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Stockholm 17 August 2013

Wild Wonders: Conservation works!

Krushuvade pelikaner i Kerkinisjön i Grekland

With world-class photos, Wild Wonders of Europe spreads the message that nature conservation works. The current exhibition in central Stockholm also shows that tourism contributes to conservation. Staffan Widstrand, photographer, is one of the key people behind the largest photo-based conservation campaign ever seen.

Photos of bee-eaters, red deer, dolphins and other gems are on display in large format in central Stockholm. / Photo: Markus Varesvuo – Wild Wonders of Europe

Wild Wonders of Europe's acclaimed outdoor exhibition of European nature will continue in Stockholm until the 29th of September. The one hundred images in large format were the result of 69 of Europe's premier nature photographers travelling to 135 locations in all 48 European countries to showcase our shared natural heritage.
“The exhibition on Raoul Wallenberg Square in Nybroplan has already attracted hundreds of thousands of people. Among them, Rihanna chose to stroll around the images of bison, whales, mountain goats and European Rollers when she got a spare moment during her summer visit to Stockholm. Now, when school is starting, we also hope that teachers and schools will visit the exhibition. This is the perfect introduction to Europe's nature for our younger generations,” says Staffan Widstrand, a renowned wildlife photographer and one of the Wild Wonders founders and initiators.

Sleeping sperm whales off the Azores, Portugal. / Photo: Magnus Lundgren – Wild Wonders of Europe

“Our main message is that nature conservation actually works - with national parks, Natura 2000 sites, UNESCO World Heritage Sites, better regulated hunting and much more. Animals like ibex, whooper swans, wolves, eagles, bison, whales, seals, and many others have come back in a major way. But we also want to tell you that the growing nature- and ecotourism industry is increasingly giving protected areas and species an economic value, which complements legislation, research and monitoring. Tourism increasingly lubricates the machinery of nature conservation and includes people living in and around protected areas.”
"Rewilding Europe, who is the main partner behind the exhibition, together with the Swedish Postcode Lottery, has put development of wildlife watching tourism at the forefront of their agenda, trying to demonstrate the business case of the wild."

An example of this is whale tourism in the Azores archipelago in Portugal.
“The opportunity to see sperm whales, dolphins, giant schools of fish, sea turtles and other fascinating marine creatures is actually one of the main reasons for travelling to the Azores.  There are beaches in many other places in Europe, both closer and cheaper, but here you can also see whales and one of Europe's richest underwater environments.”
“Today's whale tourism is already creating far greater revenues than whaling ever did, and the Azores is one of the best places to watch sperm whales in the world.” 

Commercial fisherman on Lake Kerkini in northern Greece now compliment their traditional fishing with guided tours and boat transfers. / Photo: Jari Peltomäki – Wild Wonders of Europe

Staffan Widstrand says that the growing bird tourism around Lake Kerkini in Greece is another great example of how conservation and tourism can interact.
“Kerkini lake is a bubbler among Europe's ecotourism destinations. Here small-scale commercial fishing intermingles with over 600 pairs of pelicans, 15,000 pair of cormorants and thousands of all of Europes heron species. Despite the huge number of fish-eating birds, there is still a lot of fish left for the fishermen. But the fishermen have also discovered that you can make money by guiding visitors, which often provides greater income and one does not exclude the other. This has resulted in the basis for viable rural businesses which safeguard the unspoiled nature and rich biodiversity,” says Widstrand. 

There were 63 Apline ibex left in Gran Paraiso in northern Italy when salvation came in the form of a royal hunting reserve in the middle of the 1800s. / Photo: Erlend Haarberg – Wild Wonders of Europe

Another success story is the rescue of Europe's Alpine ibex. In the mid-1800s there were only 63 specimens left, all in Gran Paradiso in northern Italy. The Italian king, Victor Emmanuel II, decided that the area would become a royal hunting reserve, and peace was established for the ibex. In 1920, the area became Italy's first national park, and today there are over 40,000 Alpine ibex around Europe, a phenomenal success story.
“Research shows that locations close to national parks often have double the tourism revenue on average. Ecotourism gives an economic value to wilderness areas that were previously considered worthless. Today many visit Gran Paradiso just to see the Alpine ibex. And, the ibex aren't timid at all, you can approach them on foot as close as you dare. The hundreds of thousands of visitors eat and live down in the valleys and often even book night or two in one of the simple cabins perched on the slopes, which in turn creates jobs and revenue. 

