Environmental concerns and interests: Thayatal National Park Visitors’ Centre
A cross-border approach to protecting the natural environment and developing regional tourism.
The Thayatal National Park shares a boundary of 26 kilometres of the Thaya River with the Podyjí National Park in the Czech Republic. When the Podyjí Park was created in 1991, Austria only had a small nature reserve on the bank of the river but it was decided to harmonise these two protected area and Thayatal National Park was established in 2000. In addition to its main aim of nature protection, one of the objectives of the Park was to promote environmental friendly tourism and so, there was a need for a centre that could provide a focal point for visitors.
The construction and equipping of this Visitors’ Centre was undertaken on a partnership basis with 50% of the money coming from INTERREG IIIA, 25% from the Regional Development Fund of the Province of Lower Austria, 12% co-financing from the Federal Ministry and 13% from the Park’s own resources. The Podyjí partner Park also offered its advice and support.
The overall project was led by external consultants and using their management experience, the Visitors’ Centre was completed in 2003 within both the agreed time scale and the estimated budget. No significant problems were encountered during the project and as a bonus, in 2004, the Centre was awarded a prize for excellence in wooden architecture.
The Centre provides a range of environmental and tourist information and is the starting point for excursions and tours to the Park. In the exhibition hall, visitors can experience millions of years of local natural history and then attend seminars not only on nature protection but also on many other environmental issues. The Park places a special emphasis on interesting and educating children and young people in the environment and so, a variety of indoor and outdoor activities have been designed for schools and youth groups.
There is continuing cooperation with the Czech National Park. Cross border hiking routes are being improved, especially as Austria and the Czech Republic have signed in 2006 a treaty on border crossings for tourists. There is also a joint management programme for the Parks which is implemented by the two management teams according to the laws in their countries.
Some 25 000 people have used the Visitors’ Centre each year since it opened. About 16% have been pupils on the special school programmes which are extremely popular during May and June. Another 25% were people on excursions and walks and a further 17% were visitors to the exhibitions. The Park is now recognised as an important player in regional development, first of all in tourism but also in creating valuable partnerships with more than 40 organisations or companies. This partnership programme, which binds the members to well-defined quality criteria, has many mutual benefits. All partners are obliged to inform their customers about the Park and, in return, its partners’ products are promoted during its various events and through the shop in the Visitors’ Centre.
With the opening of the Centre, three more full-time staff have been employed and a further nine people are on temporary contracts. These extra members of staff have helped the Park to provide a very high quality of service and this has been confirmed by an analysis of consumer opinion. The survey covered customer service, information, equipment, special programmes for children, opening hours, and responses to telephone and e-mail enquires. The Park attained 96% which was the highest rating ever awarded to a Lower Austrian tourist attraction.
The next steps are to work with the regional tourist sector on public relations activities with a view to increasing the number of visitors even further. Robert Brunner, the Park Manager, believes that “we have learned two major lessons from this project. Firstly, professional project management reduces the risks and save times and money and secondly, never underestimate the importance of local tourist organisations in attracting visitors to your project and its activities!”