The North Karelia region is known for its stunning natural beauty and diverse tourist attractions. Particularly, the Lieksa and Koli tourism areas have attracted visitors from all around the world. But did you know that these areas are also a part of the UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere Programme? This means that Lieksa and Koli are not just beautiful tourist destinations; they are also part of an international network dedicated to promoting regional sustainable development, interdisciplinary research, and community collaboration.
What does a biosphere reserve mean?
Biosphere reserves are model areas for sustainable development that are part of UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere (MAB) programme. Biosphere reserves constitute a global network, and the North Karelian Biosphere Reserve is part of this network.
Biosphere reserves are referred to as action plans and defined geographical areas with unique natural and cultural attributes. They aim to foster harmonious interaction between nature and people.
The role of these areas is to promote biodiversity, develop ecologically, socially, economically, and culturally sustainable practices, and support development projects and environmental education. Biosphere reserves complement areas dedicated to cultural and natural conservation, such as national parks and other areas of significant natural and cultural value.
Biosphere reserves are managed nationally, and they require regular reporting and sharing of research findings within the international biosphere reserve network. In Finland, biosphere reserves are managed by the Ministry of the Environment and the local Centre for Economic Development, Transport and the Environment (ELY Centre). The operation is based on voluntary agreements among various stakeholders, including municipalities, businesses, and associations. Lieksa city has entered into a cooperation agreement with the North Karelian Biosphere Reserve, and tourism development follows this framework.
The cooperation agreement between Lieksa city and the North Karelian Biosphere Reserve defines concrete actions that are jointly promoted. These measures relate to improving accessibility, developing the Koli-Ruunaa-Pielinen tour circuit, enhancing outdoor recreational areas and accessibility, promoting Alvar Aalto’s sites in cultural tourism, developing habitats for spawning fish, and improving sustainable development-themed outdoor education. The agreement also aims to make Lieksa a flagship location for timber construction in North Karelia. The development related to Eva Ryynänen’s atelier home Paateri and the Museum Pielinen are an integral part of this collaboration. Additionally, the goal is to engage in joint advocacy for current sustainable development initiatives. (Saastamoinen, S. 2023.)
The North Karelian Biosphere Reserve
The North Karelian Biosphere Reserve combines nature conservation areas with the surrounding cooperation areas. The area covers the city of Lieksa, the Tuupovaara district of Ilomantsi, and Joensuu, but biosphere reserve activities are carried out throughout the entire region. This means that the region’s services, including tourism services, operate as part of this sustainable development network.
The North Karelian Biosphere Reserve serves as a practical framework aimed at promoting sustainable development in the region. This is achieved by supporting people’s connection to nature, preserving biodiversity, and promoting responsible economic development in the area. In this endeavor, local solutions are sought to address global challenges in collaboration with the international network of biosphere reserves.
The North Karelian Biosphere Reserve has a clear vision: it aspires to be a regionally and internationally recognized model area for sustainable development, as well as for the well-being of both nature and people. This vision guides the region’s activities and goals. One of the key objectives is to strengthen people’s relationship with nature. This means providing unforgettable nature experiences to tourists that also raise awareness about biodiversity and its conservation.
For example, Feel Koli, a local business in the area, represents sustainable tourism with its excursions that adhere to the region’s guidelines. The company’s guided tours are based on local culture and nature. Hiking is done with minimal impact on the environment, and the equipment used is high-quality and safe. Local delicacies, such as pies made from forest berries and berry juices, are offered during the trips. Food waste is minimized by preparing food in predetermined quantities. The company recycles all waste and sells unused, second-hand hiking gear. Customers are welcomed with openness and equality, regardless of their background, and guided services are offered in several languages. Irja Tanskanen, the entrepreneur behind Feel Koli, emphasizes the importance of respecting nature and protected areas, highlighting sustainable tourism and the preservation of biodiversity. Koli offers breathtaking nature and purity to both local residents and visitors. (Feel Koli 2023.)
Biosphere Reserve Objectives
Biosphere reserve activities are about promoting regional sustainable development through research, education, and collaboration. Their objectives include strengthening the economy, improving environmental well-being, and increasing environmental awareness at the regional level. The aim is to develop practices that balance the needs of nature, the economy, culture, and communities.
The biosphere reserve strategy is based on four key themes.
1. Conserving Biodiversity with People in Mind:
This theme seeks to secure the area’s biodiversity while providing people with the opportunity to enjoy it responsibly. Tourists are given hiking guidelines and sustainable tourism instructions to enable them to appreciate nature in a responsible manner.
An example of supporting biodiversity is through fishing restrictions. For instance, large pikes in Musta Mäntyjärvi are protected because they often play a key role in the continuation of the species. The fish population in Musta Mäntyjärvi consists of naturally occurring species. The area represents sustainable fishing, and fishing restrictions, such as size limits and catch limits, ensure the preservation of fish stocks. (Pasanen, M. 2023).
