What is the real impact of eco-tourism on the environment?

In this blog post, Andrew Torsney and Yvonne Buckley share findings from their latest research aiming to better understand and identify the drivers of tourism-related impacts on the environment.

As we increasingly recognize the ancillary benefits of nature, such as improved mental health, the demand for access to nature is rising. While this presents potential benefits, it also brings conflicts related to environmental management.

Research has shown that increased environmental engagement leads to greater environmental attitudes and willingness to pay for restoration works. However, inappropriate management of recreational activities in natural areas can have detrimental effects on the environment.

Unfortunately, current methods of assessing environmental damage use visitor numbers as a proxy for damage resulting in a narrow “War on tourism” narrative in conservation.

Furthermore, these studies tend to be context-specific and focused on identifying damage rather than exploring more sustainable management strategies.

In our recent study published in Ecological Solutions and Evidence, we analysed data from over 6,000 visitor groups across a variety of sites along the Wild Atlantic Way, a coastal driving route comprising 186 nature-based tourism destinations in Ireland. The study monitored visitor movements, demographics, activities, and observable impacts, with a focus on identifying predictors of impact occurrence independent of site.

Figure 1_Revised
Distribution of 604 Natura 2000 sites (SACs and SPAs) in Ireland relative to the 191 wild Atlantic way discovery points, sites surveyed and the Wild Atlantic Way (WAW) travel route. Photograph demonstrates erosion caused by tourists at Strand hill

The findings revealed that site type, visitor demographics and activity profiles all played a role in impact occurrence, with over 75% of all visitors leaving no discernible impact on the environment.

Out of the 25% of visitors who had observable impacts, further investigations revealed that the same determinants were important in assessing impact severity. However, activity profiles showed more complex interactions, highlighting the need for a deeper understanding of such profiles and associated management practices to alleviate potential conflicts and minimise impacts.

nature collage
Ireland landscapes. Left: Oak tree by Curraghchase Woods. Top right: Glendalough in County Wicklow. Bottom right: Bog Cotton (Eriophorum angustifolium) at a peatland boardwalk tourism destination

While not all impacts can be directly observed and ascribed to individuals or groups, the results demonstrate that ‘No impact tourism’ is an achievable target and impacts are not attributable to all tourism

Our focus as conservationist should be on understanding broad scale interactions to facilitate collaborative action to avoid and minimise impacts while harnessing the opportunities for increased engagement to facilitate awareness and learning.

wildlife collage
Ireland wildlife. Left: Six-spot burnet moth (Zygaena filipendulae) at a recreational amenity area in Raheen, Limerick. Right: Wood-sorrel (Oxalis acetosella) in an ancient woodland used for recreational amenity

Tourism should be viewed as an environmental management funding opportunity if approached correctly; to accomplish this there needs to be focus placed on understanding the drivers/causes of tourism impacts beyond using visitor numbers as a proxy for damage.

Read the full article: “Visitor demographics, site-type and activities determine the occurrence and severity of environmental impacts at nature-based tourist destinations” in Issue 4:1 of Ecological Solutions and Evidence.

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