Visitor centers for nature conservation are expensive, effects questionable, SAO says after audit

Martin Štěrba

The contribution of visitor centers to nature conservation is unproven – it educates but is expensive. This is the result of an audit by the Supreme Audit Office (SAO), which audited the system of allocating subsidies for visitor infrastructure projects from the Operational Programme Environment (OP Environment) between 2012 and 2020.

According to the auditors, the Ministry of the Environment does not monitor and inadequately evaluate the implementation of the expected benefits of the constructions. 

“Visitor centers were supposed to reduce the environmental impact of visitors in specially protected areas. However, this did not happen, according to the auditors’ findings. In addition, the Ministry of the Environment (MoE) set the limit of indicative investment costs too high, which allowed for the construction of costly projects, “the SAO said in a press release.

The auditors warned that the number of violations in protected areas has even increased in some localities.

The SAO already found problems at the stage of selecting projects for support. Although the Ministry introduced a scoring system, the auditors said it did not set clear criteria so that they would be genuinely indicative. The requirements were established only in general terms.

“The MoE did not consider the attractiveness, size, or visitor numbers of the specially protected areas in the evaluation. Neither did the assessment include the distance of future resorts from similar facilities, “the authority noted.

For example, the project “Environmental Visitor, Information and Education Centre (Natura Park)” in Pardubice did not meet the ecological criterion. Still, the State Environmental Fund (SEF) recommended it for support, and the Ministry did not exclude it from further decision-making. According to the SAO, the Ministry did not respect its own rules, thus creating unequal conditions for the applicants.

According to the auditors, the Ministry also significantly overestimated the financial limit used to assess the cost-effectiveness of projects. Furthermore, compared to the previous programming period, it increased the investment cost limit for the projects in question to exceed inflation and official data on price increases in the construction sector.

The SAO also assessed the sustainability and financing of the operation of the visitor centers. The Ministry supports the function of the centers through a national program.

“The contribution only covers 20 percent of the total operating costs. The operators raise the rest from other sources (contributions, grants, admission fee income, etc.). According to the SAO, there is a risk to the sustainability of the projects because they depend on the provision of state subsidies,” the auditors concluded.