Tourism is considered to produce multidisciplinary economic activity [1
]. It is the largest global industry in terms of both employment and investments, highlighting its importance to growth at local, regional, national, and international level [2
]. With regard to the current trends in tourism demand, it is acknowledged that there has been a growing interest in nature-based and mountain tourism [3
], especially during the last decade [4
]. Furthermore, nature-based and mountain tourism have been identified as the major pillar for sustainable development in rural and mountainous areas, while in regions with natural assets, prospects for new economic opportunities arise along with environmental protection [5
Mountainous forest areas cover almost 28% of the Earth’s surface [6
], while it is acknowledged that conservation and sustainable management in these areas are two closely affiliated concepts. Indeed, as Nischalke et al. [7
] highlighted, coffee production in forests in Southwestern Ethiopia has engaged with cultural assets of the local community, enhancing their positive attitude towards forest conservation. In the same concept, Toscani and Sekot [8
] presented the critical role of small-scale forestry in the Austrian Alps.
An international shift towards mountain tourism demand has been recorded in the ecotourism industry, as alpine regions offer an impressive arsenal of tourist resources, such as spectacular landscapes of relief impresses through altitude, stunning cliffs, scenic ridges, and a variety of genetic types of relief; distinct activities in ski areas; observation of rare flora and fauna species; special areas ideal for other winter sports; hunting; educational and scientific purposes; fishing; etc. [9
]. Mountain tourism encompasses a range of hard-level activities, such as rock climbing, long and challenging treks, and mountain biking, as well as soft activities, including hiking and low-intensity treks. Whilst both kind of activities require proper landscape planning, with a good quality of infrastructure and accessibilities, they are able to provide comfortable experiences [10
In Greece, mountainous areas account for 77.9% of the total country area, and semimountainous municipalities cover 71.3% [11
]. From early on, forest policy for the mountainous areas of Greece was aimed at protecting the environment and supporting local populations. In particular, the Presidential Decree No. 19-11-1928 (Government Gazette 252/30-11-1928/T.A’) states in Article 1 that, “Forest management, whether the forests are public or not, regulates the position, extend, amount, type, and time of logging, as well as the total of the forest economy and its yields to the fullest extent possible for the purpose of the forest economy and, to the extent possible, to meet social needs of the country specifically addressing to the host local community”; while according to Article 2, “The management and exploitation of forests, public and private, are distinguished by sustainable or continuous exploitation and periodic or intermittent use”. It is therefore acknowledged that in mountainous areas, the protection and preservation of the forest and natural environment is focused on locals’ well-being in line with sustainability principles.
Thus, it is of utmost importance for decision makers and managers to prioritize destination development goals, such as improvement of the quality of sustainable tourism elements, core competences, environmental protection, infrastructural establishment, and maintenance, addressing tourism product attractiveness, and service quality. Therefore, it is vital to identify the social representations of sustainable mountain tourism [12
]. Along the same line, the Recreation Opportunity Spectrum planning system has been used as the roadmap for planning and improving various recreational opportunities in natural areas. This system comprises a valuable tool in designing the proper model to meet both environmental preferences and traditional forest management, while it also takes into account existing opportunities and accessibility issues [13
Corresponding to Tampekis et al. [14
], who examined an optimum evaluation method for the forest road networks in Metsovo, it has been underlined that there is a need for an integrated strategy in planning and upgrading transportation schemes in mountainous areas. This method should be based on the diverse character of sustainable development and address eco-efficient nodes and bioeconomies for the exploitation of the natural resources. The same authors also stress that it is significant to motivate human and social resources towards the promotion of cultural assets and the special financial features of the case area.
In several studies, tourists’ views were recorded in terms of their level of satisfaction and preferences [4
] in order to evaluate the dual aim of conservation and recreation, whereas in this study, the locals’ views were examined according to recent research findings that list local people as a special interest group, which assesses tourism infrastructures in a more severe way compared to tourists, as these infrastructures primarily affect the quality of their lives on a daily basis [5
]. In particular, it is acknowledged that the creation and improvement of tourism infrastructures has always been regarded as a useful policy tool aimed at rural development and tourism growth [21
]. Added to that and taking into consideration the increasing mountain and nature-based tourism demand and tradeoffs, it is obvious that there is also a need for an improvement and redevelopment of sustainable facilities and infrastructures in mountainous areas.
