Interview: Barrier-free nature experience in Carinthia, Austria

A portrait shot of a friendly man with dark curly hair and glasses.
© Robert Heuberger

Robert Heuberger is a studied biologist. He has been working for the Dobratsch Nature Park since 2004 and for the Weissensee Nature Park since 2007. Since 2009, he has been a board member of Arge Naturerlebnis Kärnten, an association of 11 protected areas, 10 tourism regions and „Kärnten Werbung“ for the development and implementation of sustainable, innovative nature tourism programmes in protected areas. Arge Naturerlebnis and the nature parks won numerous awards, including the „Innovation Award Tourism Austria“, the „VCÖ Mobility Award“, and the „Inclusion Award for Carinthia“.

As part of the project "Barrier-free nature experience", you enable people with disabilities to explore the nature of Carinthia. How did the idea for the project come about?

I was originally fascinated by a trail for blind people in the Italian nature park Prealpi Giulie. Decisive was also the knowledge about the increase of the number of old and very old people in our society as well as the astonishment that the topic "accessibility" in nature was ignored with the argument "that's not possible".

In a more than 3-year "cautious" process, which was accompanied by the company Siegel & Kaiser, the project "Nature experience for all" was developed, which served to raise awareness on this topic and formed a basis for the current implementations.

Which paths would you recommend to the different visitors and for what reason?

Starting in 2022, there will be 11 barrier-free nature experience paths in Carinthia. Each one will meet the criteria set by the ÖZIV (Federal Association for People with Disabilities). Whether it is the Seebach Valley in the Hohe Tauern or the Kaiserburg in the Nockberge, the two lakeside paths at Lake Weissensee or the spectacular Sky Walk at parking lot 6 on the Villach Alpine Road, each experience is special.

What is special about this project? What surprised you in a particularly positive way?

First, we did a "self-evaluation" of possible paths based on a list of criteria. It was impressive to observe how it resulted in increasing the understanding for people with disabilities, when the realisation arose that even almost level paths are not manageable for people in wheelchairs.

At our awareness-raising workshops for decision-makers, rangers and hotels, I was pleased that so many took part and recognised the need to take action. I am also particularly pleased that our ranger programmes "Nature Experience for All" are booked by a broad target group.

What were the biggest challenges or stumbling blocks in your process and how did you deal with them?

There were enough challenges: Convincing the protected areas that accessibility is also possible in the mountains. Convincing the businesses that this group of guests is not a "marginal topic" and also the funding agencies of the „Leader programme“ were partly against the project. It is great that we were able to overcome these challenges and even achieve the 1st place in the tourism “Lighthouse funding”.

What would be your future vision for barrier-free nature offers in Carinthia?

We are working on making the entire tourism service chain barrier-free - from the initial information on the Internet to the booking, the journey, the stay in the company, the vacation experience in nature until the departure and the "customer loyalty". This is our goal for the next few years and hopefully also in the future.

What do you think is particularly important in the transition to more accessibility?

The knowledge to make it better not only for 10% of the guests who absolutely need it, but for 100% of the guests.

Thank you for an exciting insight!

A mountain lake surrounded by mountains and forest in summer. Villages stand along the shore. A 6km long barrier-free path is being built on the western shore of Lake Weissensee.
© Mayerhofer

On the western shore of Lake Weissensee, a 6km barrier-free trail is being created. Naturpark Weissensee, Austria.

More about accessibility in Carinthia:

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