Amazon of Europe Bike Trail
Cycling for Nature
A European project of the “Danube Transnational Programme” that goes beyond: The Amazon of Europe Bike Trail as the core of a future transnational destination for responsible tourism
„You can´t be unhappy in the middle of a big, beautiful river“
Restrictions to the free movement of goods and people kept the rivers un-encroached and wild and gave them space to develop and maintain a wonderful natural balance that allowed flora and fauna to flourish. The three rivers form a 700 kilometers long “green belt” connecting almost 1,000,000 hectares of highly valuable natural and cultural landscapes from all five countries. Mostly untamed rivers, sand and gravel bars and river islands, backwaters, wet meadows and oxbows, marshes, even the largest inland delta of the Danube river at its confluence with the Drava (Kopacki rit, Croatia) have been largely preserved here. These habitats are home to the highest density of breeding pairs of white-tailed eagles in Continental Europe and other endangered species such as the little tern, black stork, beaver, otter and the nearly extinct ship sturgeon. Every year, more than 250,000 migratory waterfowls use the rivers to rest and to feed. Many of them have become rare to extinct guests in the rest of Europe, where rivers of this naturalness are not often found.
Due to all of these marvels of its wild nature, the area has become known as the Amazon of Europe – a name that that raises expectations this place fully lives up to. As a recognition of its value as well as to protect it against the all so many threats, the area is protected in a chain of 13 officially protected areas and has been nominated jointly by the five countries the territories of which it stretches across, to become the world’s first five-country biosphere reserve, recognized by the UNESCO. The official decision is expected to be received mid 2021.
The vast floodplains are not only important for maintaining biodiversity. People who have inhabited this vast area for centuries, have been living from the resources provided by the same rivers. Whether for drinking water, fish, small scale agriculture in a healthy and humid fertile ground or hunting and forestry, the rivers have always provided. People have learned even how to harness their energy and grind their crops on river mills. The pulse of the rivers in the form of seasonal floods or droughts, was part of people’s lives, and they coexisted for ages.
The years after the fall of the Iron Curtain have brought political turmoil, including bloody wars and confusion. A chaotic start of the economic development and hasty decisions that threatened to destroy this gem have triggered grassroots movements for defending of nature against political and economic interests. Over the past twenty years a gradual shift towards more stability and cross-border cooperation in spite of old grudges could be achieved. In 2021, a decision to recognize the world’s first five-country biosphere reserve, The 5-country Biosphere Reserve Mura-Drava-Danube (TBR MDD) is expected.
The kingfisher finds its ideal habitat along the natural river sections of the Mur, Drava and Danube. This is one of the reasons why this colorful bird was chosen as the heraldic animal of the Amazon of Europe Bike Trail ©G. Safarek
Kopacki Rit Nature Park in the border triangle of Hungary, Croatia and Serbia is without a doubt one of the scenic highlights along the new Amazon of Europe Bike Trail ©G. Safarek
The natural wonders of the Biosphere Park, coupled with the culture and hospitality of five different countries make the Amazon of Europe Bike Trail truly unique! ©G. Safarek
The many historic towns along the bike route, which are also often used as stopover points, also exert a special charm. In the picture the charming Alz town of Varazdin ©Tourism Office Varazdin
The fragility and sensitivity of the natural environment along the Mura, Drava and Danube rivers is particularly well expressed in this image: nesting site of sand martins on a steep bank of the Drava ©G. Safarek
at any price
Contrary to EU environmental laws and international stand ards, river management in Croatia, Hungary and Serbia is still based on outdated concepts. The idea of transforming natural rivers into uniform channels denuded of gravel and sand is an erroneous and antiquated practice. These practices, allegedly contributing to navigation and flood protection, are threatening the ecological values and natural resources of the Mura, Drava and Danube area. River channelling and extraction of sediments from the river cause devastating environmental impacts: it leads to deepening of riverbeds, dries out wetlands and floodplain forests, ruins natural river habitats and threatens endangered species. This is evident in the decline of the sand martin along the Drava from 12,000 breeding pairs in 2005 to 3.000 in 2010.
