Discovering Europe’s wild side: Advancing restoration with sustainable travel

Posted: 26th April 2024

Photo: Lidia Valverde / Rewilding Spain

When you think of a safari, Africa’s savannas are probably the first thing to come to mind. Many of us likely imagine vast plains with grazing elephants, lounging lions and herds of African buffalo and zebra. Europe’s great wildernesses may be less well-known, but they also showcase a range of charismatic species and dramatic landscapes, many of which rival those found on other continents. In the Iberian Highlands, you can glimpse tauros, an ancient breed of cattle who rival Africa’s buffalo. Przewalski’s horse, the only remaining truly wild horse species, now roam the Greater Côa Valley in Portugal. And in Iori River Valley in Georgia, if you’re lucky you might spot a Eurasian griffon vulture soaring in search of its next meal. 

Wildlife tourism, not including more general nature tourism such as hiking, compromises an estimated 7% of tourism worldwide and is increasing in popularity every year. Many countries have experienced the benefits of nature-friendly travel, from boosting local economies and funding conservation efforts to raising awareness of environmental issues among tourists. But wildlife and nature-based tourism remains largely untapped in Europe.  

There is huge potential for this type of tourism in Europe, and especially in landscapes that are being restored. By encouraging visitors to explore lesser-known regions suffering from depopulation and economic stagnation, nature-focused tourism could breathe new life into these areas and increase local support for restoration. Restoration projects are already playing a vital role in replenishing populations of large fauna, predators, and rare birds—creatures that often attract tourists to destinations further afield. This presents an opportunity for restoration projects to collaborate with, or even establish, sustainable tour operators to fund and create enthusiasm for wilder nature in rural Europe.  

Several initiatives supported by the Endangered Landscapes & Seascapes Programme are already demonstrating the feasibility and benefits of such partnerships. In the Iori River Valley, Georgia, SABUKO have created a bird-watching hub and vulture feeding station, encouraging adventurous visitors from around the globe to see rare species such as the Egyptian vulture and the Eastern Imperial eagle. Initiatives in the Iberian Highlands and Greater Côa Valley are facilitating tourism through creation of educational safaris and business networks, with project partners Rewilding Europe providing start-up loans to tour operators.  

Creating rewilding safaris in the Iberian Highlands  

Rewilding Europe Capital is an investment tool created by Rewilding Europe with the goal to scale up rewilding impact, develop a nature-based economies and pilot new business models around rewilding landscapes like the Iberian Highlands. In Spain, ELSP project partners Rewilding Spain assists interested companies with the necessary steps to apply for these loans, which can be up to €50,000. 

La Maleza Wildlife Park in Tramacastilla, Teruel, became the first Spanish nature-based enterprise to receive financial backing from the Rewilding Europe Capital (REC) fund, with a €13,000 loan. The loan facilitated the creation of ‘Safari Rewilding La Maleza’, a guided tour of Sierra de Albarracín featuring a herd of tauros introduced by the Iberian Highlands restoration project.  

Travellers can experience the stunning landscapes of the Iberian Highlands in an open-top jeep. Photo: Lidia Valverde / Rewilding Spain.

An ancient cattle breed, tauros are one of the closest relatives to the aurocs – the now extinct species that domestic cattle are descended from. With the loss of aurocs, we lost the unique function they fulfilled in the ecosystem. The tauros in the Iberian Highlands are bringing back those functions, restoring open habitats that host a wide variety of plants and animals. Participants in the safaris learn about their behaviour, ecological importance, and encounter other local wildlife such as vultures and deer against the backdrop of the stunning Sierra de Albarracín. 

“By setting up this route, we have fulfilled a dream, both for our company and for the Sierra de Albarracín”, says Ricardo Almazán, general manager of La Maleza Wildlife Park. “The fact that the tauros are here is very important for ecotourism in this area, because until now these places have been the least known in Aragon region, despite the fact there is great natural value here. We hope that initiatives like this will change that situation”. Rewilding Spain’s Enterprise Officer, Basilio Rodríguez, highlights the value of this programme: “It is one of the best examples we can provide of how rewilding, as well as aiming to recover a wilder nature, also provides new opportunities for the people living in the landscape”. 

The tours on offer contain a strong educational element, allowing visitors to immerse themselves in Rewilding Spain’s restoration work. Photo: Lidia Valverde / Rewilding Spain.

Fostering nature-based enterprise in the Greater Côa Valley  

The Wild Côa Network, established by Rewilding Portugal in 2021, aims to foster nature-based enterprise in the Greater Côa Valley. With over 50 members, the network unites businesses around a common rewilding vision. By aligning businesses with rewilding efforts, the network ensures direct economic benefits for local communities. 

Visitors can stay in eco-friendly hotels, take part in tours of the projects’ rewilding areas, and enjoy locally produced food and drink.   

Rewilding Portugal creates gift boxes with products from the Wild Côa Network. Photo: Fernando Teixeira.

Several members have developed their business using loans provided by Rewilding Europe Capital, and many have benefited from Rewilding Portugal’s practical rewilding efforts within the Greater Côa Valley landscape. Wildlife tour operator WildLife Portugal began offering a range of tours in Vale Carapito in 2022, a site where Rewilding Portugal has been carrying out rewilding measures since 2021. Casa de Villar Mayor, a guesthouse located close to Vale Carapito, has seen an increase in bookings since rewilding of the site began. 

Rewilding Portugal also launched “rewilding weekends” in 2023. These three-day immersive rewilding experiences take advantage of the products and services offered by Wild Côa Network members, directly boosting revenue. Various events organised by the team, including an art festival and photo contest, have helped raise the profile of the area, attract visitors, and bring financial benefits to local businesses. Moreover, Rewilding Portugal has helped train 16 new nature guides over the last four years, five of whom are now members of the Wild Côa Network. 

The Rewilding Portugal team has created multi-day, nature-based tourism packages for the Greater Côa Valley marketed through their website. Launched in December, these packages involve services provided by Wild Côa Network members and are already being booked by a growing number of prospective tourists. 

Visitors can take part in guided tours of the project’s rewilding areas. Photo: Nelleke de Weerd.

Merging tourism and conservation in Georgia  

The Iori River Valley and Kakheti Steppes restoration landscapes created new ecotourism facilities in the heart of Georgia’s Chachuna Managed Reserve at the end of 2023, providing visitors with access to a birdwatching station offering views of the incredible and rare birds that call Chachuna home. A vulture feeding platform provides gives visitors an opportunity to witness the endangered Eurasian griffon vulture, while a riverbank eco-cottage allows them to immerse themselves in the stark beauty of the surroundings.

Visitors can encounter rare bird species such as cinereous vultures. Photo: Giorgi Lanqoshvili.

These new facilities serve a dual purpose, contributing to the economic prosperity of the area while safeguarding nature. By channelling tourism revenue into conservation initiatives, SABUKO ensures that every visitor’s experience leaves a positive impact on the environment. The organisation also aims to foster a sense of ownership and pride in protecting Chachuna for generations to come by actively involving both locals and tourists in conservation activities.

As Chachuna emerges as a destination for hikers and wildlife enthusiasts alike, it solidifies its position as a leading example of restoration and conservation in Georgia.

Endangered Landscapes & Seascapes Programme project partners SABUKO have created a vulture feeding station as part of their tourism infrastructure. Photo: SABUKO.

In Europe, ecotourism is on the rise, spearheaded by pioneering restoration initiatives. By venturing into these wild spaces, travellers not only discover rare species but also contribute to local economies, shaping a sustainable future.  

View all News