Designing more sustainable hiking trails
Santarém, Frederico, Rubim Silva, and Paulo Santos. "Assessing Ecotourism Potential of Hiking Trails: A Framework to Incorporate Ecological and Cultural Features and Seasonality." Tourism Management Perspectives 16,(2015): 190–206. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.tmp.2015.07.019
Managing protected areas is riddled with conundrums. Take ecotourism. Introducing visitors to natural areas is an excellent way to increase environmental awareness, ecosystem protection, and funds for management. Hiking trails in particular are championed for providing direct visitor experiences of landscape highlights, like spotting a unique species or exploring a medieval castle. Unfortunately, trails can also open up interior areas to wildlife disturbance, plant trampling, delicate soils damage, and even harm to cultural sites. Finding the balance between increasing nature tourism and lowering its negative impacts is one of the biggest challenges in recreation ecology.
Researchers of the University of Porto in Portugal addressed this concern in a recent publication in the journal Tourism Management Perspectives. They took a detailed look at the trails system in Peneda-Gerês National Park, located in northwestern Portugal. The park's rich history and biodiversity, coupled with heavy, concentrated trail use in the summer, make it an ideal location for this research. By analyzing natural and cultural features of five distinct trails, researchers measured how use impacts could be spread over time and space.
Specifically, the study recorded 286 species of flora and fauna in the park — with an emphasis on unique and rare species — plus locations rich in landscape variety, pleasing scenery, and old structures. Variable landscapes, like those that contain bare rock ridgetops, low grassy valleys, and deep forest ecosystems in a condensed area, were classified as more appealing to visit. From towering stone monuments to flowering plants, the study attempted to quantify what attracts visitors. These features were then analyzed in relation to their proximity to the five trails, as well as their intensity of attraction during each season.
The results were a series of numerical "ecotourism potential values" that provided local managers with concrete data. The values explained where efforts and resources should be focused, and when. Problematic dense summer traffic on mountain peak trails could be reduced by redirecting visitors to other areas and experiences. Hikers could be met at the trailhead of the famous park with choices: to follow a shorter trail with high biodiversity and megalithic monuments, perhaps, or travel along a lesser-known long trail with unique habitats.
Fortunately, this diverse location provided many attractive alternatives. Applying this model to a protected area with less diversity may prove challenging.
Ultimately, this case study revealed how recreation and conservation can be mutually beneficial. Tourism can be dissipated through promotion of the ecological importance of the landscapes surrounding low-use trails. Mapping the specific pieces that make an ecosystem important, either alone or as a connector of habitats, can help managers relocate recreation to the least sensitive areas in a park. The methods used in this study could benefit other protected areas with similar management goals, and increase sustainable visitor enjoyment of natural spaces.