In addition to the above, we must also mention that mountain tourism, which is closely affiliated with forest recreation, should provide access to proper accommodations and amenities aiming to meet the needs of natural recreation seekers [22
] but also of local people. On the other hand, it should also be noted that in areas of high naturalness, there are difficulties in accessibility, ascribed to poor transportation systems, while human demands for natural resources continue to grow rapidly [23
To this end, the traditional and alternative values of the forest providing various management objectives should address the integration of all its functions, including timber, biodiversity, protection from soil erosion and floods, and carbon sink, as well as its recreational services [24
]. Recent findings revealed the positive effects of forest recreational activities in mental health and psychological and physiological wellbeing (“forest bathing”) [25
], which declares the need for the engagement and further development of forest recreation schemes and infrastructures. Tourism growth is highly dependent on infrastructures, such as the road network, transportation, accessibility amenities, and hotels, provided in the destination, while it is also appraised that infrastructural development influences local people in a positive way towards tourism development [27
The aim of the study was to examine and interpret the locals’ views in the mountain area of Metsovo, one of the most alpine regions in Greece, situated in the northwest part of the country, regarding the evaluation of different factors that are able to support and encourage the growth of mountain tourism. According to the main findings reflecting the locals’ views, the need was recognized for further infrastructural development addressing mountain tourism at the forest area in Metsovo, with a special focus on forest recreation infrastructures. Traditional forest management and its services were positively evaluated in terms of efficiency, while the forest recreational potential was considered to be lagging on account of the central administration and, locally, the Forest Service.
2. Materials and Methods
2.1. Study Area
The Municipality of Metsovo (Figure 1
) administratively belongs to the Prefecture of Epirus in Greece. This municipality was established in 2011 with the union of the former municipalities of Egnatia, Metsono, and Milia as applied with the administrative boundaries of the Kapodistrian Local Authorities. Metsovo is situated in the eastern part of the Regional Union of Ioannina, neighboring with the regions of Thessaly and Western Macedonia, and it extends in the slopes of Northern Pindos. In particular, Pindos is the biggest mountain range of Greece, stretching from the Greek–Albanian borders (northwest) to the Northern Peloponnese (southeast), roughly 160 km long and considered as the backbone of mainland Greece. Metsovo is listed as one of the most alpine municipalities of Greece, located at an elevation of 1160 m. The town of Metsovo is populated by 3469 residents, and it includes not only the administrative division of Metsovo but also the local communities of Anilio, Anthochori, and Votonosi.
In the mountainous area of Metsovo, which is the largest Vlach village of Greece, there are two very important museums, namely, the Folklore Museum housed in the mansion of Baron Michael Tositsa, and the Averoff Gallery, which has operated since 1988. The cultural heritage of the area includes architecture monuments, creative craftsmanship, the art of weaving and wood carving, a great embroidery history, folklore art, and traditional stone buildings, while its natural heritage is mainly characterized by an impressive mountainous bulge, a hydrographic network, and forests of a high density. Major important species of the flora include Quercus sessiliflora, Acer platanoides, Acer pseudoplatanus, Ulmus montana Pinua nigra Erica carnea, Vacinium myrtillus, Quercus pubescens, Quercus conferta, Quercus cerris, Ostrya carpinifolia, Fraxinus ornus, Pinus leucodermis Abies borisii regis, Lilium heldreichii and fauna including Rupicarpa rupicarpa Lutra lutra, Ursus arctos, and Canis lupus.
2.2. The Survey
The population under study included all of the households in the Municipality of Metsovo. The applied sampling framework involved lists of domestic electricity consumers. The use of households is a familiar case of using teams instead of sample units. It is easier and more affordable [28
]. Structured face-to-face interviews were conducted, and simple random sampling was used [29
]. The average duration of the interview was 20 min. The survey was divided into five sections:
The demographic profile of the locals;
Residents’ satisfaction with their quality of life in their region;
Evaluation of the existing infrastructures of tourism and forest recreation;
Evaluation of forest goods and services; and
Attitudes towards the State and private sectors’ work on forests.
The data were collected in 2018 between the months of April to June. The interviews were conducted by a student who was well trained on the interviewing style, 17:00–19:00, on weekdays and on the weekend. The households were found randomly, using tables of random numbers. The personal interview was conducted with one family member per household. The response rate of the survey (98%) was very high. Participants had to be at least 18 years old due to legal constraints in Greece. If a member of a specific household was not found or refused to complete the questionnaire, we proceeded toward new sample units.
