Talking about... PAndemic and Resilience in UNESCO sites

The project started in January 2021 and concluded with a webinar series that took place virtually in April 2021 The project examined the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Italian UNESCO Biosphere Reserves and Global Geoparks. It discussed new-found and resilient solutions with site managers, youth and stakeholders from the education, agriculture and tourism sectors. Some critical questions were posed ranging from “What is the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the activities of Biosphere Reserves and Global Geoparks in Italy” to “What are the wider impacts on the territories, institutional organisations and economic activities”. Ultimately, it concluded by assessing the resilient solutions adopted as a response to the difficult period.

Prior to the webinar series, the impacts and solutions to the COVID-19 pandemic in Italian UNESCO Biosphere Reserves and Global Geoparks were investigated through a survey. This was conducted among management authorities, youths, and stakeholders in the education, tourist and food sectors. The survey had upwards of 183 participants. The preliminary results suggested that due to the pandemics restrictions in Italy, Biosphere Reserve and Geopark coordinators have gone through difficulties in the administration of programmed activities such as events for the promotion of local food producers and educational events. However, communication was strengthened by the use of social media and new digital tools. Overall, travel and tourism seemed to be the most affected sector by the health crisis, although proximity tourism expanded significantly.

To further investigate aspects mentioned above, the UNESCO Regional Bureau for Science and Culture in Europe, in collaboration with Punto 3 Srl., hosted a virtual webinar series as platform to exchange knowledge, experiences, and creative solutions for resilience amongst site managers and stakeholders of UNESCO sites in Italy. The exchange was aimed at enhancing peer-learning within the network and contributing to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals, strengthening the potential of UNESCO sites as sustainability laboratories. A special attention was dedicated to youth, directly involved as discussants during the webinars, and to local economic and social stakeholders who were asked to present their experiences during the pandemic and their vision for moving forward.

Each of the 3 webinars had a specific theme which ranged from agriculture and local products, school, to sustainable tourism. For each event three special guests were invited to present their virtuous experience in terms of resilient solutions to the COVID-19 pandemic impacts on UNESCO sites, interacting with their young discussants.

The local agricultural sector in Italian Biosphere Reserves and Global Geoparks has reported some economic loss during the pandemic, but has also seen a positive digitalisation trend. According to the webinar’s experts Angelo Merlino, Francesco de Vuono and Piero Confalonieri during the pandemic consumers were drawn towards local sustainable products as the movement restrictions helped communities to rediscover local resources. In order to build back better, this new interest should be cultivated and integrated with the social cohesion lost during the health crisis. The way forward for this sector is promoting rural lifestyles with new tools and modern approaches to attract new visitors and residents.

An increased digitalisation was also witnessed in the educational sector in UNESCO sites, where students and teachers were forced to adapt to distance learning. New teaching methods had both positive and negative impacts as described by Antonella Piredda and Patrizia Balzarini. Inequalities in the educational opportunities increased because of different socio-economic backgrounds and devices availabilities, but schools were resilient and supportive in assisting students and their families. New learning methods, also resulted in new creative activities, boosted by the use of social media. This happened both in the school sector and for non-traditional education entities such as museums, Biosphere Reserves and Geoparks authorities, as presented by Federica Piazza. Schools after the pandemic should invest in planning for a more equal, digital and outdoor method.

As found in the preliminary survey study, tourism was highly affected by the pandemic, however during the time when travelling was not allowed, Italian citizens inhabiting Biosphere Reserves and Geoparks rediscovered their proximities and started to further appreciate the value of the surrounding nature. Alessandra Casini, Barbara Maffei and Alessandra Odorizzi, pointed out how overall touristic fluxes decreased but national fluxes increased.

To embrace this new type of tourism, some small and medium enterprises have adapted and provided new smart working services, as well embarking in new collaborations with the local producers and primary sector.

With a successful number of over 250 participants, the lessons learnt from the webinar series were many. Firstly, the pandemic seems to have highlighted and intensified the need for a new relationship between man and nature. This relationship might be envisioned through new diversified and sustainable economic systems, shortening the supply chain by promoting local products. Schools are clearly central to local social systems as a good example of resilience and solidarity, with a key role in engaging young people to co-plan for the future of small communities and UNESCO sites.

Conscious and collaborative planning might open to the possibility of new forms of smart sustainable tourism that fulfils the need of new digital lifestyles through new projects and activities. A final highlight of the initiative was the strengthening of the Italian Biosphere Reserves and Global Geoparks network through peer-learning which has already sparked some new collaborations.