Most tourism visits to environmentally protected sites across Europe have no identifiable impact on the environment, despite a pervasive narrative that the need to conserve and protect such environments is at odds with tourism goals of boosting visitor numbers.
That headline finding is according to new research just published in the ‘Journal of Ecological Solutions and Evidence’, which used data from 6,000 groups visiting 47 sites in Ireland along the Wild Atlantic Way as well as data from the European Commission.
While the researchers from Trinity College Dublin found evidence of impacts that varied with severity depending on the site characteristics, the activities taking place, and the numbers of activities, there was no identifiable impact in 75% of cases.
And, encouragingly, from a nature-based tourism (NBT) perspective, large tour groups typically posed minimal risk to the environment.
Andrew Torsney, PhD Candidate in Trinity’s School of Natural Sciences, is the first author of the research article, and said, “large tour groups are typically well controlled and thus introduce minimal risk to the receiving environment, which exemplifies that any impacts are not driven by sheer numbers but by other factors such as mismanagement. We identified the total number of activities taking place to be a key factor in predicting impact occurrence, but the overwhelming message is that management actions can be implemented to facilitate problematic activities in a manner which avoids impacts – if each individual site and its frailties are understood and protected.”
“Overall, our research offers hope that we can strive for no impact nature-based tourism and suggests that a widely held view that conservation and tourism cannot both flourish is false. In fact, given the increasing popularity of nature-based tourism, there is a real chance to boost the economy and the mental and physical wellbeing of visiting tourists while simultaneously protecting the environment and raising awareness of its importance.”
Despite the positives, nearly half of all protected areas in Europe and 58% of protected areas in Ireland are impacted by tourism and recreational activities.
Yvonne Buckley, Professor of Zoology at Trinity College Dublin, is the senior author of the research, and said, “a third of all protected sites in Ireland are within 2 km of the Wild Atlantic Way, so these results show that the majority of tourism impacts are likely due to the actions of a relatively low proportion of visitors undertaking high impact activities. By identifying the demographic and activity profiles that lead to impacts we can better manage them.”
The authors state that to achieve no impact from Nature Based Tourism, additional policy measures are needed to incorporate environmental considerations into the consent and decision-making frameworks for tourism at national and regional levels, specifically with regard to protected sites to incentivise the alleviation of threats and pressures related to tourism.
Given the widespread nature of the problem identified in protected sites in Europe action is needed. Policy measures could include the need for NBT developments which facilitate access or activities within protected areas to be required to submit environmental visitor management plans or introduce licencing processes for activities at or adjacent to protected areas to provide regulated and controlled access in a systematic and structured manner.
Future research will consider the impact profiles of specific activities across a range of tourism destinations and ecological contexts, as well as analysing visitor behaviours, attitudes and activities in a broader context to align conservation and tourism goals more closely.
The research article can be read here.
Source: Trinity College Dublin