Wildlife tourism: tourist expectations, experiences and management implications.
This source preferred by Susanna Curtin
Authors: Curtin, S.C.
The literature demonstrates that wildlife tourism, which can incorporate anything from insects (dragonflies, butterflies, glow-worms), flowers, mammals and birds, has become a potentially lucrative activity which is attracting attention from tourists and destinations. There are both positive and negative impacts associated with wildlife tourism. It can contribute to the conservation of threatened habitats / species, provide economic benefit to local communities attract new types of tourists to remote and economically peripheral areas, and provide environmental education and psychological benefits to tourists. Less desired outcomes of wildlife tourism imply that as places and their wildlife become more popular, tourist numbers and infrastructure increases and so too do incidences of disturbance which directly impact upon the well-being and sustainability of the focal wildlife populations such as the disruption of daily behaviour including feeding, breeding, and resting. Whether the positives outweigh the benefits has yet to be tried or tested and may well depend upon how the resource and visitors are managed which in turn depends upon understanding the expectations, the behaviour and the experiential benefits sought by tourists. Given the spectrum of tourist-wildlife opportunities, it follows that wildlife tourists are by no means an homogenous market, there are significant variations in typologies, from the 'serious' to the 'casual' and from the 'specialist' to the 'generalist'. Therefore planning and management become more difficult as the behaviour and needs of each segment differ enormously. Up until now, the human dimensions of watching wildlife have been rather overlooked in the tourism literature; and particularly the experiential and psychological benefits of wildlife tourism have not been adequately explored or applied to the management and marketing of destinations. Using a sample of British tourists, the aim of this research was, therefore, to explore the culture of wildlife tourism in order to contribute a better understanding of what it means to enjoy wildlife experiences, the content of what exactly is enjoyed, the process through which people attend to and perceive wildlife and the emotional responses it provokes. Inherent in this thesis is the discussion of the human dimensions of wildlife, namely how wildlife tourists perceive the natural world, whether they have eco, anthropocentric or anthropomorphic views of the animal kingdom, and whether the application of biophilia, our supposed inherent desire to connect with other, non-human, living things, can be applied to wildlife tourism. In addition the author explored the field skills involved in wildlife watching with regards to identification and photography, what constitutes a memorable experience, and finally the expectations and benefits of travelling on an organised wildlife holiday. In order to satisfy this aim, an ethnographic approach to data generation was employed in two distinct stages. First in-depth interviews were carried out with British tour operators to investigate the business of wildlife tour operating, to discover who the main operators are, the types of products that they offer, the profile of the clients that they attract as well as the management and delivery of their tours. This showed that the wildlife tourism market can be divided into different typologies, for example, birders, `listers' and general naturalists. Secondly, the author joined two tour groups within the general naturalist market, one birdwatching tour to Andalucia to watch the Autumn migration and one whale and bird-watching tour on the Sea of Cortez, Baja California. Whilst on tour, field journals were kept to record the days' events, participants emotional responses to wildlife, and her own observations of tour leading. These journals were coupled with in-depth interviews of tour participants whilst on tour and later in-depth interviews with people who regularly take dedicated wildlife holidays. This ethnographic study of these dedicated general naturalists reveals a number of important themes which may be of use for future studies such as: how interest in wildlife began, how wildlife watching is part of everyday life not just a holiday activity, the fascination with how wildlife adapts to human / urban environments and the relationship with regular wildlife visitors in their garden. In addition it highlights how wildlife tourism is used as a symbol of self presentation, how it is important to develop skills such as identification of species and photography, and how spontaneity, close proximity to wildlife, high numbers and first sightings all make for memorable experiences. There are a number of profound and psychological benefits which the nature of this study allowed to come to the fore, and that was the wonderment and sense of awe at the beauty and diversity of the natural world, of really feeling alive and in 'flow' when watching wildlife and how being in 'flow' distorts time. Linked to this is the spiritual fulfilment and sustenance provided by nature. The physical attributes of the wildlife holiday highlight the important role of the tour leader, their knowledge of species and of where to see them as well as the demonstration of responsible wildlife watching behaviour. Participants voiced their desire for relaxation, for meeting like-minded people and for sharing experiences with others. Finally participants appeared to be aware of potential negative impacts and liked to see responsible tour operating. The thesis ends by discussing the practical implications of these findings for industry and for wider society, and concludes by suggesting areas for future research. "An honest experience of nature would find that the natural world is an arena of endurance, tragedy and sacrifice as much as joy and uplift. It is about the struggle against the weather, the perils of migration, the ceaseless vigilance against predators, the loss of whole families and the brevity of existence. The natural world is like a theatre, a stage beyond our own, in which the dramas that are an irreducible part of being alive are played out without hatred or envy or hypocrisy. No wonder they tell us so much about ourselves and our own frailties" (Mabey 2006: 13).