For the data collection, face-to-face interviews took place by means of a combination of close-ended questions and Likert-scale questions. The questionnaires included a wide range of topics in order to investigate their views on sectors of local growth, the impact of mountain tourism, the existing tourism and leisure activity infrastructures and projects, and possible problems in the forests, as well the role of Forest Service in traditional and alternative forest management.
2.3. Research Method
The population proportion, p
, as well as the estimation of the standard error of the population, sp
, were calculated through the use of the formulas of simple random sampling. To determine the sample size, presampling was used, with a sample size of 50 individuals. The size of the sample for each variable was estimated on the basis of the formulas of simple random sampling (where t
= 1.95 and e
= 4.9%) [31
]. In this case, the size of the sample was calculated as 400 individuals. Data collection took place in 2018 from April to June.
In the multivariables, reliability and factor analysis were applied. In particular, to find out the internal reliability of a questionnaire [32
], i.e., if our data had the tendency to measure the same thing, we used the coefficient (or Cronbach’s reliability coefficient). A coefficient equal to or higher than 0.70 is considered as satisfactory [33
], while one higher than 0.80 is considered as very satisfactory. In practice, reliability coefficients with values lower than 0.60 are also accepted in many cases [34
Tests must be reliable in order to be useful. In fact, reliability does not suffice; it should also be valid, and this is checked through factor analysis [34
]. Factor analysis is a statistical method that aims to discover the existence of common factors within a group of variables [35
]. More specifically, principal component analysis was used in the case study, which is based on the spectral analysis of the variance (correlation) matrix. The selection of the number of factors is a dynamic process and presupposes the evaluation of the model in a repeated fashion. In this paper, we used the solution of two factors. We also conducted the rotation of the matrix principal components using the maximum variance rotation method by Kaiser [36
Moreover, the hierarchical cluster analysis was applied to analyze data sets comprising multiple variables and to identify possible groupings of the data [31
]. The Pearson correlation coefficient was used as the distance measure, and the full bond method, also known as the “nearest neighbor” method, was used to combine the cluster observations. The data were analyzed through the statistical package SPPS.
The major goal of Greek forestry policy has always been to meet the needs of mountainous populations through the sustainable management of forest ecosystems. However, their nonwood functions have been set aside, reflecting the effects of the depopulation and abandonment of rural areas [56
]. In the Metsovo region, livestock farming and forestry have been recognized as the main occupations of the local people. However, the locals perceive that tourism (88%) may be the most important development sector in this area, with livestock farming (62.2%) and forestry (36.8%) following after, whereas the substantial span of mountain areas in Greece, which is unexploited to a large extent, could serve as the vehicle for local growth and sustainable development for forest gateway communities through the growth of mountain tourism [57
], accompanied by the development of the respective infrastructures.
Forest recreation facilities and improvement of accessibility are considered of high priority for the development and efficient management of mountain tourism [55
] as the existence of tourism infrastructures constitutes a comparative advantage for every region that is expected to succeed in tourism development. In the area of Metsovo, ski resorts and hotel facilities receive the highest rating, followed by restaurants and recreation areas, cleanliness and waste management, road networks, and public transport (buses), and forest recreation infrastructures are the lowest-rated aspect, showing the need for the establishment and maintenance of outdoor public infrastructures. In addition, it is evident that the local people of Metsovo realize that tourism infrastructures based on private initiatives have been developed significantly in contrast to those that should have been developed by the central administration. To this point, it should be noted that due to certain policies implemented in Greece, which aim to encourage private investment in the tourism sector, the country lacks an integrated plan that would enhance and promote the various and special existing mountain and nature-based tourist destinations distinguished by their unique comparative advantages and remarkable features. For instance, in the mountainous Epirus region, there are also sacred forests that differ greatly from one another in terms of size, forest type, and management practices [58
Concerning the ski resorts, these are attractive leisure activities for the visitors of Metsovo during specific months of the year. However, only the hiking infrastructures received positive criticism from the locals, while the information and accessibility infrastructures as well as the infrastructures engaged with cleanliness and recreation were assessed as mediocre. As for the other recreational infrastructures, such as first aid spots (64.8%), restrooms (64.2%), information centers (50.5%), sports areas (49.8%), and parking areas (39.5%), the locals declared that they actually do not exist. In particular, these recreational projects should be implemented by the Forest Service. The Forest Service should also try to promote the forests of Metsovo by increasing their value through their use as recreational areas. Visitor attractions, such as excursions and campsites, nature observation trails paths, and environmental information centers, should be created within the forests of the area. Unfortunately, there is a lack of these very important infrastructures, which leads to persistent disapproval of the local people as they state being less or not at all satisfied with the infrastructures developed by the Forest Service. In spite of this general disapproval, it is remarkable that the locals report a quite positive to neutral attitude toward the Forest Service, indicating that its other activities of traditional forestry in the area are considered effective. Not to mention that there is also a need for the improvement of the road network as transportation provisions, such as the road network, in terms of density, accessibility, quality, and maintenance, which is conceptualized as a crucial factor for tourism activity [47
