The people of Latvia have always been great nature lovers. We have long been proud of the traditions of mushroom and berry picking, we look for adventure and go in nature, and outdoor life is even an essential part of our identity. However, as the public demand for well-maintained nature tourism destinations keeps growing, people are also depleting nature. So the question is, are we willing to pay for the well-being experience in nature trails similarly as we pay for our food?
Andris Klepers is an associate professor at Vidzeme University of Applied Sciences, doctor of geography and researcher in the Laboratory of Spatial Analysis. His work focuses on geography, regional economics and tourism. Within the scope of his competencies, the professor seeks solutions for the sustainable development of the tourism industry, as well as delves into ecosystem services, landscape quality, urban-rural interaction, understanding of mobility or place marketing and branding issues.
As part of his most recent study, Andris Klepers developed a geospatial data platform that includes interrelated development indicators of tourism places, including measurable economic, environmental and social impacts. Interpretation of the data indicates that the load on nature trails in Latvia is growing very sharply this year. “Summarizing the data collected not only by us, but also by municipalities and the Nature Conservation Agency, the general tendency is clearly proved that the increase in visitors in nature trails is significantly increasing due to the restrictions set by Covid-19. Unable to travel abroad or enjoy a full-fledged offer of public cultural events, the residents of the country travel around Latvia much more actively,” stated the researcher.
"In March, after the first wave of Covid-19, people went to nature in large numbers to strengthen their health, followed by a massive public campaign not to go anywhere at all in April, and dozens of observation towers and nature trails were closed. April was a relatively empty month. The nature trails where the distance of two meters could not be ensured were closed, especially the bog trails. However, in May and June, the attendance of nature trails increased even more sharply, and there was even a double increase in visitors in some trails, while others still remained restricted. The sensors detected that in one observation tower, which was officially closed (indicated by a warning sign and a demarcation ribbon), 1,700 people had violated the ban and climbed it in one month, probably with the thought - Oh! No one is nearby, I'll climb the tower quickly and look around. It also outlines the public attitude towards various rules and bargaining with them," suggested Andris Klepers.
The current situation in the tourism industry is assessed by the researcher as heterogeneous - those who worked with foreigners are on the verge of bankruptcy or undergoing very big changes, while tourism in regions serving local audiences is in some cases even more beneficial than before. However, also in rural tourism the owners of large guest houses, which focused on wedding service and large events, suffer. Uncertainty and the often changing conditions put a great deal of strain on the whole hospitality industry. "It is a human industry that is heavily influenced by mobility. In addition, there are even more variables in this formula, for example, even after the lifting of various restrictions, people still are cautious, their actions change,” said Andris Klepers.
He explained that places with especially beautiful views or symbolic landscapes, where people like to return, are mostly protected nature areas, and there the impact of human flow on nature is not diminishing, but increasing, because people not only seek aesthetic pleasure, but also appreciate easy access, amenities - comfort.
"Nature trails in protected nature areas are related to, among other things, public education, but it is understandable that some people who go there do not always want to explore. They perceive nature as a place to escape from everyday life, relax, walk the dog, do sports - without being too involved in watching nature and learning. These are the ecosystem services that we use, and we should slowly begin to get used to the idea that it is not completely free for us and we are not entitled to it. It is the thinking of a bygone era of production, where the consumer pays only for what is physically produced. We see that the need for nature is growing all over the world, and in order for these places to maintain their natural excellence in the long run, so that they can be preserved, there are some costs to society,” emphasized the professor.
There are two sides to such nature enjoyment initiatives: one is to have the resources to build such a trail, and the other is to maintain the trail later on. The creation of trails improves accessibility and aesthetic quality, reduces depletion to the surrounding area, but the costs are high: “A single organization – the Nature Conservation Agency – over the last 6 years has invested about 10% of all public funding investments in the tourism sector in the improvement of trails, and this is a lot. However, it is only the development of trails; when we come to the understanding that someone has to maintain it, then in most cases everything rests on the shoulders of the municipality, the Latvian State Forest or the Nature Conservation Agency. Maintenance means regular waste management, replacement of wooden parts, which will always be a problem in Latvia due to the climate. In addition, not all public activities in nature require the most biologically valuable protected nature areas - good alternatives with nature trails for running, walking, many other activities are needed also outside these areas, especially in the vicinity of large cities. But there is also a lack of such a balance."
