Over the past two years, following the development of the Rota Vicentina
hiking trail, the number of tourists along the southwest beaches of Portugal has doubled. The development of the trail was made possible by a local tourism network called ‘Casas Brancas
,’ which has set itself the goal of promoting innovative nature tourism and rural tourism in the area.
Both Casas Brancas and the newer ‘Rota Vicentina’ association, which is directly responsible for founding and developing the tourism trail, are run by an indefatigable entrepreneur named Marta Cabral. “About ten years ago,” Cabral told us, “I led the creation of the Casas Brancas network, a shared platform for marketing guest rooms to international clientele. I began as an employee of the association, and then started up a small one-room guestroom business, and became a member of the network myself.” The idea of creating the network was led by several members of the tourist trade, who were committed to conserving both the natural environment and the quality of the service they provide. Many of them were German nationals who had arrived as tourists themselves, seen the potential in the area and decided to put down roots. Today, Casas Brancas brings together 61 small businesses: guest houses, transportation services, restaurants and small tourist operations. Their business collaboration was taken to another level when the idea of founding the Rota Vicentina hiking trail was born.
One of the significant challenges faced by businesses in this area is the short tourist season. In the warm summer months, tourists flood to the shores of Algarve, filling the resorts, hotels and bathing beaches. But for the rest of the year, the area is virtually tourist-free. The development of this trail was meant to lengthen the tourist season and vary the demographic composition of the region’s visitors.
The Rota Vicentina hiking trail crosses the Sudoeste Alentejano nature reserve – a breathtakingly beautiful reserve that is home to unique animal and plant life. The place boasts a wide range of birds and water mammals, good surfing conditions and fishing spots. The trail spans 220 kilometers, splitting along its length into two trails – ‘The Fishermen’s Trail’ and ‘The Historic Trail.’
The trail is undergoing constant and simultaneous processes of development. Its initial development stage included the physical planning and marking of the trail, consolidation of the business model, and expansion of the circle of partners. Every business or entrepreneur that wishes to join in as a service provider along the trail must pay a fixed monthly fee, which provides them with publicity, but also opens the business to being rated by visitors. “We demand high standards of service, be it in accommodation, food or transportation,” stresses Cabral. If a business is rated poorly, the other businesses pressure it to improve, and if the complaints persist that business is asked to leave the partnership. The regular upkeep of the trail is done by local volunteers who take responsibility for segments of the trail, a system which, according to Cabral, works brilliantly.
A critical condition of success is defining the target audience specifically. The Portuguese, perhaps unlike many Israelis, are not known for their love of nature and are not great hikers. The trail was therefore marketed from the start to an international audience. More than that, “we’re selling nature, not comfort,” explains Cabral. “Our goal is to reach an audience that will appreciate the trail and preserve it, so we’re reaching out to the independent tourist looking for nature tourism: hiking, flowers, birds and such, and not to companies that market mass tourism.”
Another important aspect of the trail’s development process is its national and international media exposure. “The international exposure has exceeded our expectations,” says Cabral. “The media has fallen in love with the project; the journalists understand our deep commitment to the client and have given us a high ranking in popular tourism sites. But we’re not just settling for addressing the international market. We want to create a ‘pioneering national brand’ that offers nature tourism that really works for the local market too.”
“Development is always being carried on simultaneously both for the prospective clients, and for the local companies and businesses. In working with the business element, we have chosen to focus on several issues this year. For example, we approached a horse ranch and asked them to meet and discuss their needs, and then looked at ways to address them. One issue they raised, for instance, is the lack of guest houses with appropriate conditions. As a result we approached several businesses and checked whether they could provide those conditions. Another point of interest that we’re developing now is local creative tourism. We’re looking to strengthen and nurture a network of local artists and manufacturers – from makers of local food to local musicians and artists.”
One of the elements that seems to have contributed to the initiative’s success is its ‘bottom-up’ organization. Its instigators understood that to succeed, they would first have to design a business model. Only later, when activity surrounding the trail had gained momentum, did they begin cooperating with official bodies like the local municipal authority, the ministry of tourism and the regional committee for local development and cooperation in Algarve (CCDR).
Cabral cites the connection between the businesses and the authorities as one of the great challenges with which she is required to cope. On the one hand, the association is developing a public service, a place that is located within a national park and caters to schools, among others. On the other hand, however, it is required to maintain certain commercial standards, and this is no simple matter. The commercial ventures find it very difficult to accept that they must also take responsibility for a public cause, and the public elements have a hard time understanding the business aspects involved in managing the project. One way of bridging the gap is the creation of a project advisory committee that combines representatives from both the public and the private sector, an initiative that Cabral is indeed now working to bring about.
The management and operation of the trail itself is carried out by just two paid workers! And theirs is not an easy task. They are currently working to move up a level, to consolidate the business model and to reach new communities of potential clients who have not yet heard of the unique Rota Vicentina hiking trail.
Local Sustainable Tourism was one of the main themes in Project Wealth partners convention, May 2014, in the Algarve region, Portugal, hosted by CRIA, Algarve University, funded by ENPI CBCMED.