Belarus’ Nature Reserve applies sustainable ecotourism practices with benefits for local communities and nature

A narrow-gauge railway route, glamping, a sensory trail and the partnership with local business community – the Republican Landscape Reserve – Ozery in the Grodno region uses sustainable ecotourism practices to create quality tourism services with care for the people and the nature.

September 27, 2023
Photo: UNDP in Belarus

The increase in tourist flows to the Ozery Nature Reserve in 2023 was a good incentive for the administration to revise strategies and practices of ecotourism services, invest more into infrastructure development and improve the sustainability and environmental friendliness of the local tourist products and services. 

Reducing impact on wildlife.

One of the important components of sustainable ecotourism is the reduction of negative human impact on the environment and the preservation of wildlife while maximizing benefits for tourists. For example, the Zapovedny Put (the Inmost Trail) railway route, which is attractive for tourists and respectful of nature, operates in the Ozery Nature Reserve. Due to the efforts of the Reserve's administration and with the support of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Belarus, an old narrow-gauge railroad, which used to belong to a peat factory in the past, was upgraded into a 20-kilometer tourist attraction.

Two small, motorized trains and passenger platforms that can accommodate up to 20 people, take tourists on a three-hour journey across the Reserve’s unique landscapes, including Lake Beloe (White Lake), the Sacred lowland mire and the Devil’s bog. Organized stops along the route give the tourists an opportunity to dive into the world of wild plants and animals with a chance to encounter some Red Book species.

It is quite difficult to reach these places on foot, so traveling by narrow-gauge road, on the one hand allows tourists to get to the most hidden corners of the Reserve, on the other hand, to do it with the minimal negative impact on the ecosystems. In addition, the new route is a highly sought attraction among ecotourists, which is positive for the specially protected natural area’s (SPNA’s) economy. From April to September 2023, more than 2,200 people used the service, including about 400 children. The profit of the Reserve from the Zapovedny Put route amounted to about 30,000 Belarusian rubles (US$ 9,000).

The development of sustainable accommodation options. 

Eco-accomodations help tourists to minimize their ecological footprint and provide them with immersive nature experiences.

Photo: UNDP in Belarus

The development of sustainable accommodation options is another significant trend in sustainable ecotourism. Worldwide ecological lodges, ecological complexes and even eco-resorts are designed and operated in an environmentally friendly manner, using renewable energy sources, waste utilization systems and environmentally friendly construction methods. These accommodation options help tourists minimize their negative impact on the environment and fully immerse themselves in the world of nature. Since the beginning of 2023, a glamping site has been operating in the Ozery Nature Reserve. 

The word "glamping" is a combination of two English words: “glamorous” and “camping”, which means “glamorous camping”. In fact, it means that travelers can now get not just a place to pitch a tent in a forest or on a river or lake bank, but to stay in a natural setting with greater comfort. This provides tourists with immersive nature experiences along with the opportunity to minimize their ecological footprint.

The glamping site in the “Ozery” Reserve is features a gazebo and a fire pit, two comfortable canvas tarpaulin cabins with beds and is located on the picturesque shore of Lake Beloe, surrounded by wild forest. The area is also famous for rare species of flora and fauna, such as lily of the valley, lady’s slipper and non-venomous smooth snake. 

At the beginning, the glamping worked in a test mode, which allowed to study the demand for this service among tourists. During the summer season of 2023 more than 100 visitors of the Reserve used the glamping, and the profit from the service amounted to 2,000 Belarusian rubles (more than US$ 600).

Interpretation and green education 

Interpretation and green education are critical for raising visitor awareness about the natural and cultural significance of tourist destinations.

Photo: UNDP in Belarus

Interpretation and education play a prominent role in the development of sustainable ecotourism. It is critical to raise visitor awareness about the natural and cultural significance of destinations through interpretive programs, nature tours, and interactive exhibits. This fosters environmental stewardship and encourages responsible behavior. A successful example in green education solution for children and adults is the ecological sensory trail "Touching the Nature". The trail is more than a mere walking path. It is a looped route with several “stations” where tourists can have a physical touch with nature: touch the timber of various trees and their bark, inhale the aromas of local plants, and even learn how to build proper bird houses. 

As the trail incorporates sensory elements, it is also inclusive and is accessible for people with visual impairment. 

As explained by the reserve, the exclusivity and inclusiveness of this route also lies in the fact that excursions, "green" lessons and interactive exercises are adapted to the age of the group and other characteristics that affect the assimilation of environmental information.

Community empowerment and local income generation opportunities 

The involvement of local entrepreneurs in ecotourism offers greater opportunities for the development of local economies.

Photo: UNDP in Belarus

The active participation of local communities, including entrepreneurs, in the development of ecotourism initiatives and services is another notable trend in sustainable ecotourism. The engagement of local communities contributes to poverty reduction, job creation, improvement of living standards and long-term economic sustainability in rural areas. The involvement of local entrepreneurs in ecotourism offers greater opportunities for the development of local economies.

The reserve has become the core of the ecotourism cluster, which currently includes eight organizations interested in the development of nature tourism, such as the Ozerny sanatorium, the Ozersky Culture Center, agro-farmsteads, small businesses offering services and products for tourists, as well as Grodno State University named after Yanka Kupala and the Grodno Zoo. Yanka Kupala State University and Grodno Zoo. It is expected that the interaction of the participants will expand the range of ecotourism services and improve their quality, provide scientific support for tourism, and strengthen the educational component. The cluster participants, cooperating, will be able to offer comfortable accommodation, local goods, souvenirs, and food, which, among other things, will help promote the ecological value of the area, its historical and cultural heritage.

For example, the entrepreneurial enterprise Myadovy Shlyakh (The Honey Way), a member of the cluster, offers "bee" excursions and master classes to travelers of different ages, which introduces children and adults to the history and the development of local beekeeping, provides an opportunity to taste local products, including authentic treats of the national cuisine. 

The cluster initiative is interested in creating joint ecotourism products - not only with an eye on economic benefits, but also in order to preserve nature and cultural heritage and raise the profile of these values among travelers.

The piloting of the sustainable ecotourism practices in the “Ozery” Nature Reserve is supported by the project “Development of Ecotourism to Promote Green Transition to Inclusive and Sustainable Growth", implemented by UNDP in partnership with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Protection of Belarus with funding from the Russian Federation.