Visiting Siberia’s Wilderness: Eco-Tourism at Lake Baikal

Originally Published for Dispatches International

“Lake Baikal is not such a good place for a restful vacation or a place at the beach because it snows [every] four hours, it’s cold enough in the morning, and mosquitoes [are] everywhere,” says Vladimir Hidekel, a professor of ecology at Irkutsk State University. “[But] it’s good for people who understand the beauty of wild nature.”

Sunset at Ayaya Bay

In addition to his work as an ecologist, Hidekel is an outdoorsman. He works as a project leader for the Great Baikal Trail (GBT), an ambitious project that aims to develop the first environmental trail system in Russia. “People need access to the wild nature and beautiful places,” Hidekel says about the trail network.

He jokes about snow in the summer time, but the weather at Lake Baikal can be truly harsh. Furthermore, the temperature of Baikal – the world’s oldest, deepest lake – containing more fresh water than all of North America’s Great Lakes combined – is frigid.

So it takes a special type of tourist to enjoy this environment.  That type of tourist is the eco-tourist.

Hidekel explains what eco-tourism is: “It’s pretty simple. If money is coming in for the restoration of the environment, or restoration for the local society then it is ecological tourism.”

Kristina Komaritsina is an assistant team-leader for GBT. She has a less academic definition of eco-tourism. “Eco-tourism is relationships between nature and people; it is respecting and appreciating nature and local communities,” she says. “When people come and visit, they see my actions and want to do similar things. In this way we learn from each other.”

At Lake Baikal, there is a strong element of education that comes with eco-tourism. They teach visitors about the relationship between humans and their environment, and how nature can provide mental and physical well-being. If performed in a sustainable way, the tourism can also contribute economically.

Though the “eco” in eco-tourism stands for ecology, it is difficult to ignore the economics of such lucrative tourism. “All the ecology in the past was the economy of nature,” says Hidekel.

“[Eco-tourism] is like an alternative strategy or way to develop nature from a recreational point of view. It takes the place of industrial development removing mountains and natural resources, and everything like this,” says Hidekel. “Now people know the recreational meaning of Lake Baikal and they will protect it thanks to being able to access the area.”

Artem Komarevtcev, an eco-tourism guide from Severobaikalsk, leads tours in northern Baikal. “I live here and I enjoy it here. I work in eco-tourism and have fun.”

“Eco-tourism is fairly new for northern Baikal,” he says. “In the south it’s been happening for a long time now.”

For Komarevtcev, it is about sharing nature with tourists so that they will want to protect it, even if sharing means taking the tourists on Jeep tours on the ice during winter.

“I think that we should show the beauty of places to other people, with minimum harm to nature and a low usage of resources.”

Hidekel has been working with GBT for ten years, but the organization has existed since 2004.

“The organization has two main objectives: Trail building and ecological education in the field of eco-tourism and nature.”

Trail building is something I experienced firsthand while reporting from Lake Baikal. GBT sets up dozens of two-week projects throughout the summer. It relies on volunteers to build the trails. It is not about creating new trails around the lake, but working on existing ones, and improving access.

We built a Turnpike in the swamp that leads to Lake Frolikha

“We need to make a main trail, so that we close all the little trails. It is one of the main goals of the project,” says Hidekel. “People are finished searching for new trails, or getting lost. Now they have a path, it is a good one, visible, no problems to find it, nobody gets lost.”

“So if you stay on the main trail, it is the main route for everybody. If you have a heavy backpack you won’t step away from the trail to go on some wild trail. It will be too difficult to walk 10 meters.”

Apart from the trail building, the educational aspect of GBT is a little broader as they have programs that teach children about nature, and also internal programs to train future project team leaders.

The organization has evolved over the years. Recently, there has been a transition within the group from the old-guard to the youth. “People who were the backbone of the organization are older, have less free time to practice, [so they] give their experience to the youth,” says Hidekel. “That is why it is a little bit difficult to teach students and new people who come to the organization on the higher level quickly. It needs stages of development.”

“[There are] a lot of young people coming, fresh blood,” he says with confidence.

Komaritsina fits that description. She participated partly in the training program offered by GBT. “A friend told me about these evening courses to become assistant leaders, so I said yes,” she says. “I will be project leader in the future, maybe in one year.”

For three years, Komaritsina has worked with GBT. “I started off as a volunteer picking up trash near Irkutsk and Severobaikalsk,” Komaritsina says. “It was a joint project between Frolikha Adventure Coastline Track (FACT) and GBT. Though this project I found out about GBT.”

FACT is a German organization involved in eco-tourism around Lake Baikal. It focuses on the northeastern areas of the region. Samuel Vetters, a German man interested in eco-tourism, volunteered for FACT this summer.

“The mission for FACT is to scout out new and safe paths for trekkers,” says Vetters. “It is to create the infrastructure for eco-tourists, to enjoy the untouched nature in this region, but to make it accessible.”

Hidekel doesn’t see any conflict of interest between GBT and FACT. “They want to really help. It’s a good thing for Baikal when they organize their groups because these people come to the lake and support local people.”

