Learning how Acadia visitors view climate change, weather

Sandra De Urioste-Stone, an assistant professor of nature-based tourism in the School of Forest Resources, and her students surveyed visitors about weather and climate change at several sites in Acadia, including Thunder Hole, in 2014 and 2015. Photo courtesy of Sandra De Urioste-Stone

Learning how Acadia visitors view climate change, weather

From June 2014 through November 2015, we surveyed visitors at several sites throughout Acadia, including Cadillac Mountain, Thunder Hole and Sand Beach.

Our research aimed to investigate how weather affects visitors to Acadia in order to better understand how climatic changes in the future could influence visitation and spending. We hope that by understanding the perceptions of visitors about weather and climate change and their potential changes in behavior, suitable adaptive strategies and early preparedness actions can be developed to cope with the effects of climate change to the nature-based tourism industry in Acadia.

The research focused on understanding how visitors to the park view climate change and its potential effects on tourism in the region. We also were interested in gaining insight into the impact of weather on visitors’ current and future trips.

Our research found the majority of visitors (58.9 percent) planned their trip one to six months in advance, and only 12.1 percent planned their trip within a week. Over 49 percent of visitors stated the expected weather was important in their destination selection for their trip, and 60.3 percent stated the actual weather was important on their trip. In addition, 30.2 percent indicated the weather had altered their travel or recreational plans. Visitors indicated average amount of sunshine and average daily high temperature were the most influential weather variables during their trip.

The results suggest weather conditions are important and influence visitors’ destination selection.

Additionally, 63.5 percent of visitors to Mount Desert Island believe climate change is happening, 57.5 percent are concerned about climate change, and 26.6 percent are interested in learning more about the effects of climate change in Maine. Therefore, many visitors may be receptive to climate change information or additional studies within the park.

Our research shows the majority of visitors are concerned about climate change and the findings suggest public education and outreach to be relevant strategies for Acadia to use to enhance visitors’ understanding of climate effects in the region and their role in reducing carbon footprint. We also found that visitor perceptions on the likelihood of climate change effects to impact Acadia, potential risk to visitors, and decision to travel to the destination in the future vary according to visitor characteristics (e.g., age, gender) and market segments. Management efforts, such as resource stewardship, education and outreach, and mitigation strategies, should contemplate these visitor differences.

It’s extremely important to conduct our research in a national park as it offers many opportunities for researchers interested in integrating biophysical and social sciences.

National parks are the perfect setting to conduct tourism studies because they provide:

  • Opportunities to access large numbers of visitors;
  • Locations where visitors can be “easily” contacted for on-site surveys and interviews;
  • Prospects to influence interpretive and educational programming, while educating visitors about the topic of interest (in this case, climate change);
  • Ability to collaborate with devoted and experienced park and research professionals; and
  • Exceptional experience for students doing field research.

Furthermore, being able to conduct research at Acadia is definitely a privilege, considering it is among the top 10 most visited national parks in the U.S.

Tourism is one of the largest industries in the state, so potential changes to tourism patterns could have a significant effect on many communities. Since tourism in Maine is primarily nature-based, changes in weather and climate will likely affect where and when visitors travel and their overall trip satisfaction.

Results from this study might provide insights to tourism planners and businesses across the state as they manage recreation and tourism assets and services. Understanding visitor perceptions of climate change, appealing destinations and their essential features will be crucial for sustainable tourism destination development.

The study provided research opportunities for four undergraduate and three graduate students at UMaine. The students gained experience in interviewing visitors, compiling and analyzing data, presenting at conferences, and writing reports and articles.

Sandra De Urioste-Stone is an assistant professor of nature-based tourism in the School of Forest Resources

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