Ecotourism destinations (part I) – 10 years of evolution in Romania

In recent years, the term ecotourism destination has started to appear frequently in Romania. In fact, few people know that, at least from the perspective of applying the concept, Romania is the promoter of this approach at the international level, being one of the few countries in the world that has applied a destination evaluation system, based on internationally recognized criteria. Let’s go together, briefly, through this evolution.

This is the first article in a series of three that aims to address the issue of ecotourism destinations in Romania. In addition to the evolution of the concept presented in this article, the others will address the need for certification of destinations and the benefits that such an approach can bring (II) and the current situation of the network of ecotourism destinations (III).

Short history…

Shortly after its establishment, the Romanian Ecotourism Association (AER) started to develop its own ecotourism certification system for businesses in this tourism sector. Thus, in the period 2005-2007, AER developed the Eco-Romania certification system that covers two types of tourist activities: accommodation (for pensions and other types of accommodation of maximum 25 accommodation spaces) and tourist programs (which include at least one-night accommodation and maximum group of 15 people). This system, inspired by the first such international systems (Nature and Ecotourism Accreditation Program in Australia and Nature’s Best in Sweden), has proven its usefulness after more than 130 certifications.

After the launch of the Eco-Romania certification system administered by AER, the National Authority for Tourism – ANT (which over the years has taken various forms of organization and titles, from management within a ministry – Transport or Economy, to Authority or even Ministry) initiated the steps for drafting the first ecotourism strategy at the national level. Thus, in 2009, the National Institute for Research and Development in Tourism finalizes the first version of the National Ecotourism Strategy to which AER has made a substantial contribution. Although this strategy had a long way to go in being officially approved (GD 358, of 30.05.2019), it had evolution and organic implementation, it was taken over by AER and put into practice in the 12 years that have passed. One of the basic concepts of the ecotourism strategy, which actually underlies the construction of ecotourism in Romania, is precisely the concept of ecotourism destination. This concept defines the ecotourism destination as a micro-region that includes at least one protected natural area, which is included together with local communities in balanced development, based on small, local businesses and which together adopt concrete ecotourism development measures.

Dezvoltarea destinațiilor de ecoturism în România se realizează cu sprijinul financiar oferit de:

In 2011, the Interministerial Working Group for the development of ecotourism in Romania is established (OM 56/14 / 01.2011), under the coordination of ANT, which becomes responsible for the implementation of actions in the strategy, but especially for the elaboration and implementation of criteria for ecotourism destinations. Thus, between 2011 – 2013, ANT coordinates the process of elaborating the criteria and the procedure for evaluating ecotourism destinations in Romania. For the elaboration of these criteria in Romania, the European Ecotourism Labeling Standard (EETLS) was used, which in turn was the result of a series of three European projects with partners from over 10 countries, including AER. In addition, EETLS has adapted the Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) criteria for sustainable tourism. In other words, Romania has managed the extraordinary performance of having its own system for recognizing ecotourism destinations based on the globally recognized criteria of the GSTC since 2013. This was clearly pointed out at the second European Ecotourism Conference, which was organized in Romania, by AER, in Poiana Brașov, in 2013. This event was attended by over 80 experts in ecotourism, nature conservation and sustainable local development in 22 European countries and Japan that have adopted a joint declaration of European recognition of the notion of ecotourism destination. Among the organizations present were the European Federation of European Parks (Europarc) and national associations of ecotourism and sustainable tourism in Spain, Sweden, Norway, Estonia and Germany.

In 2014, the first three destinations are evaluated, and two of them are officially recognized by ANT: Zărnești – Piatra Craiului and Eco Maramureș (Mara – Cosău – Creasta Cocoșului). In 2016, three other destinations are evaluated and receive the title of ecotourism destinations: Țara Hațegului – Retezat, Țara Dornelor and Ținutul Zimbrului. Throughout this period, the ecotourism strategy is revised twice, 2015 – 2016 and 2018-2019.

At the time of writing, there are other ecotourism destinations that are in various stages of evaluation or preparation of documentation (Băile Tușnad și Împrejurimile, Colinele Transilvaniei, Pădurea Craiului, Cheile Nerei sau diverse zone din Dobrogea).

In fact, what is an ecotourism destination?

According to the joint declaration at European level within the European Ecotourism Conference (Poiana Brașov, October 2013), but also of the National Ecotourism Strategy (2019), the following characterization of the ecotourism destination was agreed:

Ecotourism destinations in Europe must include:

  • a protected area associated with the destination;
  • a critical mass of ecotourism business locally;
  • a sustainable development plan being implemented, which will contribute to the development of ecotourism;
  • local nature and culture as key elements in the product development process and destination marketing;
  • active participation of the local community based on common values, supported by education and awareness campaigns.

Where you can create an ecotourism destination

An ecotourism destination can be created where, following an analysis of the natural and cultural heritage, the tourist infrastructure of the area and possible partners, it is concluded that ecotourism development planning is a feasible approach for developing the area and combining economic objectives with those related to nature protection and conservation.

Thus, an ecotourism destination can be created where a minimum of preconditions are met (adaptation from the Criteria for designating ecotourism destinations):

  • the destination must include natural resources under a protection regime (biosphere reserve, national or natural park, Natura 2000 site, nature reserves or any other category of protected area), along with which anthropogenic tourist resources may be included;
  • the destination must be accessible by public and private transport (eg road, public transport, information);
  • geographical area can be qualified as an ecotourism destination if it has a minimum level of tourist services (eg minimum 50 places, minimum 50% of small accommodation, maximum 15 rooms / accommodation);
  • the ecotourism destination must provide a minimum of public services (eg medical, financial, education and waste collection).

In addition to these preconditions, two major conditions are needed to start the process of developing the ecotourism destination:

  • the possibility of establishing a partnership between the main local actors in the public sector (local government), the private sector (eg pensioners, restaurants, guides), the NGO sector and protected area managers that can generate and support a Destination Management Organization with resources and dedicated staff;
  • elaboration of a strategic concept of development through ecotourism agreed by the local partners.

Thus, an ecotourism destination can be conceived at the level of a microregion that covers one or more territorial administrative units (ATU), has attractive natural and cultural resources and has a local partnership that determines a clear and unitary development direction for ecotourism.

This article was made within the PET Romania project, developed by the Romanian Ecotourism Association, in partnership with the Ţara Dornelor Ecotourism Associationthe Retezat Tourism Association and the Măgura Ecotourism Association, with the financial support of Active Citizens Fund Romania, a program funded by Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway through the EEA Grants 2014-2021 .

The content of this material does not necessarily represent the official position of the EEA and Norwegian Grants 2014-2021; for more information visit .