Small farmers across the EU are increasingly turning to agritourism to diversify their economic activities but the niche business, just like the entire tourism sector, has not been spared the devastating impact of the COVID-19 crisis.
Although much focus has been given to the impact of the pandemic on the tourism sector in recent weeks, there has been much less attention devoted to agritourism, which is often an economic lifeline for many smaller farms.
Speaking at the recent AGRI Committee meeting, EU agriculture Commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski highlighted that agritourism is an important rural activity that is struggling during this crisis.
He suggested that agritourism should be offered extra support under the rural development fund, the second pillar of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).
He also said agritourism could continue even during the crisis, under certain conditions, suggesting that agritourism should be considered separately from the rest of the tourism sector, and promised he would be “turning to member states and asking them to consider agritourism as a kind of tourism that can continue.”
Agritourism is defined as travel which combines agriculture with a touristic experience, allowing guests to have a flavour of farm life during their rural retreat.
It is becoming an increasingly important part of both the tourism and agriculture industry worldwide, as it brings in additional revenue for farmers but also helps to increase knowledge about agriculture and rural areas, helping to conserve Europe’s rural heritage.
Agritourism also adds value to local products, due to the increase in demand for natural or handcrafted regional agricultural products.
Farmers’ association COPA-COGECA highlighted recently in their communications on COVID-19 that the sector has been badly affected, and have indicated agritourism must be taken into account in any discussion on support for the tourism sector.
Alisha Sesum, communications officer at European Coordination Via Campesina, told EURACTIV.com that agritourism is “one of the main activities for some of our members, especially in Italy.”
“Many Italian farmers have agri-tourism certificates and not being able to host people has affected their income two-fold. They have lost a significant part of their income from the accommodation but also, the sales from these guests in farm shops/restaurants are also affected.”
Alessandra Turco of Associazione Rurale Italiana said that with COVID-19, the small agricultural producers use agritourism as a complement to food production and income, but that in this period they have “lost the possibility to sell our products directly in the local markets, in our agritourism farms and in all the Horeca sector.”
Indeed, the Italian Institute of services for the agricultural food market (ISMEA), recently estimated that losses in the agritourism sector will amount to 65% of the forecast income for 2020, equivalent to €1 billion euros loss.
Naut Kusters, the director for the European centre for eco and agritourism, said that small agritourism farmers have definitely felt the effects of the coronavirus outbreak, although he warned that the main tourism season for rural tourism is between June and August, so the impact “remains to be seen.”
Asked whether agrotourism activities should be allowed to continue, Kusters highlighted that agritourism is “small in scale,” emphasising that they do not have large restaurants, swimming pools or other common places where people mix.
He added that there really “seems no reason to keep it closed as long as certain rules are followed.”
Klaus Erhlich from Eurogites, the European federation of rural tourism, said that although the situation varies considerably between countries, if domestic mobility is restored by the start of the summer holiday season, from a “technical” point, there is no impact on domestic visitors.
However, he highlighted that the real problem will be in countries that have a high percentage of non-domestic visitors.
“The big question mark is whether these clients will be allowed to travel,” he said, adding that there could be more demand for agritourism as it is easier to abide by social distancing rules in rural areas.
In Austria, where agritourism is well established, Andreas Thurner from the Austrian Chamber of Agriculture said that it is “relatively safe”, and compliance with distance rules is also feasible.
in the short term, he expects a much stronger focus on Austrian guests after the end of the acute corona phase, accompanied by a “major marketing offensive” by tourism organisations and providers for domestic guests.
But he added that the travel restrictions for German guests “remain a big question, as they make up around 60% of our annual overnight stays.”
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]