We are convinced Europeans! And we are convinced that transnational projects can make an important contribution to international understanding and a new togetherness ©Wikipedia
– the world’s first 5-country UNESCO Biosphere Reserve “Mura-Drava-Danube” (TBR MDD), and
– innovative cross-sector cooperation and harmonised sustainable regional development, that also supports cross-border reconciliation.
Major milestones over the past 20 years have laid the foundation of a well-protected and managed river ecosystem. Major threats (hydropower dams, regulation projects, sediment extraction) along 270 km of the Mura, Drava and Danube have been stopped. A chain of more than 10 single protected areas along these rivers have been established.
These achievements set the foundation for the future transboundary protection, ecological management, restoration and sustainable development of the Mura-Drava-Danube region. This, in turn, translates into a well-managed and dynamic river ecosystem that supports a unique biodiversity and improves living conditions of local people. The goal of the Amazon of Europe Bike Trail is to establish a European model region for cross-border nature conservation by 2025, as a significant contribution to the biodiversity protection in Europe. It is to be positioned as an international brand for ecotourism and as a peace project which strengthens the shared responsibility for our European natural heritage.
Yet, nature conservation can only be successful if it succeeds in bringing its goals into harmony with autonomous, sustainable regional development. Only if nature and species protection generates economic benefits on the ground, in the mostly peripheral rural regions, protected areas will be accepted and supported by the local population. This was clear to the WWF as the driving force behind nature conservation efforts from the very beginning. And that one of the most efficient ways of providing regional impulses is responsible tourism. Arno Mohl from WWF Austria confronted Klaus Michor, the managing director of our business partner REVITAL IB, with this idea. Klaus Michor is, connected by numerous nature conservation projects in this region, a reliable consultant on the potentials and challenges along the river landscapes of Mur, Drau and Danube. It was his idea to make this unique as well as undiscovered transnational region experiencable via a long-distance bike trail and to put it gently into value. An idea that immediately found fertile ground at WWF Austria and through REVITAL IB the Trail Angels became involved. We immediately caught fire for this project and added individual bookability, the implementation of a regional booking center and thus economic sustainability to the investment in a new bike trail.
The road to the transnational INTERREG project was still a long and rocky one. Arno Mohl cleared most obstacles aside and found with Urska Dolinar from ISKRIVA the ideal lead partner for the project. And it is Urskas achievement to have built a strong unit from this project group, the so-called Steering Committee. With which in the end we have gained the greatest “heroes”: A diverse group from five countries, from the most varied organizations and with a common goal! As a shining example of the European spirit and as proof of what is possible when cooperation and teamwork are put above individual interests and egoisms.
It is thanks to the persistence and persuasiveness of Arno Mohl of WWF Austria that the “Amazon of Europe Bike Trail” project was pushed through to submission ©WWF
The objective of the project was clear from the start and also formed a basic prerequisite for our commitment: More than “just” another bike trail should be created here, but rather a new destination should be developed through a sustainably managed flagship project. A vision that we Trail Angels have always consistently advocated and which, in the beginning, was particularly in need of explanation, especially with our regional partners.
Today, more than two years after the official start of the project, there is a large consensus within the project group about the defined goals and the trust placed in the Trail Angels and their work is a great recognition for us. Although we are intensively involved in all work packages, especially strategically, our activities are focused on the work package “Product Development” with the following key activities:
• Development of an individually and online bookable stage bike trail (in the meantime two routes – a “North” and a “South” route – have been developed)
• Implementation of the product in our Trail Info-, Booking and Management System
• Information and training of regional service providers with the aim of fair participation in the Trail business model
• Design and development of a long-term transnational organization model
• Design, establishment and training of a regional Booking Center for the management of the Bike Trail
• Development and initialization of sales activities (especially cooperation with specialized tour operators)
Working on a transnational project of this size is both challenging and inspiring. It is up to the good will, the commitment and the grown trust of all partners which direction the project will take. The lead partner ISKRIVA has succeeded in establishing an efficient project structure in which all partners have found their place: While the regional partners are responsible for the implementation on site, an outstanding team of project partners has created a truly unique trail project:
• ISKRIVA: Leadpartner and responsible for marketing and communication
• WWF Austria: nature-oriented visitor guidance and Trail infrastructure (with our company partner Revital IB as main contractor)
• West Pannon: detailed route planning
• WWF Adria: Valorization program and cooperation with protected areas
Although the corona pandemic has slowed down project progress to a certain extent: The Amazon of Europe Bike Trail is a sustainable, transnational tourism product which also has a prominent position in the high-profile Danube funding program.