Moreover, the value that residents attribute to the goods and services provided by the forest also indirectly reflects the management model they visualize for these assets. As very important forest goods and services, the ones deriving from traditional forest management were evaluated (it produces oxygen, cleans the air from pollution, is a wildlife refuge, and produces wood products), followed by water management (flood protection, protection from erosion, and increase in water reserves), while lower ratings were received by the Forest Service to improve recreational opportunities on forest areas and tourism development (forest recreation and employment opportunities). However, the forest management policy should also take into consideration that the traditional management of forests has significant impacts on the quality of nature-based tourism landscapes and thus should thoroughly examine the potential tradeoffs arising from tourism utilization [24
]. In particular, it should be conceptualized that all valuable goods and services of the forest ecosystems could serve as the tool for locals in understanding their relationship with nature and integrate mountain tourism development as a vital component of this bound [59
On the other hand, significant existing problems of the forests in Metsovo are mentioned to be those caused by delinquent behavior (overgrazing of animals, illegal hunting, and forest land loss due to human encroachment), while not significant problems are regarded by the locals the main problems of forests (forest fires, insect and disease outbreaks, and the large number of visitors). In fact, regarding security issues and policing of the forests in their area, the locals state they are satisfied and less satisfied (42% and 31.5%, respectively). With the aim of the hierarchical cluster analysis, we grouped the factors of the five factor analyses into two clusters: “Association of central administration and forest recreation” and “Association of the local communities with tourism development”. Therefore, as already mentioned, the locals have expectations from the central administration, and namely, through the Forest Service, to promote forest recreation in the mountainous area of Metsovo, while they strongly believe that the existing tourism development of their area (Metsovo) was not effectively associated with the recreational opportunities the mountainous and forest ecosystems really provide.
A comparatively significant young population of 18 to 40-year-olds resides in the area of Metsovo, one of the most alpine regions of Greece encompassing all the challenges of living in a remote and mountainous area with certain deficiencies and provisions and also experiencing severe climate conditions and abandonment or depopulation schemes. The existing population, having already invested in the development of leisure infrastructures and services, anticipates support and mobilization by the central authorities and especially by the Forest Service, in order to develop, properly maintain, and expand critical forest recreation infrastructures that play a vital role in mountain tourism.
Indeed, certain benefits for local growth have been acknowledged by the locals of Metsovo, but the very low impact on the natural environment as a consequence of tourism was also stated. This reveals that the locals consider that there is still room for further extension in the tourism sector in their area; this could be achieved primarily with the contribution of the Forest Service and with the intervention of the municipality and the established foundations, in order to activate and exploit all possible means asserting financial and technical support by the government for the development of forest recreational infrastructures, such as paths and marked paths, paved walkways, forest roads, bikeways, signs, benches, kiosks, information centers, grilling amenities, water leisure activities, and other state-of-the-art outdoor facilities.
They are several case studies worldwide providing evident best practices for successfully taking advantage of forest recreation opportunities. The case of Ekeberg Park, a publicly-owned area in Oslo, Norway, includes a state-of-the-art sculpture and national heritage park offering innovative forest recreation amenities and an impressive international artwork collection, which is placed in the woods, offering a combination of art, history, and nature of the last 130 years of European art history [60
]. In the same line and taking into account that the broader area of Metsovo is far from its unique natural heritage assets but also has a very significant cultural heritage and that two foundations, Tositsa and Averoff, that have appreciably supported the development of the area, the potentials for creating new paths for local growth and the promotion of both cultural and natural heritage should be appreciated and exploited by the local, regional, and central authorities.
Finally, local people seem to be ready to embrace such efforts towards strengthening the mountain tourism industry in Metsovo, as they have already appraised the multidimensional forest value of the area, and they believe that the existent recreation infrastructures and services have not yet negatively affected the natural environment. They also share the view that traditional forest management implemented so far by the Forest Service is moving in the right direction, whereas they identify the forest recreational potential in their area, which needs to be enhanced by the central administration and locally by the Forest Service.