News Environment, Territorial Planning and Housing

Urdaibai Biosphere Reserve: first protected area in the Basque Country to obtain accreditation as a sustainable tourist destination

2020 September 8

The Urdaibai Biosphere Reserve is to be the first protected area in the Basque Country to gain accreditation as a sustainable tourist destination.  The process of joining the European Charter for Sustainable Tourism (ECST) began in February 2019 and will conclude with the visit of a team of independent auditors on 9-10 September. Once the audit is passed, Biosphere Reserve will have completed the 1st phase of the process and will become the only tourist destination in the Basque Country with EU recognition for sustainable tourism, and the only reserve signed up to the Charter.

In the words of its director, Nicolas García Borreguero , “this accreditation is a roadmap for developing tourism focused on the principles of eco-tourism, based on respect for the physical, social and economic environments. It also provides a chance to publicise the destination internationally and thus increase support for the balance between conservation and sustainable development, as a quality, responsible, safe tourist destination and a benchmark in the Basque Country”.

The project to have Urdaibai join the ECST has enjoyed support from the various public administrations with authority for managing the reserve, and from tourism-related businesses in the Busturialdea area. It is a participative process led by the Urdaibai Biosphere Reserve Service, a body answerable to the Basque Government Department of the Environment, Territorial Planning and Housing, and by the Urremendi Rural Development Association. There has also been active engagement on the part of the municipal tourist offices of Bermeo, Mundaka and Gernika, the Basque Tourist Agency (Basquetour), the Provincial Council of Bizkaia, the Association for the Sustainable Development of Urdaibai (TOURDAIBAI) and civil society in general through the body known as the Standing Forum.

The ECST is organised in 3 stages. Stage one began when the biosphere Reserve set up a participative process to prepare a candidacy dossier, which comprised a diagnostic analysis of tourism in the local area, a proposed strategy with goals to encourage quality, sustainable tourism and an action plan to implement that strategy over the coming 5 years. To draw up these documents, the Urdaibai Biosphere Reserve enlisted the support of 3 groups: the Standing Forum for Sustainable Tourism, the Charter Working Group and the Technical Panel.

The Standing Forum is a participative, debate-based body which enables the project to engage with all public and private actors linked to the tourism business. It is an essential body for ensuring the proper implementation of the action plan and for working in a coordinated fashion to develop tourism in the territory, based on criteria of participation for sustainability. The Working Group is a smaller, more operational body made up of the main tourism-related actors in the territory, which draws up the documents required to join the Charter. Finally, the Technical Panel provides technical assessment of the whole process.

The European Charter for Sustainable Tourism in

The overall objective of the ECST is to promote  tourism from the viewpoint of sustainability. It constitutes a method for a voluntary commitment to apply the principles of sustainable tourism and provide guidance to managing bodies in territories that focus on sustainability and to businesses to help them define their strategies in a shared fashion.

The ECST has 168 member areas in 20 countries. The main benefits of joining the Charter include an EU distinction as a territory of excellence in sustainable tourism, support for balanced social economic development and the development of genuine, quality tourist products consistent with local areas.

Urdaibai, the Basque Country’s Biosphere Reserve

Urdaibai was declared a biosphere reserve by UNESCO in 1984, at the proposal of the Basque Government, in the wake of a major social movement to conserve its high environmental value and make it a benchmark territory for sustainability. The River Oka and its marshes are the heart of the reserve, and provide a landscape of great environmental value. This 22,000 ha site extending from Matxitxako to Punta Arboliz and to Oiz in is home to around 45,000 people scattered across 22 municipalities filled with history, culture, gastronomy and natural heritage sites.

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