Incorporating Visitor Opinion

IMG_3647Canada’s Rocky Mountain National Parks (Banff, Jasper, Kootenay, and Yoho) receive millions of visitors every year. Some of them are area residents and others come from far away countries. All come to witness the majesty of Canada’s Rockies. There are a variety of things that motivate people to come and visit the Rockies – some come in search of a physical challenge (hiking, climbing, biking, skiing), or to experience the solitude of Canada’s wilderness. Others come to see first hand the blue lakes and snow-capped peaks, and still others come to catch a glimpse of our wildlife (bear, elk, mountain goats). Whatever the reason, the Rockies have a lot to offer.

Visitors are an integral part of the Rocky Mountain National Parks and ensuring a positive visitor experience is a large part of Parks Canada’s management focus. Understanding what visitors’ expectations are and what aspects of their  experience give them the most satisfaction are important components of Park management. So how do we figure that out?

We ask them. And exactly how to do is what I’m focusing on this week.

Creating a visitor survey starts with a good question

Visitor surveys in parks and protected areas are not new. There are literally hundreds of articles about visitor surveys from all over the world. Surveys are used to influence management around visitor numbers, facilities, recreational opportunities, campgrounds, and various other aspects of the visitor experience. As with all research, it is important to first identify what the question is.

Here are some example research questions that are often answered through visitor surveys:

  • What differences exist between resident and foreign visitors in terms of park visitation expectations?
  • How can Park Management tactics better address visitor expectations?
  • Are visitors satisfied with the difference aspects (e.g., hotel stay, economic value, recreational opportunities) of their Park experience?
  • What kind of visitor is more likely to return to the same Park on a regular basis?

In my case, I want to ask visitors to know what management options would elicit the greatest visitor support. To do this, I will use a Likert scale, which is used to ask people to rate something on a scale of 1 to 5. This is commonly used tool in surveys that I’m sure you’ve seen a million times. Basically, I will create a survey that will list a series of management tactics that could be used to manage bear habitat security and I’ll ask visitors to rate their support for these options. Some of the options I will test are:

  • closing a hiking trail if a bear is in the area;
  • restricting public access to a hiking trail to certain hours of the day;
  • regulating the total number of people permitted per day on a hiking trail; and
  • doing nothing.
IMG_0294

This is from one of the best hikes of my life, the Rockwall. When I put together this survey, I think about how I would have felt if I got to the trailhead and it was closed because of a bear. I’m a scientist, but I’m also a park user. How far would I be willing to go for grizzly bear management?

What other management options do you think would be important to ask visitors?

It’s critical that the management options I ask about cover a spectrum of tactics. It’s important to have the “do nothing” option and the “shut everything down” option so that I can measure how far people would be willing go in the name of grizzly bear management.

I have no preconceived notions of what their answers might be. And in all honesty, I haven’t even given it a thought. That’s why I want to do the visitor survey. I don’t want to make any management recommendations that make any assumptions about what visitors want/expect or need out of their park experience. I want to ask visitors what they expect and ensure any recommendations I make are founded in data. That’s what science is all about, and I am a scientist after all.

My Masters work on the BC Coast involved a visitor survey asking people about their satisfaction levels with their bear-viewing tour.

My Masters work on the BC Coast involved a visitor survey asking people about their satisfaction levels with their bear-viewing tour.

Who gets to complete the survey?

Before I decide who to ask, I have to first decide who is the population I’m interested in studying. As I said, millions of people come to the Parks – not all of them are impacted by this research and the recommendations it will make. So my study population is hikers in the Rocky Mountain National Parks. But I can’t ask every single hiker to complete the survey – that would take way too long. So I have to sample the population and then use statistics to determine how likely it is that my results can be used to represent the opinions of the entire population. Deciding who completes the survey needs to be random so that results can be extrapolated effectively. I talked about this in the blog post about remote cameras too. This randomness is the essence of a robust scientific study design.

In this case, I will randomly select trails and dates throughout the summer to survey those trails. Then myself and a volunteer (that could be you!) will ask visitors at the trail head to complete the survey. For a good response rate, I’ll have to keep the survey short so that it doesn’t inconvenience people too much. Because our National Parks are such a multi-cultural place, I’ll also have to ensure that all the questions are easy to understand in case English isn’t the respondents first language. So short, simple management questions that attempt to answer a much more complicated question.

The results from this survey will go to Parks Canada and help managers understand what the public visitor is willing to support when it comes to bear management. This is an important piece if management efforts are going to be successful. Starting from a base of public support will help ensure compliance with any management action, and that is the key to success.

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