The public good is usually paid for by society as a whole, as is the case with these investments. However, in several countries there is a tendency for those who use public goods more than others to participate more in the maintenance of these benefits, which in a sense is also in solidarity with others. Andris Klepers does not rule out the possibility that in the future it may be necessary to make a partial co-payment for the maintenance of nature trails by paying an entrance ticket. "Convenience is growing with fast mobile payments and remote micropayments - just as well, these can be voluntary nominal donations via smartphone. At the same time, it raises awareness of the value of these sites and, of course, provides support for site management. This is also evidenced by the popularity of private nature trails. A large part of the society no longer lives with the idea that "nature cannot be closed". We have surveyed people's willingness to pay and found that paying for parking is sometimes perceived more naturally than paying for an entrance ticket. However, part of the society is unable to accept the idea that they may need to pay for visiting nature. But by comparison, when going to a safari park in Africa, visitors from any country pay as much as $50 per visit and it seems normal, but paying 2 euros for the entrance to the Gauja National Park - where have you seen that? Another example is from the mountains of Scotland; before going up the mountain trails, the payment sign for parking clearly explains that you also contribute to the maintenance of the trails, the improvement of the site and the promotion of biodiversity. In Sweden, on a suburban cross-country ski trail the operators experimented with voluntary nominal donations before going on the trail that allowed them to pin a red flower to their jacket. The desire to donate for the use of the trail grew rapidly, because many people on the trail, when meeting other skiers, did not want to feel uncomfortable that they did not have a flower pinned – indicating that they do not support the maintenance of the trail. In many places, there are active volunteer movements that are interested in helping to maintain these places. Of course, we must not exaggerate, because we must take responsibility for society as a whole. Nature education is not exclusive to those who earn, there are various social groups who should have access to these resources free of charge or with public support. When I say that we have to pay for consuming nature, I do not mean we need to move completely to paid services everywhere, then we will be unique in the world, but the society needs more understanding and discussion on these issues, including quality recreation outside specially protected nature areas. There should be no public campaigns claiming that everything is available in nature for free. The need for such places and the coexistence of outstanding natural areas will be important for generations, and we must therefore be aware of the various possibilities for reinvesting in public places in the country."
In September, Andris Klepers competed the study, which was related to smart solutions in tourism management, which includes the involvement of technology in tourism decision-making and influencing its development. As a result, a geospatial data platform was developed to track the development of tourism and its economic value or impact on the environment and society at various scales. This makes it possible to sequentially collect data on the efficiency of the operation of all stakeholders involved in tourism, for example, to measure the return on public spending. In fact, it also justifies the next steps for different actions in the context of the administrative-territorial reform: how tourism information centres will transform, how new destination management will emerge. Using different, but interconnected and well-structured data provides a clearer picture of the situation. This, in turn, allows for a much more reasoned search for the best solutions to everyday problems and for shaping future policies.
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On Friday, October 16, the mobile telecommunications operator LMT and Vidzeme University of Applied Sciences signed a Memorandum of Understanding, expressing their commitment to promote mutual transfer of experience and knowledge in order to strengthen capacity and research opportunities in the fields of cooperation applicable in the national economy.
The planned cooperation covers important topics such as cybersecurity and critical infrastructure, modern ICT solutions for the economy and society as a whole, analysis of big data in business, Internet of Things and its applications, as well as virtual and augmented reality opportunities in the national economy.
"The key to future success is clearly a business-science partnership. By combining industry experience and university infrastructure, as well as research potential, together we can improve technology solutions and integrate them into various areas of practical life, making everyday processes more efficient. As evidenced by the successful cooperation of LMT with the University of Latvia and Riga Technical University, it always bears fruit because it is possible for the parties to implement projects together that would be difficult to implement separately,” said LMT President Juris Binde.
By signing the memorandum, LMT will ensure testing and validation of research results in the business environment, mutual exchange of experience of staff for the implementation of research and academic activities, support for the transfer of industry experience in study and research process development, use of infrastructure and data for joint research activities, cooperation for the implementation of international research projects and consulting on structuring and using big data in research.
In its turn, Vidzeme University of Applied Sciences plans to identify the needs of the industry more precisely and purposefully implement international research projects and corresponding academic activities by using laboratories and infrastructure and attracting international research and academic staff.
"For universities, cooperation with leading industry companies is both a valuable investment, contributing to the development of innovations, and a benefit because such exchange of experience allows to adapt the study content to the real needs of the industry," said Gatis Krūmiņš, Rector of Vidzeme University of Applied Sciences.
In September 2020, the new filming studio is opened in the Multimedia Laboratory of Vidzeme University of Applied Sciences (ViA), Cēsu Street 4. The studio is designed so that it can be easily transformed to create various audiovisual content - to record discussion/ conversation programmes and interviews, as well as to use the green screen and lightboard.
The filming studio is intended for ViA lecturers and employees, as well as researchers and students, for example, for creating study courses or internship assignments, educational and informative videos about current events, scientific achievements, etc. ViA also offers its cooperation partners to use the studio.
For more information on the Multimedia Laboratory, see here.
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