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

Awarded for
Partnership of nature conservation and tourism; a project for connecting people and overcoming nationalism; regional added value for peripheral, economically deprived border regions
Accepted in the year
2020
Destination
Austria, Slovenia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia
Product
Individually bookable, transnational long-distance Bike Trail
Partner
INTERREG Danube Transnational Programme with 15 project partners (Lead-Partner: ISKRIVA)
01 — THE MYTH
Big River

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So near and yet so far: The river wilderness along the world’s first “Five Countries UNESCO Biosphere Park Mura-Drava-Danube” seems exotic, yet it is only a few hours’ drive from Vienna ©G. Safarek

„You can´t be unhappy in the middle of a big, beautiful river“

Jim Harrison

In 1991, the fall of the Iron Curtain laid bare one of the best kept secrets of the small group of five Central European countries Austria, Hungary, and Slovenia, Croatia and Serbia – the latter three of which at that time were still part of Yugoslavia. Fiercely guarded as the border area that separated these patches of land so close to each other into East and West, Tito communism and goulash communism, a stream of life by the free-flowing lower streams of the Mura, Drava and Danube as well as their floodplains, wetlands, marshes and floodplain forests were able to survive in all their splendour. Flowing far away from civilization or across border villages used to being forgotten for centuries by their kings, lords and presidents, the three rivers were left to do what they best can. They were left to flow, to shape the landscape and transport stones and sand and rebuild new land and, where the endless lowland Pannonian landscape begins, slowly meander further downstream before reaching the Danube and then continue the endless shift towards the sea.

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.
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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

02 — THE THREAT
Development
at any price

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Pioneers: A project like the “Amazon of Europe Bike Trail” required a preparation phase of several years. A transnational working group has driven this forward with commitment and consistency until the successful submission ©Trail Angels
This area is a true Amazon of Europe in spite of the numerous man-made changes it suffered in the past and remains a stunning river landscape that hosts an amazing biological diversity and is a hotspot of rare natural habitats such as large floodplain forests, river islands, gravel and sand banks, side branches and oxbows.
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.
Beside the loss of biodiversity, irresponsible river management causes considerable economic damage: e. g. decreasing water levels have negative impacts on drinking water, forests, agriculture and fish stocks. River channelling also increases the risk of floods in downstream settlement areas. Currently, the most affected areas by newly planned large scale river channelling are the natural stretches of the Danube and Drava rivers in the border area between Croatia, Hungary and Serbia impacting the core zone of the Biosphere Reserve like the “Kopački Rit” Nature Park. Planned hydropower dams threaten the Mura River in Slovenia and the Drava River in Croatia. With the gradual opening of the EU to the East in the last decades, as well as with the increased interest in natural jewels of Central Europe, tourism is also gaining more and more importance in this five-country corner. As in each initial phase, many not completely considered or by other interest steered investments in tourism are operated, which steer against the nature protection goals or boycott protection measures. The last opening of the border was several years ago, but borders still remain in the minds of the people – whether it is the perceived distance that separates this part of Europe from the rest and makes it appear to the West as the far distance with strange languages and impassable roads, or the imagined upper limit of their own possibilities, which the inhabitants of the area have been taught for decades and finally believed. Located in the border zone of the respective countries, many of the villages and small regions of the Mura-Drava-Danube landscape are plagued by poverty or rural depopulation. The massive migration to the cities, which has shaped so much post-communist societies, has also left its mark here. Places located on the country’s borders are more often forgotten by central governments, and so it is also here where state nature conservation or regional development institutions have to fight twice for their survival and purposes.
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The border regions along the Mura, Drava and Danube rivers are particularly threatened by migration and economic downturn. However, sustainable tourism projects in harmony with the grandiose nature of the transnational region form a serious perspective for the future ©G. Safarek

We are convinced Europeans! And we are convinced that transnational projects can make an important contribution to international understanding and a new togetherness ©Wikipedia

03 — THE HEROES
The fight to protect the Amazon of Europe

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Pioneers: The preparation of a large transnational project, such as the Amazon of Europe Bike Trail, often requires a preparatory phase of several years. A dedicated working group from the five countries has devoted a lot of effort to this from the very beginning ©Trail Angels
Since 1993, NGOs have been campaigning to protect this unique landscape of the three rivers in a transboundary biosphere reserve. WWF has been the leading international organisation in the transboundary protection efforts since 2000. Public administrations, WWF and NGOs have been cooperating to achieve step-wise the status of a transboundary reserve for what they call the “Amazon of Europe”. As a result Europe’s largest coherent protected river corridor (700 km, 1000,000 ha) is being established, by realising
– 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.