Kalastusretket Joensuu entrepreneur Matti Pasanen offers responsible fishing trips on Musta Mäntyjärvi in Lieksa. The use of motorized boats is prohibited, but electric motors are allowed. Fishing on the lake is primarily done by rowing, paddling, and wading. Ice fishing at the location is only possible with a guide to ensure that large fish are not harmed in freezing temperatures, as surface slush can freeze. (Pasanen, M. 2023).
Birdhouses for various bird species, including small birds, owls, waterfowl, and kestrels, have also been introduced in the area, promoting local bird diversity and ecosystem balance. (Pasanen, M. 2023).
Musta Mäntyjärvi is an excellent example of how sustainable tourism and the conservation of biodiversity can go hand in hand, advancing the goals of the biosphere reserve.
2. Promoting Sustainable Development by Enhancing Local Expertise:
The biosphere reserve strengthens local expertise and knowledge of sustainable development through education and cooperation. Bold experiments are conducted in the area, and best practices are shared.
Koli-Ahmovaara is Finland’s flagship destination for responsible, sustainable, and year-round tourism. Koli is growing due to internationalization, foreign customers, high-quality accommodation construction, and diverse service offerings. Growth is carried out in a sustainable and responsible manner, taking into account landscape, nature, and cultural values, and involving local resources. The volume of tourism in Koli has increased tenfold from the current level, and the growth of Koli has had a significant impact on the development of Lieksa and Juuka. Accessibility and transportation infrastructure in the Koli area have also improved significantly. (Koli Tourism Vision 2020).
In early 2023, Lieksan Kehitys Oy conducted an extensive interview survey with its local tourism operators, focusing on promoting sustainability and the certification path for businesses. The survey results indicated that all respondents considered sustainability to be of utmost importance. Moreover, the majority of these businesses expressed their intention to invest in sustainability in the future.
All interviewed companies had already, in some way, incorporated sustainability and sustainable development into their operations. Key sustainability actions of these businesses included recycling, energy conservation, and supporting local products. In the future, Lieksan Kehitys Oy intends to provide tailored support for businesses at various stages of sustainability development. They will also assist businesses in integrating sustainability as an integral part of business development and help find ways to communicate sustainability naturally while simultaneously boosting sales.
3. Boosting Vitality in the Region through Sustainable and Responsible Nature-Linked Industries:
The region aims to support sustainable industries, particularly nature, food, and cultural tourism, as well as the natural products sector.
Lieksa boasts a diverse network of constantly evolving trails, promoting sustainable tourism in the area. These trails offer opportunities for active and eco-friendly travel, which in turn supports sustainable industries. Travelers can enjoy nature and culture through activities such as cycling and hiking, thus bolstering nature, food, and cultural tourism. The extensive road network accommodates various forms of cycling, including mountain biking and road cycling, attracting a wide range of tourists to the area. This, in turn, enhances the region’s vitality through sustainable tourism and supports businesses based on nature and culture.
Paateri and Museum Pielinen contribute to sustainable industries in the region by offering cultural and nature-oriented tourism experiences. They introduce visitors to local culture and history, as well as the natural environment, promoting cultural and nature tourism in the area. These attractions allow travelers to learn and experience the region’s traditions, historical heritage, and local forest work culture, aligning with the principles of sustainable tourism. Therefore, Paateri and Museum Pielinen are part of the region’s efforts to develop sustainable industries based on nature and culture.
In addition to these attractions, in the village of Ahmovaara near Juuka, close to Koli, Koli Freetime focuses on the well-being of both guests and the environment. The company offers diverse accommodation and dining services, including rooms, cottages, and a year-round camping area. Sustainability is a way of life for them, reflected in their daily choices. They have joined Visit Finland’s Sustainable program and are currently working towards obtaining the Green Key certification to ensure the comprehensiveness and continuous improvement of their responsible operations. While a small business cannot achieve everything at once, clear goals guide them in developing their operations to be more responsible. (Kujamäki, T. 2023).
4. Enhancing Visibility for the Region through Sustainability Communication:
The biosphere reserve’s recognition is increased by communicating its sustainable values and responsibility. Localism, distinctiveness, and a positive attitude are cornerstones of this communication.
In the North Karelian biosphere reserve, three zones are in use: the core area, the buffer zone, and the transition area. These zones aim to balance conservation and human activities, ensuring the preservation of biodiversity while increasing the region’s vitality.
“With the new hiking exhibition at Koli Nature Center Ukko and other communication efforts, we aim to make all nature tourism destinations within the North Karelian biosphere reserve known to hikers,” says Tiina Hakkarainen, the communication manager of Metsähallitus.
The goal is to promote the sustainability of nature tourism and guide visitors from Koli to other national parks and the Ruunaa hiking area during peak times. The hope is that visitors will stay longer in the area, resulting in increased tourism revenue for the region. (Hakkarainen, T. 2023).
Koli and Lieksa as Nature Tourism Destinations in the Biosphere Reserve
The national parks and conservation areas within the biosphere reserve constitute a significant nature tourism area. These include Koli National Park, Ruunaa Recreation and Conservation Area and Patvinsuo National Park, offering a variety of activities and hiking opportunities year-round.
