What happened to ecotourism site Oostvaardersplassen in the Netherlands, Europe?
This guest post from Raymond Walsh of the travel and lifestyle blog Man On the Lam about an ecotourism visit to the largest wetland nature reserve in the Netherlands is a cautionary tale. Oostvaardersplassen was the darling of the Dutch, a source of national pride, and the celebrated subject of an award-winning documentary about its approach to sustainable tourism. However, even with the best intentions, design, and responsible tourism principles in place, things went wrong. But all is not lost, according to Raymond, who feels Oostvaardersplassen deserves a second chance.
When we talk about responsible travel, a lot of the dialogue surrounds how we as travellers present ourselves to the world. But shouldn’t the conversation include the destination as well?
At first glance, De Oostvaarders building looks like it would be at home anywhere in the Netherlands — design-savvy, it’s warm, welcoming, and well-laid out. It’s the sort of edifice where function meets form without sacrificing either, but rather excelling in both. Like most information centres it touts video rooms, interactive displays, a restaurant, and the ever present gift shop.
And that’s all very well and good.
But what you don’t know about the centre is the precise nature of how it was planned, constructed, and erected. It’s one of three information centres at Oostvaardersplassen — the largest wetland nature reserve in the Netherlands. In a coordinated effort to minimize the impact on the environment that it is meant to support, the building’s walls, floors, and overhang were pre-fabricated and assembled onsite within a set timeline.
The goal was to get in, get it done, and get out without disturbing the flora and fauna within the reserve.
So then, for an organization that takes animal welfare so seriously, why are its Google Reviews so abysmal?
“Death camp for animals”
“This park is an abomination”
“Even 1 star is too much for this animal ghetto”
An ecotourism success story
It wasn’t so long ago that Oostvaardersplassen was the darling of the Dutch, and the celebrated subject of an award-winning documentary. A film crew followed the lives of the park’s Konik ponies, cattle, deer, foxes, hares and birds over a two-year period. The result was Die Nieuwe Wilderness “The New Wilderness” (2013) — a fantastic journey through four seasons in the life of the park, giving viewers an up-close look at rebirth and survival in the newly christened “Serengeti of the Netherlands.”
Oostvaardersplassen became a source of national pride. Fifty years ago none of this even existed. Dutch minds reclaimed this land from the sea. Dutch minds were behind the relocation of animals that thrived here. Dutch minds willed this reserve out of nothingness.
Fast-forward five years, and an entirely different climate has emerged. Popular opinion can tilt quickly, and that’s exactly what occurred this past winter. The film’s IMDB listing foretold what would happen before it made headlines, but no one paid it much heed:
“It is a paradise in the spring and summer times, but in the winter it transforms into a grim landscape. The food is scarce and the inhabitants of the new wilderness have to make vital life decisions. Only the strongest survive.”
The only part missing was that some of those vital life decisions were made by park staff as well. According to The Guardian,
“After a run of mild winters, the three species numbered 5,230 on the fenced 5,000-hectare reserve. Following a harsher winter, the population is now just 1,850. Around 90% of the dead animals were shot by the Dutch state forestry organisation, which manages the reserve, before they could die of starvation.”
And like that, the park went from pedestal to pariah. Whether it was a victim of its own success, growing pains, or an experiment gone sour, steps have been taken to ensure that the events of the past winter are not repeated.
Hope for a new wilderness
The park signed an agreement with the provincial government of Flevoland which should see a marked improvement in the situation. It sets aside € 3 million for a new management plan of the park that would see the creation of 300 more hectares of wooded area to protect the large grazers, and 500 more hectares of flooded areas for the birds. As well, the number of large grazers will be capped at 1500 going forward.
Despite the fall from grace, everyone loves a comeback story, and since this land was afforded a second chance, shouldn’t Oostvaardersplassen be afforded that opportunity as well?
There is hopefully redemption in this reclamation, and if the gods are willing, a new “New Wilderness.”
Oostvaardersplassen travel tips
- Some areas of the Oostvaardersplassen are only accessible through guided tours. Contact the park via the Oostvaaderslassen website to plan ahead.
- While in the area, take a guided tour of the nearby New Land Heritage Centre and “Werkeiland”, where you can discover the greatest land reclamation project in history.
- There are also opportunities to go on fishing trips, take wilderness survival lessons, and even some water sports within the park.
- To get to the park, you can purchase the Amsterdam & Region Travel Ticket which offers unlimited travel on buses, trams, trains and metros in the Amsterdam Area for 24 hours for only €18.50.
All blog post photos by Raymond Walsh.
Feature photo by By Dominicus Johannes Bergsma [CC BY-SA 4.0], from Wikimedia Commons
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