Hiking Tourism Networks: Economic, Social and Environmental Benefits of the Cheapest Investment in Tourism

ARTICLE

Alternative forms of tourism, including hiking tourism, are gaining ground worldwide. While some see investment in large tourist units as an antidote to the economic crisis, an alternative approach 'brings to life' the beautiful, but often forgotten, paths that attract tourists and generate revenue through hiking tourism. If a path is properly designed and projected, it is a guaranteed investment for the area. After all, there is no better way to get to know a place than walking around it.

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Alternative forms of tourism, including hiking tourism, are gaining ground worldwide. While some see investment in large tourist units as an antidote to the economic crisis, an alternative approach 'brings to life' the beautiful, but often forgotten, paths that attract tourists and generate revenue through hiking tourism. If a path is properly designed and projected, it is a guaranteed investment for the area. After all, there is no better way to get to know a place than walking around it.

However, for hikers to come, there is a need for available routes, which requires organization and knowledge. In attempting to design and maintain hiking trails, the involvement of the local community is crucial. The locals are the be-all and end-all. It is, therefore, important that they become involved in the endeavor and acquire the necessary knowledge for the design of the trails, work with the organizations and agencies involved in opening up the trails and love the trails of their area. The most effective way of maintaining the trail, for hikers, Greeks and foreigners alike, is to point out problems to local authorities.

The trails are an excellent field for hiking vacations. The focus is on the concept of 'connectivity' that the trails offer. They connect us with the past, as through them we can see how people before us lived, but they also connect us with a better future, as through history we can learn how to interact with the environment.

Preserving biodiversity is vital for economic and social development. An organism's value is derived from the combination of the intrinsic value of the organism itself, its value within the ecosystem and its interaction with it. Therefore, the motivation for biodiversity conservation comes from understanding this value and the consequences of its loss. Countryside tourism encompasses habitats, landscapes, rural areas with unique farming practices, geotopes, caves and canyons, old mines, hot baths, coastal formations and beaches, elements of intangible cultural heritage and more, which together with villages, museums and archaeological sites constitute a huge wealth of great diversity.

Particularly in Greece, the mountains are approachable, not very high and inaccessible. Their foothills often end up at the clean and friendly sea, which is very different from the wild ocean waters. Even if you are not familiar with it, take a dive in the sea and then continue walking. From the one end of the country to the other, the trails highlight the diversity of nature and local traditions and cultures. The hiker enjoys not only the great variations of the landscape, but also the variety of the route: from the humblest watermill to a great ancient temple, or a beautiful Byzantine church to the ruins of an ancient theater. In addition, the same path is different from season to season. Some reveal the life cycle of the olive trees and allow the hiker to witness the agricultural process. The experience concludes with the hospitality and contact that develops with the residents. "Come for a treat" is an invitation that many hikers are used to. The experience can be complemented by staying overnight, thus boosting income of local businesses (e.g. shelters and hostels). This is what hikers experience and thus they become connected to a place.

In recent years, thousands of foreign tourists visit Greece every year, with hiking as their main aim. They are not backpackers on cheap vacations, but mainly middle-aged and older people looking for quality vacations along with smooth paths and also families with young children trying to encourage them to go out in nature. The majority are French, German, English, Dutch and Scandinavian of middle and higher standard of living.

Social cooperative enterprise “Paths of Greece” is active in hiking tourism. Having identified an existing need and an emerging trend of alternative and soft tourism, a group of people develops walking paths, always in collaboration with local communities treating hiking tourism as an alternative relationship to the environment. It started operating in October 2010. The team traces the old paths of each site in collaboration with the locals. Then it organizes them into a network based on the demands of the hikers. The process of approvals and paperwork follows in order for the paths to be cleaned and signaled. The last and most important is the promotion of the trails inside and outside Greece. This is a comprehensive approach, which ensures that these paths will "operate" for many years. At the same time, the Hikers Friendly Hotels certification badge has been created to assist and identify accommodation and shelters that provide services and infrastructure aligned with the needs of modern hikers. In this way, the hiking experience starts with accommodation. Prior to the development of Paths of Greece trail network, foreign hikers were limited to a few groups per year. Since 2010, and as the financial crisis was deepening, municipalities and tourism agencies found in hiking tourism, and especially in the approach of Paths of Greece, a low-cost, high-yield form of investment. The team's vision is to make Greece one of the top hiking destinations in the world.

A good example is the island of Sifnos. In October 2014, Paths of Greece undertook and built a 104km network with 12 different routes. “Sifnos Trails” was created and followed by a serious promotion of the network with coordinated actions, such as the capture of trails on the Google Camera and the island's participation in international hiking exhibitions in Germany and France. A digital guide-app for android mobiles was created, QR codes were used, and the first International Trail Twinning took place in Greece with a trail in South Korea. Five years later, website www.sifnostrails.com counts 470,000 visitors while thousands of people have downloaded the app. Based on estimations, the whole project, which cost less than 60,000 euros to the Greek State and private donors, has generated more than 1,000,000 euros in revenue for Sifnos. Similarly, in the five years that the Kythera Trails network exists in Kythera, its total cost amounts to € 50,000 – including maintenance to promotional activities - while the organized hikers visiting the island have generated more than 1,500,000 Euros in revenue. What’s more important is that the number of visitors outside the high tourist season has increased.