The unique natural and cultural heritage, high forest cover and well preserved ecosystems with rich biodiversity of the border region between Slovakia and Ukraine provide ample opportunities for the development of forest based recreation and ecotourism. The forest area in Zakarpatska region is 724 000 hectares, which constitutes 56.6 % of the region’s area, in Prešov self-government county it is 440 800 hectares, which is 49,2% and in Košice self-government county it is 266 922 hectares, which represents 39,6 % of the area. These figures assign the interest territory to the top in Europe. However, these opportunities are currently being exploited to a lower than desirable degree especially when comparing to other rural regions of Europe where similar regions significantly profit from nature based outdoor activities. The interest area, especially its forests and forest parks, lacks appropriate tourism infrastructure and activities enhancing recreational potential of the region, healthy active lifestyle, active outdoor pursuits and leisure activities promoting the region among local community. There is a lack of programmes increasing environmental awareness of local community focused on the importance of forest ecosystems and promoting forests as healthy and interesting learning environment and the place for recreation and healthy lifestyle. Young generation in particular was recently spending time indoors thus loosing touch with nature which results in a number of physical and mental problems, although there is some activization of interest towards outdoor activities among youth, and it is important to keep this trend developing. According to the results of PISA survey (Programmes for International Students Assessment) students’ skills and knowledge of nature are progressively declining in the concerned area. In addition, young people with special needs (the disabled) have practically very poor opportunity to access natural areas.
The project focuses on the establishment of cross-border partnership aimed to support tourism development and its promotion (especially forest tourism) together with increasing the capacity of multifunctional forest management to fulfil social functions and offer services for forest visitors and tourists including young generation and people with special needs.Partners and other cooperated organisations will join a mutual Slovakia-Ukraine cluster, aimed to corporate partnership, strengthening economical cooperation and support sustainable development, tourism and interpretation of natural sources. The cluster will allow an intense exchange of information, consultancy, improving the potential of individual members and promoting the best practices in the development of the region. It will be the voluntary partnership network without legal form. The aim is to set up joint cross-border activities and events focusing at exploring natural and related cultural heritage of the concerned area and supporting awareness about the key role of forests for sustainable life on our planet and necessity of responsible citizenship. In addition, the aim is to increase knowledge about forests and all their values and products and deepen the understanding of nature, especially among the youth. This fully corresponds with political documents of both countries in relation to forests being the State Programme “Forests of Ukraine for 2010-2015” and “The National Forest Programme of the Slovak republic”.
The created cross-border partnership consisting of diverse institutions from Slovakia, Ukraine and Norway will enable pooling knowledge, transfer of best practices, methods and approaches for forest related recreation development. The partnership is aimed at creation of model educational facilities and setting up model experiential outdoor programmes and activities for various target groups (forest trips for pupils, students, disabled people, forest summer camps, forest fest events, etc.). The Forestry Extension Institute operating in the field since 1958 will contribute to the project by sharing its expertise on ability of forestry enterprises to provide services for society with emphasis on improving conditions for forest tourism and education based to sustainable development. Within the project, the educational needs analysis and survey of the target groups will be conducted. Based on the analysis, the educational programme – training course on ecotourism, forest tourism and forest related environmental education will be developed. The course will be tested during the training of trainers for 40 participants from Slovakia and Ukraine and will be certified at the Ministry of education, Science, Research and sport of the Slovak republic within the further education system. The expertise of the Norwegian partner will be intensively used in this phase of the project. 80 participants of study tours visiting the best practice sites in Slovakia, Norway and Ukraine will improve their knowledge and skills in ecotourism and forest tourism services. Professional foresters attending training and study tours will be enabled to use new methodologies for multifunctional forest management based on best European practices and sustainable forest management standards (forest certification) for the benefit of the society. Trained foresters, ecologists, students of forestry and natural sciences and other interested stakeholders (trainers) will implement model activities promoting the idea of forests as a healthy and friendly environment for everyone and anyone without restrictions. The demonstration educational and tourism objects (adventure trail, animal feeders, observation towers, bird watching spots, oxygen sport trail, etc.) will be constructed in partnership with the Municipal Forest Enterprise of the Košice town (see Map No1) and Pro Propulo Church Forest Enterprise (see Map No2) and will be developed in natural areas of Užhorod and in Irshava district (see Map No3) as well. Volunteers will update and renovate tourism trails. Selected tourism infrastructure in forest areas will be built to meet technical standards for the disabled with limited movement abilities, a rather unique project concept within the central Europe region. The particular facilities in Slovakia will be designated for blind people, as objects will use Braille and guide strips.
Mutual Slovak-Ukraine-Norway educational and tourist close-to-nature events for 120 persons, forest summer camp in English for 40 kids, the Forest Fest Celebration and the international conference will facilitate exchange of experience, knowledge, formal and informal communication, better mutual understanding, improve language skills, allow to explore cultural and natural heritage and initiate cooperation of main groups in the regions. The events will be opened for everyone – for disadvantaged, disabled persons, without any limitation concerning gender, religion or nationality of the participants. The project is targeted at staff of forestry institutions, forest owners and users, ecologists, students of forestry and natural sciences, nature friends and other interested parties. The local communities and self-governing regions in neighbouring countries will benefit from the project not only via getting better conditions for leisure and outdoor activities of the local people in the forest, but also through the improvement of general reciprocal attractiveness of the region and better cooperation and partnership of local people.
Joint partnership activities will enhance the general progress of forest tourism on both sides of the border, mutual promotion and knowledge transfer. Last but not least, it will reinforce economical and cultural cooperation of adjacent border regions and bring better mutual understanding and social interaction of people living in the border region. More efficient pooling of knowledge in terms of transfer of know-how from Norway, where outdoor activities in forests and learning about forests are at a high level, will represent an added value of the project. Both The Forestry Extension Institute of Norway and the applicant – National Forest Centre are the official members of The European Forest Pedagogigics Network, so as spreading the ideas towards to Ukrainian professionals and harmonisation of Ukrainian methodologies with those used in European countries will be essential. Another significant benefit is providing access to forests also for people with special needs in cooperation with the Slovak Disability Council. Cooperation of organisations involved in forestry, nature conservation, education and tourism from Slovakia, Ukraine and Norway will also provide for long-term personal and business contacts and partnership.