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Wildlife tourism has the potential to transform conservation

Experts at the University of Helsinki report that wildlife tourism has enormous potential for supporting conservation efforts. According to the study authors, failing to encourage tourists to do more on behalf of wildlife represents a missed opportunity for conservation. 

Study lead author Dr. Alvaro Fernández-Llamazares is a researcher at the Helsinki Institute of Sustainability Science.

“We argue that the combination of emotional engagement and knowledge-driven action provided by wildlife-based tours will pave the way for a new area of conservation-oriented tourism,” said Dr. Fernández-Llamazares.

“Some years ago I took a whale-watching tour in Iceland, and it surprised me to see that while the guide provided very detailed information about the ecology, life cycle and foraging habits of whales, she did not mention any single time the huge conservation threats that these animals are facing.”

“My colleagues had noticed similar patterns in other corners of the world. Concerned about this, we decided to thoroughly review the academic literature on wildlife-based tourism and examine to which extent was conservation messaging lacking in wildlife-based tours.”

Upon their review, the researchers found that many mainstream wildlife-based tourism operations fail to incorporate messages about conservation into their programs.

“There is increasing research evidence that wildlife-based tourism could help to transform the environmental knowledge, attitudes and behaviors of tourists through first-hand encounters with wildlife, complemented by effective conservation messaging,” said Dr. Fernández-Llamazares. “However, such conservation messaging is not always a priority for many wildlife-based tourism operators, who often fail to provide a well-designed environmental interpretation.”

Previous research has shown that the emotional and educational experience of viewing wildlife firsthand presents many opportunities to inform tourists on how to engage in conservation action.

“I have experienced it myself: when you have the opportunity to see wildlife in situ, it creates a deep emotional connection between you and wildlife. However, as tourists we do not always have the tools to act beyond that experience, to transform the emotional bonds towards environmental stewardship,” said study co-author Aina Brias-Guinart. 

“For this reason, in this study, we thought of a set of principles that wildlife-based tourism operators could use to maximize the conservation potential of the tourist experience.”

The study authors have proposed new ideas to improve the conservation messaging of wildlife tourism based on five principles: promote positive messaging, provide actionable information, engage tourists in research and practice, link experience with consumption choices, and foster long-term interactions. These concepts promote emotional engagement among tourists while empowering them to take meaningful conservation action.

The study is published in the journal People and Nature.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer


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