Eco-tourism at Baikal

To no surprise, Baikal and its shores are an attractive tourist destination.  A few minutes of online research place conservative estimates at 10,000+ tourists for the summer season.  Tourists usually start in Irkutsk or perhaps Ulan-Ude – the two largest cities, respectively about 70 km from Baikal’s western and 150 km from its eastern shores.  From the cities, travellers can take a cruise of up to two weeks or take a chartered bus to one of the many “tourist bases” in the wilderness of Baikal’s region.  The bases are operated by mostly small size businesses and board patrons in cabins or more the more recently constructed small hotels.  Amenities are modest, and vacation ads emphasize natural beauty, clean air and water, sauna, traditional food, fishing, seal watching and (for the foreigners) tours around indigenous people’s cultural objects that are seeing a post-Soviet revival.  Tourism is growing, and characteristic Siberian cabins are gradually giving way to hotels.  Many more tourists are about to visit Baikal and leave, having been unwittingly trained on how to interact with the lake and its clean air, water, forests and seals they have paid to visit.  “Eco-tourism” in the Baikal region offers many advantages over the alternatives but it has already blatant problems such as mountains of unmanageable trash.  It also raises new questions.  What roles and responsibilities do businesses, local communities and eco-tourist play in this partnership, how does each one benefit and what messages does eco-tourism reinforce for each partner.

Impacts on the environment.  Bad roads and bad business make for trash.  A long and infamous history of bad roads is the proverbial subject of Russian jokes.  Reality at Baikal complicates logistics.  Paved roads do not extend to tourist bases and most shoreline bases have no road connection at all, with tourist flow and goods supply by boat only.  Those in-between are served by seasonally and often sometimes impassable dirt connections that make supply difficult and costly.  However, with little regulation and weak enforcement, it is the attitude of the tourist companies that ultimately dictates business practices.

250 km north of Irkutsk, the island of Olhon has been a booming destination for tourists.  Traffic of ferries transports goods across a narrow 2 km straight to a mainland port in Sahyrta, a town with one of the most established, mostly paved connections to Irkutsk.  Regular bus services arrive and leave Sahyrta daily.  Yet, at the end of the summer season in 2011, the trash dump site on Olhon measured 3 hectares (7.5 acres), which grew threefold to 10 hectares (25 acres) a year later in 2012.  By law, tourist companies are required to remove all trash from the island.  The local public prosecutor is taking legal action.  For five years, NGO “Clean Shores of Baikal” has organized beach cleanups, cleanup boat cruises, and most recently has raised funds to lottery prizes for tourists who take out a bag of trash all the way to Irkutsk.  The situation has a ways to improve. 

Locals and the economy.  In the long run, no one likes trash.  Better organization in passing and enforcing local ordinances will serve as a framework for sustainable tourism with direct benefits to local communities.  It is easier said than done, but all it takes is one tourist company that makes additional long-term commitments.  Capitalizing on those business models is the direct responsibility of local communities, looking to encourage tourism development.

Locals and visitors. Everyone at lake Baikal is partially responsible for current tourism trends.  It is easy to blame the industry for mismanaging Baikal’s riches, but ultimately the tourists decide what kind of experience they are buying.  Do tourists at Baikal pay for a license to practice irresponsible recreation?  If so, it becomes harder to justify regulating business to provide services that the tourists do not care to purchase and perhaps the local communities do not care to enforce.

 A true eco-tourism experience showcases the past, current and future natural beauty a tourist’s destination.  An eco-tourist leaves a place like Baikal having seen a case study in ecology, resource management, conservation and responsible business.  Most tourists at Baikal come from Irkutsk, Moscow, St. Petersburg and Novosibirsk.  It is their country and they should not be shy to demand feeling proud – not only of the way Baikal looks today, but of the way it is going to look in the future.

Same goes for the rest of us visitors.  Seeing how strongly my own behavior and respect for Baikal influences Russians (especially in my generation) has been one of the most rewarding aspects of staying in Siberia.  They do feel proud of Baikal, and seeing a stranger show up with the highest esteem of their legacy does not go unnoticed.

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