkan Prime Tours will offer a package that covers the whole Bregalnica region. It includes the option to hire mountain e-bikes, attend a residential workshop on traditional music, make artisanal soap scented with local flowers or herbs, ride on horseback or take a course in hippotherapy. The plan is to connect with a Destination Management Organization (DMO) based outside North Macedonia once the offer is well-developed. DMOs are well versed in facilitating coordination between local, regional and national players, and then telling a convincing story to potential visitors.
Each of the small enterprises forming part of the two tourist packages has faced different challenges in establishing their offer. The NCP has worked with them to analyze bottlenecks and how they can be overcome. For example, Daniela Krstevska, the owner of MySoap, realized that her soap-making workshop was too small and poorly equipped to allow visitors to participate actively. Accordingly, the project provided a small co-investment for an expansion and upgrade of the workshop facilities. Goran Alacki, the musician who has established a residential facility for workshops on traditional folk music, was concerned about providing the degree of comfort that foreign tourists would expect when staying overnight. The project co-invested in suitable equipment. Maria Di Biaggio, the owner of Countryside Retreat, chose to analyze the needs of a specific group of visitors. She offers a variety of individual and group visits, including team-building opportunities, in an animal-friendly environment. A trained hippo-therapist, her services are often sought by people with special needs; with this in mind, she obtained project support to build a wheel-chair friendly bar serving drinks and snacks.
Linking to further opportunities
The two touristic packages will be officially launched on 2 November, paving the way for 2023 bookings (although most of the businesses are already taking individual reservations). Meanwhile, NCP is also facilitating the businesses in other ways. For example, it linked the Countryside Retreat to other interested donors and funding institutions, resulting in new projects and development grants. NCP also supported Balkan Prime Tours to attend the Fitur International Tourism Fair in Spain, at which it distributed MySoap samples. The result was an order of over 500 personalized soaps for other tour operators, as well as some early workshop bookings. The aim is to ensure a funding base beyond inherently somewhat erratic tourist visits.
…and the link to biodiversity conservation?
All the enterprises selected for support by NCP depend on the Osogovo Mountains and/or Maleshevo Protected Areas remaining attractive, well managed rural environments. All of them provided evidence of their environmental credentials when applying for NCP support and are committed to actions such as waste minimalization and recycling. Project support rests on the assumption that they, the businesses associated with them, as well as the municipal authorities, will continue this commitment in future. There is also a general recognition of the benefit of attracting greater numbers of Macedonian tourists, thus swelling public opinion in favor of biodiversity conservation. National visitors also come with a lower carbon footprint.
Ultimately, it is important that there is not only an environmental argument, but also an economic and social one, for maintaining the biodiversity of the Bregalnica region.