Two years, that’s how long it took our team to implement our first pilot program. Almost two years of volunteer work before being able to be hired, and endless planning and preparation work for what ended up being two months of remarkable experiences.Since the day we started conceptualising a trail building/ecotourism pilot in the beautiful region of Vardousia in Fokida, I had imagined what it would be like being there, what the program would look like, and most importantly, how would our first-ever cohort group be. All I could do was plan and imagine. The first time I realised that this was really happening was during the interview process for the selection of the cohort members. The time between the interview process and the start of the program was a little less than a month. I tried to put myself in their position and understand their expectations for such a program, but honestly, I had no idea what to expect. As the program manager, I wanted to arrive at the pilot location at least a week prior in order to settle down, meet the locals and prepare for the arrival of 7 young Greeks that would spend the next two months learning about ecotourism and revitalising old hiking trails. A little about the location — The region is called Vardousia, and the two villages that we are operating are Alpochori and the other is called Zorianos. The two villages are 5 minutes apart by car.
I arrived at Zorianos on April 15th, two weeks before the start of the program. My arrival coincided with Greek Easter; both villages were full of families that had left the busy life of Athens and came to escape and enjoy the festivities, but that’s not the norm. Zoriano has less than 20 permanent residents, Alpochori even less, the rest come and go, and most come only for holidays. The reality is that both villages, in less than 10-15 years, will be dead. With no jobs and no real infrastructure, it is very hard for anyone to consider a move here, let alone raise a family. For a moment, I pondered and asked myself why we were here. Why are we bringing 7 young Greeks to build trails at a place where even the people that are from here don’t visit that often? Despite all this questioning, a sense of optimism came along that we can be the change this place needs . Developing ecotourism might be one solution. Greece is known as a tourist destination throughout the world, primarily because of its islands and pristine beaches. Not many people know that Greece is covered by mountains in 80% of its landmass, and that gives us a unique opportunity to develop sustainable ecotourism in such regions. Ecogenia’s program can provide that, community-based ecotourism. And the big day comes, April 29th, when the group is going to meet for the first time in person. I drove down to Nafpaktos, which is the nearest city to us, and picked up the group. I had met them before, but it’s very different meeting someone online versus meeting in person.