It is truly astonishing how quickly the project group, known as the “Steering Committee” in officialese, has grown together. With all the challenges that a large transnational project involves, it is always worthwhile – if the cooperation is taken seriously. The “Amazon of Europe Bike Trail” is a prime example of how the European spirit can overcome the burden of nationalism and its past, which is so difficult especially in this region. Our message to the regional partners in the workshops is always: Your guest of the future will love the natural beauty and cultural diversity. And he will want to book and experience ONE product in ONE destination. He wants to feel this spirit of cooperation and we are on the best way to get there with this project.
The unique river wilderness along the rivers Mur, Drau and Danube in the Five Countries Biosphere Park is the greatest potential of this region, which is lacking in many places. To put this potential with a product of the sustainable tourism carefully and in harmony with nature into value, has caused a change of perspective for many Stake Holders. The scepticism has now been replaced by an optimistic confidence that nature conservation combined with professional, value-adding sustainable tourism can represent a future opportunity for these regions. And that with the unique “valorization program” nature conservation can derive direct benefit from tourism.
Initially, our model “The way beyond” for professional responsible tourism encountered the unique charming pragmatism of the Balkans. Today everyone is aware that a business model for responsible tourism that wants to exist internationally is as strong as its weakest part. Thus, the implementation of a viable transnational organizational model, the qualification of regional service partners and the establishment of a professional regional Booking Center currently takes up a large part of our joint efforts.
Focus on the long-term
The Amazon of Europe Bike Trail is designed for the long-term. It is intended to provide the initiative for the further integration of the transnational destination and to position it on the map of Europe as a flagship of a responsible tourism destination. With the approval of the follow-up project “Amazing Amazon” another big and important step has already been taken.
There is always something good happening in the Amazon of Europe region! Check out our updates and impact stories here in the “Hall of Fame”, where the “Amazon of Europe Bike Trail” is more than in the right place.
A never diminishing enthusiasm for the common goal: On the contrary, the working group at the S-COM meetings grew bigger and bigger! In the picture: S-COM Meeting in Bad Radkersburg ©Trail Angels
What is our vision for the Amazon of Europe Bike Trail?
Let’s look into the year 2030!
But that is not all! The spirit of the Amazon of Europe Bike Trail has spread to the entire destination. With the help of the follow-up project “Amazing Amazon” and many other initiatives, a powerful network for responsible tourism has been created. This includes long-distance hiking trails, river experiences and cultural programs as well as the network of regional service partners, all of whom are committed to responsible tourism in harmony with the natural environment of the “Five Countries Biosphere Park”. Coordinated and managed by a prudent and responsible transnational organizational unit and operated by a professional and dedicated Booking Center.
In 2030, national borders in the tourist destination “Amazon of Europe” have disappeared just as they have dissolved in the natural space of the Biosphere Park. “Amazon of Europe” has grown into a unique transnational tourism destination, which with all its strengths has positioned itself as one of the most desirable destinations for responsible travel in Europe. And as THE outstanding example of how nature and species conservation can directly benefit from tourism through an intelligent business model. Thus, in 2030, the “Amazon of Europe” brand with the distinctive “Kingfisher” signature has become an internationally recognized symbol of a full partnership between tourism, nature conservation and regional integration.
»The Amazon of Europe Bike Trail project is full of unique opportunities. Supported by the European spirit, a tourism destination can develop in this five-country region that has the potential to become a model for all of Europe. In terms of transnational cooperation, experience value and sustainability.«
This article was written by: Emőke Györfi; Günter Mussnig
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