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WORDS KATE CLOWTurkey’s Culture Routes Society

Here is an introduction to European Cultural Routes, as the Europeans call culturally themed cross-border trails, aimed at opening discussions on how we could create links with the World Trails Network.

‘European Cultural Routes’ is one of the CoE programmes, run by the European Institute of Cultural Routes (EICR) in Luxembourg .

European Cultural Routes are physical routes or networks of routes linking places with a common European theme that cross a minimum of 3 international boundaries. The shared theme could be focusing on a specific era of artistic production (e.g. Prehistoric Rock Art Trail, Reseau Art Nouveau, Ceramics route, etc.), a historical figure (e.g. Destination Napoleon, Route of Robert Louis Stevenson, Via Charlemagne, etc.), a regional culture which crossed present-day borders (Viking route, Via Hapsburg, The Hansa, etc.), or a religious theme, nearly all Christian.

Via Francigena walker. ©Culture Routes Society

New routes initiatives can apply for certification by the EICR. Criteria focus on the theme, cultural heritage and research importance rather than the sustainability and tourism value of the route.

It could be pointed out that the members of the EICR’s managing and advisory bodies are mostly career civil servants, supported by academics; their fieldwork experiences are limited and they are biased towards European cultural traditions rather than environmental or sustainability issues.

Re-certification applies every three years; the turnover is quite high, with several routes failing re-certification. Certification is pretty hard work and brings no immediate financial rewards; the only financial benefit is the slightly easier access to EU or other funding.

Sign-posting on Via Francigena. ©Culture Routes Society

The CoE programme was launched in 1987 with the recognition of the Camino de Santiago (St James Route) as the first European Cultural Route. Nowadays, there are 40 of them; yet, only a few are trekking trails, and most of these are pilgrimage /religious routes, although few of their visitors have religious motives for walking.

Other CoE Routes which are also trails are: Via Francigena & Via Francigena del Sud, the Route of St. Olav Ways, the Route in the footsteps of Robert Louis Stevenson, the Iron Curtain Trail, Via Romea Germanica.

European long-distance routes. ©Culture Routes Society

There are a few other trails crossing one border, as well as Via Dinarica, a new 1,900km trail in the Balkan mountains, which crosses several boundaries. Moreover, several European Ramblers Association routes link trails from different countries into trans-European trails; but these have no overall trail management organisations. Most European trails lie within national borders and are therefore comparatively short with local themes.

Not only does Europe not have many famous cross-border walking routes, but those it has are in fact run by poorly-funded NGOs. In absence of a pan-European structure for NGOs, the Routes end up being managed by weak coalitions of national groups, often with competing interests or even disputing ‘ownership’ of the trail. Some of these routes have been supported by generous EU project funding, delivered over a short time-scale. In spite of this, and in absence of having access to core funding, the governing NGOs remain weak and find it difficult to produce long-term results in terms of facilities along the route, tourist numbers, or benefits to local people.

It’s only in the last few years that the CoE has acknowledged that routes should benefit rural populations, switching the emphasis from thematic history to cultural, sustainable tourism. This shift in emphasis provides the World Trails Network with the potential to explore opportunities for shared membership, events and standards with CoE’s Cultural Routes.

Via Francigena sign. ©Culture Routes Society

European trail users are an important market both for trekking tourism operators and for local service providers. These are the better-off, mostly older trekkers who are willing to spend money on accommodation and services, and want genuine cultural experiences. Most of them are willing to travel outside Europe.

Maybe the CoE Cultural Routes program could benefit from the experience of the trail managers who are members of the World Trails Network, and the latter could benefit from the access to the European trekkers market who are mostly familiar with the CoE program.

The question is how do we bring the two together. 

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