With an overall size of about 300.000 ha, these form the backbone of the 5-country Biosphere Reserve. In 2009 Croatia and Hungary signed a Joint Declaration to establish the TBR MDD, followed in 2011 by a 5-country Ministerial Declaration with the additional involvement of Austria, Serbia and Slovenia. Both agreements were initiated and catalysed by WWF. In 2012, the Croatian-Hungarian part of the Biosphere Reserve Mura-Drava-Danube was approved by UNESCO, followed by the Serbian in 2017, the Slovenian in 2018 and the Austrian in 2019. With all individual parts of the ecosystem officially recognized in 2020, 30 years after the fall of the Iron Curtain, with support of WWF, the five countries included the individual Biosphere Reserves under one joint pentalateral nomination which was submitted to the UNESCO. The approval of the world´s first 5-country biosphere reserve is now expected for June 2021. On the initiative of WWF, several penta-lateral conservation and eco-touristic projects are underway or planned, and multiple river restoration projects are being implemented in the area.
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.
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Klaus Michor, Managing Director of our corporate partner REVITAL IB has been dedicated to nature conservation in the Mura – Drava – Danube region for many years. The idea of adding touristic value to the future biosphere park with a Bike Trail was his! ©Trail Angels

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

Lady Power: This was required when it came to the concrete and ultimately successful submission. But it was also necessary to drive the project forward with a lot of energy as the lead partner. A task that Urska Dolinar from ISKRIVA fulfills with passion and competence. Here in the picture flanked by representatives of several regional project partners ©ISKRIVA
04 — THE PROJECT
Interreg Danube Transnational Programme

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The Amazon of Europe Bike Trail will open up a unique journey of discovery for the bike traveler through the largest river wilderness in Central Europe. And the region a new added value from a responsible tourism product ©Amazon of Europe Bike Trail
Great things can only grow if they are driven by inspired people. It was Arno Mohl (WWF) who persistently pushed the project forward after the long preparation phase and found an ideal lead partner in ISKRIVA. And it was Urska Dolinar from ISKRIVA who consistently coordinated and managed the professional submission of the “Amazon of Europe Bike Trail” to the INTERREG Danube Transnational Programme. A huge task to bring together 15 project partners (not counting the associated partners) from 5 different countries. Finally, the project was rewarded with the funding approval. The Trail Angels decided quite quickly to become an official project partner and Work Package Leader, because we were convinced of the project from the very beginning and enthusiastic about the region and its undiscovered potential.
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.

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Passing on experience: The host of Herkuleshof on the Alpe-Adria-Trail tells the Amazon of Europe Bike Trail project group about his experience with a successful trail product ©Trail Angels
The workshops of the Amazon of Europe Bike Trail Steering Committee (S-COM) are always combined with excursions: This increases knowledge and identification with the product ©Amazon of Europe Bike Trail
The Amazon of Europe Bike Trail project has attracted a lot of attention in the project region from the very beginning. In the picture: TV reporting at the S-COM meeting in Nagyatad/Hungary ©Trail Angels
Five countries, two trail routes (a north and a south route), one protected area: the Amazon of Europe Bike Trail project ©Amazon of Europe Bike Trail
Sensible visualization: With a modern design, but always based on a nature-oriented visitor guidance, the Amazon of Europe Bike Trail is made visible and experienceable ©REVITAL IB
For the new Bike Trail, the traditional infrastructure, such as river mills and ferries, will also be integrated and used. In this way, a valuable contribution is also made to the preservation of the cultural heritage ©Amazon of Europe Bike Trail
05 — THE IMPACT
A destination is formed

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To identify your own treasures, to value them, and ultimately to use them very carefully. This is the mission for the Amazon of Europe Bike Trail. With this mission, it will be possible to develop this unique region along the Mura, Drava and Danube rivers into an international beacon for responsible tourism ©G. Safarek
Certainly, the “Amazon of Europe Bike Trail” is a “work in progress” project and has not even been opened yet. So how can it end up in the “Hall of Fame”? Quite simply because it has already had extraordinary effects during the project phase. Effects that can easily be described with the following keywords: “Growing together”, “Changing perspectives”, “Sharing skills” and “Focus on the long-term”.

Growing together
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.

Change perspectives
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.

Building skills
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.

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More than name-calling: With the nomination of the world’s first five-country UNESCO biosphere park, politicians in the region have shown amazing foresight. The Amazon of Europe Bike Trail represents another important building block for the future of the region. Picture: Visit of a prominent delegation from Hungary at the S-COM meeting in Nagyatad/Hungary ©Trail Angels

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

Impact Stories
See the footprints of our projects!
06 — THE VISION
The European destination for responsible tourism

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Amazon of Europe Bike Trail: the beginning of a long road towards a transnational green tourism destination ©Amazon of Europe Bike Trail.

What is our vision for the Amazon of Europe Bike Trail?
Let’s look into the year 2030!

The Amazon of Europe Bike Trail was the decisive impulse! His story board, cycling along three magnificent rivers with their widely untouched shore wilderness, through five different countries, being supported by a professional Booking Center and at the same time contributing something good with the trip, has made the Bike Trail a fast and lasting success. With the balanced sustainable design of the business model, the Bike Trail has been making an important and above all measurable contribution to regional value creation for a decade now, and has strengthened the entrepreneurial spirit and innovative power in the region. Looking back, it was actually crystal clear: the market was just waiting for a product like this! So close and yet so far away, combining the magic of the undiscovered, unknown and untouched with easy product access and services of international quality has fulfilled the longing of many nature-loving and experience-oriented people in the DACH countries and beyond.

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.
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»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.«

Trail Angels

This article was written by: Emőke Györfi; Günter Mussnig

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