Tasting organic wildflower honey, sleeping in yurts and long walks through eastern Turkey’s pristine countryside – each one of these on their own sounds like an enticing activity. But Balyolu, a new tourism venture based in eastern Turkey’s Kars, takes the brilliant step of combining all three into one package, while along the way helping local women earn an income.
The new project is the brainchild of Catherine (Cat) Jaffee, a former Fulbright Scholar who spent 2008-2009 travelling throughout eastern Turkey studying women’s migration experiences and also observing local beekeeping traditions. Thinking that honey making could provide a sustainable solution for helping rural women earn a livelihood, Jaffee last year Jaffee left a job in Washington, DC and moved to Kars to start working on what ultimately turned into Balyolu (“honey road” in Turkish).
I recently sent a list of questions about Balyolu to Burcu Uzer, its sustainable tourism director, to find out more about the newly-launched project and its plans. Our exchange is below:
How was the idea for Balyolu born?
Once Cat moved to Kars she started working with KuzeyDoga, a local nonprofit in wilderness conservation. Additionally, she volunteered with the first EU women's organic beekeeping program in the region, a number of local beekeeping groups and organizations, and many local beekeepers, where she started learning all about how difficult it is to earn money selling honey as a rural woman. Whether it is a lack of marketing skills, access to quality supplies, access to greater markets, a lack of long-term training and support, or the difficulty in producing a large amount of good quality honey on a small local scale - it seems that honey production is actually not that great of investment for providing sustainable rural opportunities for women.
Honey tasting tourism becomes the solution. The region is stunning (as are most places where bees are thriving), because it is still so naturally beautiful and wild. KuzeyDoga, is working hard to keep it that way thus Cat wanted to see if there was an ecofriendly way to travel in the region while maintaining the biodiversity and respect for the environment. Walking or biking on some of the incredible nomadic foot/animal paths looked like a great way to move through the region, accessing the local villages in a green way. The next piece was looking at building green and unique accommodations for visitors, so we started investigating the merits of buying the villages yurts for our travelers to stay in - thus recreating the nomadic experience. Slowly the idea began to unfold as she teamed up with local women, members of the community and close mentors.
Why focus directly on honey?
Beekeeping is an ancient tradition in the Kars region, where the floral diversity is among the highest in the world. Beekeeping also requires less space, materials, and labor while being perfect for the environment. There is a pristine environment in and around Kars that is required to actually produce organic honey and women beekeepers aren't on the move like their male beekeeper counterparts who are moving across the country with their bees and exposing them to potentially harmful pesticides or climates that their particular bee species may not be accustomed to. Thus considering all the right pieces are in place Cat thought about how to get the right trainings for women to help them access greater markets (particularly around business, story telling, marketing, literacy, finance) as well as revenue that could subsidize the fact that they produce very high quality honey in very low amounts.
What role would you say honey plays in Turkish culture, both in general terms and in culinary terms?
Cat has great posts on the subject in her blog (www.inspiredbeeing.com) Here is one. Beekeeping is a very ancient tradition in Turkey and honey has an important role in Turkish history as a medicine. Cat, through her research, found out that beekeeping is quite common in Turkey both in commercial and in small scale as a hobby. We are fortunate to experience all four climates to the fullest and we have pristine meadows diverse with all sorts of flowers for bees to collect nectar from. There is a growing trend in the world about people wanting to know where their food comes from. I hope this trends keeps spreading in Turkey as well. We want people to know where their honey came from, to connect with the beekeepers, talk to them, ask them questions about how they treat different illnesses of the bees or if they use any pesticides.
What kind of potential do you see in Turkey for the kind of tourism you're trying to get off the ground?
We see a great potential for growth because visitors are increasingly seeking more authentic and interactive experiences. They want to meet locals, taste food that is not mass-produced and enjoy the environment in its most pristine condition. There is also the concept of giving back and benefiting the community as people travel, they enjoy seeing they have a positive impact with their vacation rather then negative.
TEMA and Macahel Aricilik [two other Turkish organizations] do a bee safari where they visit beekeeping companies around Turkey for 8 days - they travel all over, they do it once a year, and it is a popular trip. Bees for Development also does some bee safaris in other parts of the world where they work, and Marina Marchese in the US does a honey tasting at her own apiary and then she is just starting this summer a honey tasting trip to Italy. Those are the main leaders of this sector; although it's not very established yet. Of course, there is a great deal of honey in Turkey, and anyone can go to shops and try all kinds of honey. We hope to increase the marketing, standards, and information about honey tasting within our program so customers really understand what goes into organic honey production, and that our honey is well regulated, and of small amounts but high quality.
We are the first honey tasting walking tour that goes back to the roots of seasonal nomads in the region, and replicates that experience. Our visitors will sleep in yurts, and travel from village to village by foot. Another component is that we are using the project to bring in sustainable livelihoods for rural women and use the funds for holding continuous training for local women in organic beekeeping, we are planning to work with our communities to harvest small amounts of unique high quality seasonal honey that has distinct tastes around flowers’ bloom periods, and we aim to work with local women in also doing business, marketing, and rural venture incubation programs in the villages where we work.
There have been efforts to create cross-border, cooperative food products that bring together Turkish food makers with those from Armenia and Georgia. Do you think honey could play a part in a similar initiative?
That’s quite possible. We hope to scale and expand on old Silk Road routes throughout the region; bringing people together peacefully through food and walking routes the way the region interacted historically.