There’s Soomaa-ch to Discover in the European Ecotourism Hotspot of Estonia

Aivar Ruukel has made quite a name for himself in ecotourism, particularly in his native Estonia, where he grew up in the midst of the country’s largest pristine wilderness: Soomaa. Roughly translated as ‘Land of Bogs,’ the area is, in Ruukel’s words, “a vast complex of raised bogs, wet alluvial forests with fens, transition mires and unregulated rivers with flood-plain and wooded meadows.” Lesser spotted eagles, golden eagles, black storks, corn crakes, brown bears, wolves and lynx all call it home and, understandably, it is now a leading destination for wildlife and nature enthusiasts.
A traditional dugout canoe, known as a haabja in the local lingo, is the best way to explore the wilderness of Soomaa National Park. When the floods come in late March, a haabja is often the only way to get around!

Ecotourism: A Natural Evolution

While Ruukel’s interest in nature and the environment dates to his youth, his passion for ecotourism was kindled 15 years ago, when the cranberry bogs and capercaillie forests in his backyard were designated a national park. This shrewd move by the Estonian Fund for Nature not only allowed this great area of wilderness to be preserved and protected for posterity, it also ushered in new era of opportunity for tourism.

Soon after Soomaa National Park came into being, Estonia’s Rural Development Programme began a countrywide campaign to promote ecotourism as an alternative source of income for the former-Soviet collective agricultural communities of Estonia. Ruukel was selected as the lucky candidate to coordinate the project. He worked on it for two years, simultaneously running his own burgeoning eco-business that organised wilderness experience tours in and around Soomaa National Park.

His fruitful time as project coordinator made a deep impression on him. “It was a great combination of learning about ecotourism concepts and methodology, and developing my own small business at the same time, hand in hand,” Ruukel happily reflected. “I also had a wonderful mentor, Jan Wigsten, a Swedish guy who used to be a board member of The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) at that time and was owner and manager of an ecotravel company in Mongolia.”

Ruukel’s dedication to the ecotourism movement is unabated, as he currently sits on the national committee of the Estonian Ecotourism Association (ESTECAS), a nongovernmental and non-profit organisation established in 1996 that he describes as “a club of passionate ecotourism activists and one of the oldest national ecotourism associations.” Additionally, he is a member of the Estonian Ecotourism Cluster, a group of local responsible travel operators who work together to develop and promote quality ecotourism products in Estonia.

Ruukel hopes one day to channel his passion and expertise in nature tourism into fulltime teaching, although for now he makes do with some lecturing at the Estonian University of Life Sciences, while pursuing a Masters degree and sharing the marvels of his home through his travel company, Karuskose Ltd, which operates the aptly-named and is the local connection in Soomaa and Pärnu.
Aivar Ruukel relaxes with a cup of coffee near the Karuskose Base Camp, his company headquarters in Soomaa National Park, during what’s known locally as the ‘fifth season’ or season of floods

A Tour for All Seasons

Karuskose organises trips to the woods, meadows, rivers and 8000-year-old peat bogs throughout the year, but activities vary according to the time of year. Soomaa has five distinct seasons instead of the usual four, and as each provides its own unique experience, there’s much to enjoy!

The wetlands are best explored by canoe, especially in late March during the so-called ‘fifth season,’ when more than 100 square kilometres of meadows and woodland becomes flooded and impassable by anything that doesn’t float. Exploring the beauty of Soomaa by canoe is a big hit with tourists, which rather perversely makes flood season the most popular time of year for visitors. Many locals still travel using traditional dugouts, called habjaas, carved from aspen trees. For those wishing to try their hand at the traditional skill of canoe building, Ruukel has been fashioning his own habjaas for many years and offers workshops that teach novices the tricks of the trade.

Of course, those wanting to see the place under their own steam can tackle the drier areas with the help of a couple of racquet-like appendages affixed to their feet. Bog shoeing and bog walking are popular all year round, a fun way to explore the wetlands and a unique way to work up a little sweat.

Spring is arguably the most beautiful of the seasons, with wild flowers in full bloom on the meadows and wildlife just beginning to shake off the winter torpor. It’s an ideal time for bird watching as well as for beaver safaris – a popular activity during the warmer months. Summer offers much the same, but with the added benefits of bog swimming and nighttime canoe tours for the brave.

Autumn is of particular interest to gourmets, with plenty of food-oriented activities throughout the region, such as mushrooming, berry picking and cooking with locals from the surrounding villages. Typical local specialties include blood sausage and black rye bread.
It may come as a surprise to some, but orchids thrive in Estonia’s cooler climes and the Lady Slipper is one of 36 orchid species that grow around the bogs and wooded meadows. The country may be small, but it packs in an incredibly diverse variety of plant and animal life.

Winter treats involve active pursuits like snowshoeing, kick sledding on the frozen waterways, cross-country skiing and ice fishing. After all that exertion, visitors would do well to ease any aches and pains inside the ever-popular smoke sauna. Those wishing to try out the legendary floating sauna on the Raudna River must unfortunately wait a few months until the ice has melted!

Leading by Example

While the capital, Tallinn, and the seaside town of Pärnu regularly receive top billing, Estonia has many more surprising attractions – far more, in fact, than its small size would suggest. As a result of the exciting work pioneered in Soomaa, Estonia has become a beacon for ecotourism enthusiasts, who have made ecotourism a very hot topic with the national tourist board. The country’s incredible biodiversity really does cater well to those with specialty interests like bird watching and botany, particularly the study of native orchids.

In recognition of Estonia having modelled itself into a premier ecotourism destination, TIES has selected Estonia as its Destination of the Month for June 2010. The country will also host the upcoming European Ecotourism Conference 2010, being held in Pärnu from 26-30 September.

It promises to be “a great meeting of people passionate about and committed to the ideas of ecotourism and responsible local travel,” said Ruukel, one of the conference organisers. Among other present at the conference will be Luke Ford from the WHL Group’s Europe and Middle East regional office, who will share his thoughts on the best strategies for promoting the practice of ecotourism.

Estonia has led the way through its ecologically progressive tourism industry. Let’s hope other countries follow suit!