CULTURE

Agrotourism’s appeal grows

Accredited agrotourism enterprises in Greece now number over 1,000, with over 600 of these providing accommodation, although just over 20 actually offer experience of farming activities. But the sector is growing rapidly, according to Brigitta Papastavrou, CEO of Agrotouristiki SA, a company set up under the aegis of the Tourism Development Ministry to promote alternative forms of tourism as a way of boosting sustainable regional development. «What we suggest to all agrotourism providers is to make sure guests have full details of all the kinds of activities (sporting, cultural, as well as agricultural) available in the local area. These activities are what make the difference, since they set the tone of the holiday and are what give visitors the necessary incentive to visit,» Papastavrou told Kathimerini English Edition. «Experience in other countries has shown that wherever agrotourism has developed, the surrounding area has developed along with it,» she added. An organic farm in the foothills of Mount Taygetos in the Peloponnese is a good example of what an agrotourism enterprise should aim for. Two brothers cultivate olives, vines, herbs, grains and aromatic plants and receive visitors in their beautifully restored stone farm buildings for meals cooked by the women of the family and accompanied by red wine produced on the farm. A small factory packages their produce for the market. The farm’s animals – chickens, ducks, geese, turkeys, doves, pigs and goats, all domestic breeds – are kept in clean pens among the vineyards and olive groves, not far from an outdoor beekeeping museum. The brothers are planning to adapt other stone buildings on the site as accommodation and are using the natural lay of the land to create an amphitheater. The farm is just one of the case studies presented in an excellent guide to agrotourism by Stella Askeli, «Getting into Agrotourism: How to set up your own business,» published in Greek by Agrotouristiki. The guide provides a mine of practical information for prospective agrotourism entrepreneurs, setting out the pitfalls and warning against a superficial approach. It emphasizes the importance of proper planning, a positive approach and appropriate infrastructure. One of the biggest mistakes is when people who have no background in the hospitality industry try to imitate the mass tourism model, not realizing that is precisely the opposite of what their target customers are seeking. Quality is the catchword for alternative tourism; getting back to nature does not mean people are prepared to make do with poor standards of accommodation or service. Authenticity «Agrotourism calls for a hands-on approach, a love of the land and a sensitivity to the local environment and culture,» explained Papastavrou. An example of what not to do is given in another case study of guest houses in a beautiful old village in Laconia near Mount Parnon. Mistakes ranged from an amateur approach to pricing and promotion, to errors in their understanding of what constitutes «authentic» accommodation. In trying to do the best they could in accordance with their own taste – and at some cost – they had lost the authentic elements that are precisely what agrotourists (who tend to return to the same place, establishing relationships with the people and the land) are looking for. Each agrotourism unit might have a particular theme. A farm in Crete has 50 horses, around which the entire farm’s philosophy revolves. The farm has an arrangement with schools abroad, mainly those for children with disabilities such as autism, who are shown how to care for the animals as well as go on excursions either on horseback or in horse-drawn wagons. Other farms offer courses in organic farming, iconography, traditional music and dance, weaving, pottery or traditional jewelry. Some agrotourism enterprises are the result of one man (or family’s) vision. A village near Iraklion on the island of Crete was built in 1987. It boasts craftsmen and Cretan artisans, including a blacksmith and potter, a tavern that serves local wine and cuisine and an old coffee shop. Another purpose-built village in Xanthi, northern Greece, situated in a forest reserve at an altitude of 1,350 meters, consists of 12 timber cottages that can accommodate four to six people each. It was built by the Xanthi Forestry Authority and opened in 2002. Run by the Nestos-Rhodope Stavroupoli Municipal Development Company, its activities include canoe-kayaking, archery, hiking, climbing and horse riding. Another family farm above the town of Nafpaktos on the Gulf of Corinth is surrounded by mountains that are the habitat of wolves, brown bears and eagles. Breakfast at the farm consists of pancakes, omelets with country sausage and other local products, a good example of what agrotourism is all about when it comes to the use of authentic products. Guests even brew their own coffee on the hearth. The owner, who knows a great deal about local flora and the use of herbs, takes guests on expeditions to track animals and hunt for unique plants. Funding Apparently, 33 percent of agrotourism businesses fail in the first year, 42 percent in the second and just 25 percent succeed, mainly because most owners do not have a proper business plan to help them organize their finances and set out their goals. The guide provides a wealth of practical information on outlines for business plans, pricing policy and book-keeping and about applying for funds. Most European Union funding programs provide 40-55 percent of the initial outlay. The owner is expected to have 20 percent of the total start-up cost and the ability to acquire a loan for another 30 percent. The guide also gives information on training programs available for careers in agrotourism and how to make the best use of new technology such as the Internet and CD-ROMs. It provides an extensive list of links to organizations, agrotourism and ecotourism businesses, training programs, European and international organizations and an extensive glossary of terms, and a copy of the certification regulations. Portal The sector is growing fast. According to Papastavrou, 416 applications have been submitted and 187 questionnaires completed setting out potential investment plans. Agrotouristiki hopes to reach even more prospective investors and visitors with a new portal, scheduled for completion in March. Meanwhile, mobile information units will begin touring the countryside in spring, beginning in Epirus. Agrotouristiki also publishes the «Peloponnese Agrotourism Accommodation Guide» to traditional guest houses and renovated manor houses around this southern region of Greece.