I recently spoke to Arkansas’s Governor’s Conference on Tourism about nature tourism. Here are notes from my comments.
Nature tourism is a huge component in the tourism economy of every state. People are drawn to nature in many ways, ranging from motorcycle touring to weeklong backpacking through a dramatic Wilderness Area, paddling a Wild and Scenic River, or finding that one bird to add to your lifelist. Driving for pleasure has been at the top of recreation activity surveys for years, and driving scenic roads is fun, relaxing, and beautiful. Are all these activities considered nature tourism?
To sort through the array of types of tourism that include nature one must consider the mode of recreation and the motivation for the recreation. And we should define that term which seems so obvious: nature tourism. Is there something that makes “nature tourism” different from “activities surrounded by nature.”
Nature tourism focuses on nature rather than an activity. There’s a subtle difference between an activity that is “about driving through nature on a scenic highway” and “driving to a place to get out and go into nature.” The latter is nature tourism; the former is “driving tourism,” if you will. Thus, motivation is important: is it about nature or about an activity where nature is the backdrop?
Certainly one characteristic of nature tourism is pretty simple: to have nature tourism you must have nature…not pictures of nature, not a museum about nature…nature itself.
A second concept is separation from nature. You can be separated from nature by rules, balls, courses, and courts. Golf takes place outdoors in nature, but the course is manicured, your eye is on the ball, and your mind is on the rules and your technique. Everyone enjoys a tree-lined course with azaleas in bloom, but you are not there for those—you are there for the game.
You can be separated from nature by speed. The faster you travel the more the details fade away and the less you see. It’s fun to ride motorcycles or 4-wheelers through the woods, but do you hear the wood thrush? The squirrel barking? The red-bellied woodpecker? The wind blowing? Not so much.
You can be separated from nature by noise. Try fishing in a quiet cove with a neighbor blowing leaves. It’s not a pleasant experience.
Part of a definition of nature tourism must be a focus on nature. Nature tourism leans toward awareness of nature and learning about nature, looking, listening, moving slowly under your own power, and being immersed in the peace and patience of nature.
Nature tourism is often identified with slower activities that are quiet with a focus on listening and observing, and travel in small groups that make less noise and create less disturbance to the environment. Whereas, activity-focused tourism activities may be loud, fast, and the attention is fully on the activity. Many levels and types of activity fall between those two points. Be sensitive to the fact that loud drowns out quiet…fast overpowers slow.
To further help define nature tourism, let’s look at the definition of ecotourism by The Ecotourism Society. They state that ecotourism is: “purposeful travel to natural areas to experience and understand nature, to not alter the integrity of the natural area while producing economic opportunities that make conservation of natural resources beneficial to local citizens.”
This goes beyond what we think of as tourism—traveling to enjoy someplace different. This definition includes responsible travel by protecting the place and improving the lives of people in communities you visit. This is ethical travel rather than merely consumptive travel. I like it.
I’m reminded of the statement Ted Cable and Larry Beck wrote in The Gifts of Interpretation: “The first and most important lesson is: DO NOT DESTROY THE GIFT.” The gift is the resource on which nature tourism experiences rely. The resource must be recognized, identified, and protected or your tourism opportunity will be lost forever.
Nature tourism should be sustainable tourism. Sustainable tourism goes beyond nature to include the tourism industry and the community embracing social, environmental, and economic matters in four areas.
- Visitors/tourists – their needs, desires, and wellbeing
- The environment – Be aware of what you have. THE resource is YOUR resource. If the resource is destroyed, the nature tourism industry is destroyed with it.
- Tourism infrastructure – the need for tourism businesses to provide the right services, be profitable, and have long-term viability through nature tourism.
- The community – respect for the values and character of the local community. Protect and enhance both cultural and natural environments to create a sense of place, a local identity that becomes part of your unique tourism experience.
We have identified characteristics of nature tourism, and noted that the natural resource must be protected and that sustainable nature tourism goes beyond nature to supporting the tourism industry and local communities. How do we get started?
Here’s my 7-step plan:
Step 1 – Identify your resources by building partnerships with landowners and agencies.
Step 2 – Identify compatible activities that bring people and nature together without conflict, and are compatible with the character of the land and other land uses.
Step 3 – Businesses and communities should develop environmentally friendly nature tourism products and caring, ethical practices.
Step 4 – Work with nearby communities to create a “critical mass” of activities and services. These include nature experiences and the tourism infrastructure that supports them.
Step 5 – Work with a National Association for Interpretation Certified Interpretive Planner and Trainer to lead planning efforts and to provide training in guiding, interpretation, and being nature tourist hosts and first contact staff.
Step 6 – Develop specific nature experience publications that focus on the resource and the experience. These publications are more focused on the specific experience than are typical tourism publications.
Step 7 – Market the product.
What do visitors want?
- To participate and discover beyond the ordinary
- Authenticity of place, people, and experience
- Interesting, fun, educational experiences
- Management that is environmentally sensitive
- A personalized experience
- Something worthwhile and lasting
- Something their children will remember
- A thrill with a happy ending
- To say, “That was worth my effort, time, and money.”
Understanding and actively embracing nature tourism is an opportunity for communities to showcase resources, generate economic benefit, and leave a memorable impression on visitors.