Fact-finding visit to help boost eco- tourism

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An international exchange of ideas and knowledge could lead to a boost in eco-tourism in South West Scotland.

Delegates from Finland and Iceland paid a fact-finding visit to the Galloway and Southern Ayrshire UNESCO Biosphere (GSAB) to see examples of communities trying to build their economies and reverse rural decline in a sustainable way.

Part of the visit focussed on initiatives taking place in Glentrool which has suffered depopulation and the loss of its school.

The Glentrool and Bargrennan Commmunity Trust described plans for the village, tourism and visitor accommodation.

There was a visit to the studio of potter Andy Priestman and guided nature and heritage walks as examples of how tourism experiences can be built on an area’s natural and cultural assets.

The guides involved were trained under a Biosphere initiative.

The visitors also learned about tourism development around the Galloway Dark Sky Park, the flora and fauna of the ancient native woodland at Wood of Cree and the historical significance of Loch Trool and Bruce’s Stone.

Heidi Koponen of the Ilomantsi Museum Foundation in Finland cautioned against underestimating things that may be taken for granted.

She said: “Sometimes ordinary is extraordinary. You have amazing things so keep on valuing them.

“Loch Trool, the guided nature walk and the star gazing were impressive.

“Although I am Nordic I really hadn’t realised that the ‘cloud’ in the night sky I was seeing was the Milky Way!”

Kjartan Bollason from Snaefellsnes Regional Park in Iceland countered the notion that Galloway and Southern Ayrshire are remote and difficult to access.

“The road system you have is good for tourists, especially when they want to take their time – it slows you down and this could be a positive for tourism.

“The link to Glasgow airport is not that far for Iceland and festivals like Spring Fling and your food festivals could be promoted more widely.”

The visit follows a similar trip undertaken a few weeks earlier by nine representatives from GSAB to North Karelia Biosphere Reserve in Finland, led by GSAB business development officer Marie McNulty.

She said: “This was an amazing opportunity for the participants.

“The area around the Koitajoki river had a unique nature including rare flood meadows used in former times for cattle grazing, old-growth forest landscapes as well as extensive and rare mire ecosystems.

“We got to experience a ‘slow triathlon’ eco-tourism initiative that had been developed building on the natural and cultural heritage of Koitajoki and got insights on the tourism co-operation and co-governance in the region.”

The exchanges are part of a £1.5 million three-year project called SHAPE, funded by the European Commission.

It aims to bring together communities, local authorities, tourism providers and conservationists from Scotland’s two UNESCO Biospheres (GSAB and Wester Ross) with counterparts from similarly designated areas in Finland, Norway, Iceland, Greenland and Canada.