Getting on the map of Britain

A trio of lesser-known holiday regions have gained EU funding for an initiative that could provide a model for how to promote tourism in remote areas. Mark MacKenzie reports

In today's cut-throat tourist market, just how do remote parts of rural Europe - especially areas where the economy is in freefall - compete with the multi-national operators?

One solution is to make the most of those assets they do have and attract customers who enjoy an authentic experience. Which, roughly, is the thinking behind Besst, an initiative to promote small-scale sustainable tourism through collaboration between Europe's less obvious holiday destinations.

The scheme, Business and the Environment linked through Small Scale Tourism, does what it says on the tin. And at the end of last month, the part-EU funded project launched its official website.

The online resource, besst.org, offers around 100 local "experiences", from beekeeping in the Peak District to sheep herding in Norway. Approved in February 2004, the €2.1m (£1.5m) initiative sees two of Europe's lesser-known holiday regions, Hylte in southern Sweden and Fyresdal in central Norway, pool expertise with Britain's Peak District National Park in a bid to boost visitor numbers.

All three have native wilderness and distinctive regional cultures, but none would claim to be first-choice destinations. Besst hopes to change that. Heading the charge in the UK is Ken Parker, project leader for Besst in the Peak District National Park. "We want to use tourism as a motor for economic development and regeneration," he said. "Rather than seeing tourists as a burden, we're encouraging [the regions] to appreciate the market and use unique local assets to promote business."

Hylte, Fyresdal and the Peak District have experienced mixed fortunes. The 550 square-mile Peaks attract 22m visitors a year, but the spend per head is low compared with other tourist areas. Hylte has struggled as its forestry industry declined due to competition from the Balkans. Fyresdal offers neither skiing nor fjords, and is battling to stem the flow of its young people to the cities.

So far, 37 Peak District businesses have signed up to Besst, with a further 15 in Fyresdal and 13 in Hylte. "In almost all cases we're talking about small family-based operations," said Mr Parker, "b&bs, outdoor-activity providers, craft industries and so on."

The scheme gives small tourism businesses the chance to meet and exchange ideas. On a visit to Sweden, one Peak District beekeeper was persuaded to launch a Meet the Bees project after a Swedish apiarist suggested he market himself as well as his honey. For around £20 he now offers beekeeping demonstrations. Another Besst member, a caravan park owner in the Peaks, has developed a fishing lake on his property to attract anglers - a common practice in Scandinavia.

"In the UK we have something called the Farm Holiday Group," said Mr Parker, "an alliance of providers that collaborate and market each other. This was a completely new idea to the Scandinavians." Besst has encouraged the Swedes to make a feature of Hylte's local history: tourism authorities are looking at developing a walk following the area's border with Denmark, much like the Hadrian's Wall trail in the UK.

The emphasis on eco-tourism means members have to meet environmental standards on accommodation, litter and pollution, and pass an audit. "There is a strong eco-tourism element because as an organisation we've agreed to make the most of our natural assets," said Mr Parker. "We can't compete with Spain for sun or Scotland for golf, so we have to use what is unique to our regions."

Food businesses have responded well. Through the Besst website you can arrange to eat hot oatcakes in the Peaks or wild boar in Hylte. "It's about opening people's eyes to making the most of their resources," said Mr Parker. "The idea is to bring together business development and conservation to act as partners, rather than the conflict that traditionally exists between them."

For more information on Besst experiences go to besst.org

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