The Warsaw Voice » Travel » Monthly - April 25, 2013
Rural tourism
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Agritourism a Driver of Growth
   
Zofia Szalczyk, undersecretary of state at the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, talks to Andrzej Jonas and Witold Żygulski.

People are increasingly choosing to spend their vacation down at the farm. From the perspective of the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, is rural tourism still a way for farmers to earn a few extra zlotys or a fully-fledged business in its own right?
There’s no doubt that it’s a business. It’s not just about small farms anymore; it develops wherever there is potential for these types of services. The roots of Polish agritourism date back to the 18th century and its heyday was in the communist era, when people arranged their own countryside vacations known as wczasy pod gruszą (“vacation under a pear tree”). Going to the countryside and staying with farmers on their farm was very popular. Agritourism started going truly professional in Poland a little over 10 years ago. That was due to two factors. The first was foreign influences and good models as well as information. Farmers learned that they could greatly supplement their income by having people spend their vacations on their farms. The second factor was the crisis on the agricultural market, which forced many farms to look for alternative sources of income. Agricultural Advisory Centers played a major role in laying the foundations for agritourism by creating local agritourism development programs and teaching people how to start their own business. Today, agritourism in Poland is an attractive form of earning an extra income for many farms. It is developing greatly, not only in mountain areas (Małopolska and Podkarpacie provinces) which lead the way in this field, but also in regions such as Podlasie, Warmia-and-Mazuria, Pomerania or Wielkopolska. The extent and attractiveness of agritourism is shown by the fact that in the early ‘90s, there were only 590 agritourism farms in Poland. Today nearly 8,000 farms provide agritourism services; they can accommodate more than 80,000 guests between them. Agritourism takes many forms; it is not only combined with relaxation in natural surroundings and admiring local wildlife, but also with exploring the region and its cultural opportunities, consuming traditional food, including organic products. Finally, sentimental tourism, which means visiting areas from which visitors’ families come, is developing, particularly among German people, whose families come often from the Mazuria, Kashubia or Wielkopolska regions.

What is the role of the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development in the development of agritourism?
The primary mission of the ministry is safeguarding the incomes of the rural population in all possible ways. If agricultural production is not enough, then other methods have to be found and agritourism is one of them. We have been supporting microenterprises in rural areas for many years, for example by coming up with initiatives such as the LEADER program, which encourages the rural population to undertake social and economic activities. We support agritourism not only organizationally but also financially. An assistance mechanism dedicated to non-agricultural activities is available as part of the EU’s Rural Development Program under way in Poland. These are grants of up to zl.100,000 for farmers and their families to be spent on non-agricultural investment projects. Agritourism is one of the two most popular projects of this kind. More than 7,000 projects have been approved for implementation as part of the Regional Development Program (RDP) for 2007-2013, which aims to develop tourism, sports, recreation and leisure-related services. These projects will be financed with public funds to the tune of more than zl.1 billion. More than zl.614 million has already been spent on nearly 4,000 projects. Nearly 3,500 projects to the tune of more than zl.571 million still need to be carried out.

Funds available under the RDP 2007-2013 program have enabled agritourism service providers to invest in improving the quality of their services. This includes the purchase of new household items and room furnishings as well as recreational equipment such as bicycles or kayaks. EU funds are increasingly used to adapt premises for use by guests and to equip rooms for various educational activities. Innovative activities are carried out on the farms related to environmental protection, such as the use of “clean” energy or redevelopment of land and water reservoirs. In addition, bike paths, hiking trails, play areas for children, recreation sites and sports facilities are being created in rural areas. Modern information technology is used to support tourist information points, tourist information databases and websites promoting tourist opportunities in areas covered by local development strategies. Leaflets and other information and promotional publications are being produced and published.

The Agricultural Advisory Center (CDR) in Brwinów near Warsaw, which also has a branch in Cracow, deals with the transfer of know-how in the broad sense for non-agricultural activities to those interested. Other agricultural advisory centers (ODR) also handle these tasks. Besides, many associations bringing together agritourism farm owners as well as the Gospodarstwa Gościnne (Guest Farms) Polish Federation of Rural Tourism have been established since 1990. Today there are around 120 agritourism associations across Poland.

Does your ministry check the quality of agritourism services in any way?
Not at the moment. We believe that this is not our role. Tourism service standards are rather the responsibility of the Ministry of Sports and Tourism. Therefore, as a ministry, we do not issue any licenses or quality labels. Appropriate service standards are ensured by the Countryside Accommodation Classification System overseen by the Gospodarstwa Gościnne Polish Federation of Rural Tourism. Service providers sign up for the system on a voluntary basis. Proven accommodation quality in rural areas is signified by special sun symbols, where three is the maximum rating. Currently, there are about 400 categorized facilities. This year, the federation is introducing a new classification system based on separate categories: staying on the farm and staying in the countryside. Thanks to this, customers will be able to easily distinguish between accommodation available in a typical agritourism farm and other types of accommodation available in rural areas.

However, the best indicator is the market itself—if people come to an agritourism farm every year and recommend it to their friends, it is sufficient proof of the good quality of the services provided there.

What can be done to increase customer interest in Polish agritourism?
There is no miracle method for agritourism development; a whole set of activities is needed. One priority is to build brand awareness for rural areas as an attractive destination for tourists. A number of promotional activities are needed in this area from all those involved in the development of tourism in Poland, i.e., the Polish Tourist Organization (POT), regional and local tourist organizations, National Rural Networks (KSOW), and Local Action Groups (LAG). The ministry is involved in these activities through the organization of the Agrotravel exhibition, a one-of-a kind event that draws over 20,000 visitors annually. Another priority is to improve the quality of services provided by agritourism farms. It is a continuous process carried out with the participation of agricultural advisers—highly qualified specialists who have daily contact with farmers involved in agritourism. They can best see the potential of a farm and the attractions available in the area, free space, qualifications of the farmer’s family etc., even if the farmer himself is not yet aware of that. Another important step is of course to gather appropriate funds for adapting a farm; cleaning the rooms is not enough. I know from experience that the best situation is when not just one, but several agritourism farms are created in a given area. They support one another, promote their services together and solve problems. This makes it easier to organize joint projects for guests, such as trips, rafting, sleigh rides and so on. Local governments should be involved in the creation of such a mini-infrastructure for agritourism farm guests as district authorities are responsible for the welfare of the residents. Local governments can help for example build bike paths, bird-watching stations, river or lake marinas, and landmarks on tourist routes.

Agritourism is closely linked to the promotion of Polish food...
Of course, above all organic food. Some people visit agritourism farms because they have heard about some kind of regional foods or have had an opportunity to taste such delicacies during exhibitions or tourism or agricultural trade fairs. More and more often, customers are looking for food with an EU certificate, which is now an important selling point. Agritourism is associated with the market for traditional food products. These include candy, meat and dairy products as well as alcohol. We have more than 1,000 such products in Poland. We try to promote them wherever we appear as a ministry, for example during the Polagra or Grüne Woche agricultural fair trades. Promoting a regional product naturally encourages people to visit the region from which the product originates. Besides, such products taste best when served by the producer on the agritourism farm.