Nature experiences are often much better with local food and nice, intimate accommodation. Something that also puts money into the registers of local businesses. / Photo: Staffan Widstrand

Nature- and ecotourism are growing like mad around Europe, but Widstrand believes that this is just the beginning.
“This is a young, future-facing industry with lots of untapped potential. Bookable activities are often still missing. Instead, a trip requires that the travellers themselves be relatively well-informed, well-read and have spoken to others who have already been there. Furthermore, the range of activities is often basic, and it can be hard to get close to wildlife to take a good picture or get those experiences that stick in their mind for the rest of their lives. Also, too few organizers offer a complete experience with comfortable accommodation and delicious local food.”
“It is simply difficult for travelers to find their way through the motley selection. On the net, you can quite easily sift through a dozen tours in the Danube Delta, for example, but those who have been there know that there are less than a handful of organizers who are really good.” 

The eagle safari in Kristianstads Vattenrike Bioreserves is one of the many activities that have been created in the last 10 years. / Photo: Staffan Widstrand

It was this challenge - to make it easier for visitors - that was the fundamental idea when the quality label Nature's Best was created over ten years ago.
“Nature's Best has helped create a lot of success stories. New businesses have been started, many have gone from hobby businesses to becoming professional ecotourism operators. Many have grown and hired more employees, while others have joined forces to broaden their offerings and increase profitability. The range of bookable outdoor experiences has exploded, and more and more foreign visitors book their adventure in the Swedish wilderness even before they leave home,” says Staffan Widstrand and continues.
“The Swedish quality label Nature's Best, the national league for ecotourism, is at the absolute forefront in Europe and provides Sweden, as a destination, a strategic edge over most other European countries. But it has not yet been understood how to take advantage of this - neither on the entrepreneurial level, regionally or nationally. Nor do we use Nature's Best fully as a tool to sharpen competitiveness and improve profitability among Swedish nature tourism operators. Every year, we should be able to show an even better offering. The label also gives the nature conservation authorities a unique tool to encourage the industry to take responsibility for our natural and cultural heritage. However, all this is in an era characterized by declining funding for Swedish nature conservation.”  

Intimate accommodation such as Geunja Samisk Fjällgård in the Vindel Mountains Nature Reserve ensure not only a quality experience, but that the tourism revenue stays with the people the live in and around protected areas. / Photo: Staffan Widstrand

But according Widstrand the future of ecotourism has to do with us, the travellers.
“Many more have the courage to try the activities that are out there, make demands on quality and hospitality, and put a golden touch on their nature experience. Sample the local delicacies, meet enthusiastic, fun and talented local guides or rest in comfortable, intimate accommodation located next door to the nature we are visiting and want to preserve.”
“Furthermore, we must bring new groups out into nature. All those who do not have their own backpacks, camp stoves and tents at home in the closet. Here, I would like to highlight Nature's Best gift cards as a superb example of how you can give away amazing experiences with tremendous freedom of choice. Here you find by far today's best selection of Swedish nature experiences, where the recipient is free to choose from a range of activities from relaxing spa experiences at a horse farm to wild animals encounters or expeditions on horseback, dog sled or down a raging rapid. The donor also has total freedom to choose the price tag on the gift! A gift that also strengthens nature conservation. I myself have given away gift cards to relatives, employees, birthday honourees, wedding couples and to colleagues in Europe. This is something that has brought respect and admiration overseas for what happens when you tie things together for the benefit of European nature and serious entrepreneurs who want to make a difference,” says Staffan Widstrand.  

Wild Wonders of Europe