Khakusy is famous for their relaxing hot springs.

Essentially, FACT is a hybrid organization that mixes aspects of volunteer work with that of eco-tourism.

“The mechanism works like this,” Hidekel explains. “They take people to the lake. These people know they will do something for the trail. When they come they do a lot for local society as they pay for a bed & breakfast. These are people who are connected with the trail and the restoration of the trail. It is sustainable.”

Vetters is more focused on the volunteering aspects of the month he spent with FACT at Lake Baikal.

“I was doing volunteer work for two weeks, and then after that I decided to do another two weeks,” says Vetters. “I was scouting out new trails, new ways to Frolikha Bay in Northeastern Baikal.”

“The problem was that we didn’t have enough time in the first two weeks [to explore the planned route of the trail]. So I decided to discover the whole way by myself.”

Vetters trekked alone in the forest for several days, eventually discovering the new path. “I continued this way, and for me it was important to find the new way, to finish the project, and I did it, and I am happy about this. I enjoyed the nature, it was so great; it was amazing.”

A main goal of GBT and FACT, as well as other eco-tourism agencies, is to make Baikal’s wilderness accessible to more people. But this prompts an important question: Wouldn’t an influx of people accessing the region eventually detract from the preservation of nature?

Vetters shares his thoughts on that question: “Eco-tourism can bring both together. People will take care to not throw rubbish in the environment. As for me, this is the future, to be back in nature and respect her.”

Lake Frolikha

For Hidekel, it’s about setting an example. “We can show how to live for students and kids; we can show them a style of life. If we make an access trail on this little part [of the wilderness area], it means older people who came to the lake without trails can educate young people, so they share the experience.”

“Children in remote areas, they have no idea why people come back and forth, why they are interested in this area,” says Hidekel, offering anecdotal evidence for the cultural and ecological benefits of eco-tourism. “Sometimes people who come from foreign lands come in and know more than local people about their area. This is very strange thing.”

Komarevtcev, the eco-tourist guide, also doesn’t see a conflict between the conservation of nature and increased presence of tourists. “I hope that Lake Baikal stays the same, untouched, but still I want to show it to people. I think eco-tourism has been successful here and that it will even be a greater success in the future.”

The people I met and spoke with explained that even when there seems to be a direct conflict between tourism and conservation – such as cutting down trees to build a path – it is resolved in a sustainable manner.

With this in mind, Komaritsina acknowledges the paradox as necessary: “It’s not funny that we cut down trees; I almost want to cry. I know that it inflicts minimal harm, and allows maximum usage [by tourists]. And it helps bring people to the area to learn about Baikal.”

“Some places, thanks to GBT, are already protected by the initiative of local people,” Hidekel says. Having the support of eco-tourists and other visitors helps their efforts. “So now it is difficult to put an oil pipe in the watershed of the lake, just 800 meters from the lake. Now [that oil pipe] is 400km away, because the people started to understand that if they lose this lake they will lose their homes, they will lose money from tourists, nobody will come, and the entire planet will lose 20% of its fresh water.”

For northern Baikal, there are no concerns that there will be too many tourists. At this point, approximately 2,000 people visit the area each summer. But, as Hidekel cautions, it’s not just the amount of people who visit that matters, but the kind of people.

“Anyway, only 6% of crazy people from all over the world like this activity, and that is why this style of life exists,” Hidekel says. His is speaking of the type of eco-tourists who want to camp in the wilderness for extended periods of time.

“They’re crazy a bit, but it’s very interesting to talk with these eco-tourists,” he says. “The Siberian method is different: it is how to get through [daily] life to [a wilderness] paradise quick and without any problems. No more complaining [on Siberian adventures] – you can complain, but just once.”

This rule (and the ruggedness of the terrain), Hidekel says, will keep Lake Baikal safe from luxury tours.

Indeed, Hidekel doesn’t see luxury tours coming anytime soon. “VIP tourists need not much adventure and wilderness, they need 200 meters and that’s it, near Irkutsk,” he says. “It’s not in their interest [to come here]. It’s difficult for them to travel when they wear high heels in the swamp. It’s a big misunderstanding in strategies to develop VIP luxury tourism here.”

Rainbow over Lake Frolikha

Hidekel teaches a healthy respect for the environment in its brutal, natural state to aspiring eco-tourism guides in his lessons. “You can estimate the environment in money. A healthy environment and a good environment costs a lot. If you destroy it, you will pay four times more than for supporting this environment on a good level, to restore it.”

In other words, according to Hidekel, there is no need to make nature fancy to have a successful eco-tourism industry. Indeed, the more rugged and rough it is, the more some eco-tourists will love the landscape and support its conservation. The key is making sure that visitors can access at least some of the ecological wonders.

“Some areas are still protected [from eco-tourism] by lack of access,” Hidekel admits. “Good entrance for everyone means protection of the area because people start to understand the fragile situation.”

“If nobody knows the beauty of the lake and the mountains, then who will care about sustainability?”

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