Visits to Finnish national parks are associated with a positive impact on well-being, which varies depending on various factors. Mental well-being and environmental factors, such as experiencing nature and landscapes, are particularly important. National parks can be utilized to promote public health while also considering their primary role in nature conservation (Korhonen, T. 2023, 2).
Koli National Park features an extensive 80 km marked trail network that offers stunning landscapes and hiking opportunities. Koli’s geology, diverse nature, landscapes shaped by slash-and-burn farming, and cultural landscapes make it an important area for both cultural and natural heritage conservation and a tourist destination. Koli’s most famous attraction is the breathtaking national landscape offered by the highest peaks in the range. The area also has numerous skiing trails in the winter. Koli’s tourism area rightfully received the Scandinavian Outdoor Award 2023. The jury commended Koli for its comprehensive tourism concept, which is based on four seasons and caters to various target groups. According to the jury, responsible nature tourism, diverse accommodation options, and the support of local residents combine in Koli in a way that promotes tourism growth in the right manner. Koli was previously awarded the Destination of the Year in 2013.
The Ruunaa Recreation and Conservation Area features the Lieksanjoki River with its rapids and is a popular destination for fishing, kayaking, and hiking. The area is home to a diverse range of wildlife, including bears, small mammals, and various bird species. The Ruunaa rapids are the most significant recreational fishing location in Southern Finland, where catch-sized rainbow trout and brown trout are regularly stocked. Ruunaa also offers excellent opportunities for both experienced paddlers seeking challenges and beginners in need of guided trips. In the winter, there are approximately 30 km of maintained skiing trails in the area.
As mentioned earlier, Musta Mäntyjärvi is a fishing and hiking destination for those seeking the tranquility of nature. In addition to fishing, the area is suitable for other nature enthusiasts such as hikers, berry pickers, and mushroom foragers. Camping and enjoying the peace of nature are possible in the area. Moreover, the site features a lean-to, an outdoor fireplace, dry toilets, rowboats, and a canoe. Tent campers and recreational vehicles are welcome, even though electricity is not available. Additionally, visitors can arrange transportation and catering services with the entrepreneur, rent fishing kayaks and fishing equipment, and even a tent sauna. (Pasanen, M. 2023).
Patvinsuo National Park offers vast bog landscapes and various habitats. It is the largest of its kind in its region and is suitable for hiking, trekking, and canoeing. The area is home to a diverse range of animal and bird species, and it boasts the clear Suomunjärvi Lake with sandy shores.
Patvinsuo also provides a fantastic opportunity for cross-country skiing on unbroken snow. However, it is essential to move cautiously and observe the area’s restrictions, especially during the nesting season when walking on the snow cover.
The Koli and Lieksa region also features other stunning natural destinations. Koli offers many hiking trails maintained by different operators. You can choose routes that suit your hiking preferences, with lengths ranging from short walks of a few kilometers to multi-day hikes that allow you to explore deep into the untouched nature of the area.
All in all, the nature tourism destinations in the Koli biosphere reserve provide diverse opportunities for outdoor activities, hiking, and nature experiences, as well as exploration of rich cultural heritage. The area also hosts art and cultural events. The region’s waterways offer opportunities for nature and cultural tourism.
Sustainable Tourism in the Lieksa and Koli Tourism Area
As a tourist, you can be part of the sustainable development network. By choosing responsible tourism services and following guidelines, you can enjoy the stunning nature of the biosphere reserve while contributing to its conservation. By opting for nature tourism in the biosphere reserve, you also positively impact the local economy.
Visitors to protected areas must adhere to the area’s rules and hiking etiquette to preserve delicate ecosystems and rare plants and animals. It is especially important to stay on marked trails to avoid the adverse effects of terrain wear and tear. In the winter, hiking does not cause terrain wear and tear outside the trails, as the snow cover protects the environment. Thus, nature remains untouched even when walking off the trails (Tanskanen, I. 2023).
The Lieksa and Koli tourism area is more than just landscapes; it is a pioneer in sustainable development, offering fantastic experiences in both nature and local culture.
Welcome to explore and enjoy sustainable tourism in the Koli and Lieksa tourism area! You can read more about the sustainable tourism area and its travel possibilities here.
Saastamoinen Susanna 2023. Elinvoimajohtaja. Email communication, September 22, 2023, Lieksa City.
Tanskanen Irja 2023. Entrepreneur. Email communication, September 12, 2023, FeelKoli.
Pasanen Matti 2023. Entrepreneur. Email communication, September 11, 2023, Kalastusretket.
Kujamäki Tiina 2023. Entrepreneur. Email communication, September 14, 2023, Koli Freetime.
Lehtovaara Vilma 2023: Biosphere Area Coordinator. Email communication, September 14, 2023, North Karelia ELY Centre.
Hakkarainen Tiina 2023. Communications Manager. Email communication, September 14, 2023, Metsähallitus Luontopalvelut.
Korhonen, T. 2023. The Relationship between Visits to National Parks and Perceived Well-Being. Faculty of Sport and Health Sciences, University of Jyväskylä, Health Education master’s thesis.
Lieksa and Koli Tourism Area Sustainable Sales Promotion Project.