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Visitor Monitoring and Research

Visitor monitoring and associated performance reporting have emerged as a response to a strong trend in public accountability, whereby objectives for management are developed and the progress of agencies in achieving these objectives is documented and reported.  Monitoring, and the accompanying use of indicators, assesses the extent to which these objectives have been achieved.  Reporting is increasingly being directed towards achieving sustainability and its triple bottom line of environmental, social and economic outcomes.

Monitoring is the systematic gathering and analysis of data over time. For protected area tourism and recreation this involves developing monitoring programs that can collect data on both the natural environment and its visitors. Monitoring should occur at three levels; site, park and corporate. Monitoring is important for the following reasons (see Natural Area Tourism):

  • Managing the natural environment – it provides information needed to mitigate impacts and assess management effectiveness;
  • Planning – it provides information needed for management planning, recreation and tourism planning frameworks and site design activities;
  • Resource allocation – it provides managers with a systematic basis for allocating funds and resources;
  • Public accountability – it provides information to the corporate levels of park agencies to assist with accountability and transparency;
  • Marketing and interpretation – it provides information needed to successfully market and interpret natural areas; and
  • Legislative and legal requirements – it may be a legal requirement in some jurisdictions.

Monitoring of local communities and beyond is also critical to gauge the level of engagement with and support for protected areas.

Management effectiveness evaluation provides a means by which managers can evaluate their performance in achieving sustainable visitor use. “Management effectiveness evaluation measures the degree to which a protected area is protecting its values and achieving its goals and objectives” (see Managing Protected Areas). Such evaluation is dependent on monitoring to generate the information needed to assess performance. The management effectiveness framework developed for the IUCN-WCPA in 2000 and recently revised enables managers to report on a park’s context, planning, inputs, processes, outputs and outcomes (see Evaluating Effectiveness and Management Effectiveness Evaluation in Protected Areas). An adaptive approach to management is the ultimate goal.  The IUCN-WCPA framework has been comprehensively applied in NSW, and to a lesser extent in other states and territories of Australia.


Source: Castley, et al., 2008 An Integrated Framework for Developing Ecological Indicators of Visitor Use of Protected Areas, Sustainable Tourism Cooperative Research Centre

Assessment of visitor use is only one component of the IUCN-WCPA evaluation framework, which is concerned with all aspects of park management (e.g. biodiversity conservation, pest and weed control, fire management). Research by the STCRC in Australia supports the value of the IUCN-WCPA framework, with this research emphasising the importance of a framework that integrates monitoring and evaluation into the cycle of management. Also important is generating feedback that enables managers to learn from and progressively improve management. The effectiveness of overall management evaluation, however, is limited by:

  • lack of corporate coordination, direction and strategic planning in developing monitoring programs;
  • inconsistent data records and reporting formats;
  • inadequate, inefficient data collection, storage and management systems;
  • low priority afforded by protected area agencies to performance evaluation and reporting; and
  • lack of consistency in purpose and design of visitor surveys.


Source: Castley, et al., 2008 An Integrated Framework for Developing Ecological Indicators of Visitor Use of Protected Areas, Sustainable Tourism Cooperative Research Centre


The effectiveness of monitoring and then managing visitor use in protected areas has also been analysed by the STCRC with the following issues identified:

  • lack of baseline data for priority visitor threats and pressures;
  • lack of knowledge of walker impacts;
  • lack of research into the long term impacts of plant diseases such as dieback (from Phytophthora sp.)
  • inadequate understanding of visitor impacts and visitor management; and
  • inadequate methodology for monitoring subtle changes in high quality wilderness areas.

Recent research by the STCRC has also focused on developing an integrated framework delivering a range of indicators appropriate at a variety of park management levels. This integrated framework focuses on the ecological impacts of visitors. It does not address the visitor experience or consequences for local communities. Key findings include:

  • Visitor monitoring should be integrated into a general framework for evaluating the effectiveness of park management
  • When using an integrated framework it will be possible to prioritise sites for visitor monitoring and identify appropriate indicators for use in protected areas;
  • Four groups of indicators have been identified as necessary for measuring the ecological impacts resulting from visitor use: (1) vegetation e.g., changes to vegetation composition and community structure; (2) soil e.g., soil compaction, track duplication, area of bare ground; (3) wildlife e.g., displacement of wildlife and behavioural changes; and (4) species diversity e.g., changes in biodiversity indices and numbers of invasive species;
  • There is a clear need for more research in different ecosystems to identify/quantify/understand the range and intensity of visitor impacts both direct and indirect; and
  • Monitoring programs need to be localised to detect visitor use impacts.

There are six steps to the application of this ecologically-focused integrated framework: (1) identifying management objectives and relevant evaluation subjects, (2) classifying natural assets and threats to those assets, (3) prioritising sites for visitor monitoring, (4) selecting ecological indicators of visitor impacts, (5) developing monitoring programs for indicators and (6) using results to improve future management (adaptive management).

Recent visitor monitoring research in Australia supported by the STCRC has focused on three broad areas:

  • Ecological – mainly concerned with physical site alteration, removal and redistribution of materials, disturbance to plants and animals, harvesting of plants and animals and pollution of water via human waste;
  • Social (visitors and local communities) – mainly concerned with visitor experiences, such as crowding, satisfaction, over-use, safety, impacts on local communities and indigenous heritage; and
  • Economic – mainly concerned with the sources and levels of visitor revenue generated, the costs of providing services and facilities in parks and the economic impacts of parks on regional economies.


Browse Visitor Monitoring and Research case studies:


Social – Visitors

Social (local communities) and Economic

A Guide to Developing an Integrated Monitoring Program for Visitor Management in Protected Areas


Featured case studies:

Guidelines for Design and Implementation of Monitoring Programs to Assess Visitor Impacts in and Around Aquatic Ecosystems within Protected Areas

This report documents the design, implementation, analysis and interpretation of field trials of indicators that were selected to assess visitor impacts in and around focal swimming holes.

by Wade L. Hadwen, Angela H. Arthington and Paul I. Boon

An Integrated Framework for Developing Ecological Indicators of Visitor Use of Protected Areas

Protected area managers need to monitor the ecological impacts of visitor use and assess their performance in managing visitor use. To assist this process STCRC has established a series of projects to develop indicators and protocols for assessing visitor use and its impacts that can be used as part of an integrated monitoring system for protected areas. The aim of this report was to evaluate existing information related to the development of impact indicators and how these might be applied to the management of visitor impacts in protected areas. The objective was to develop an integrated framework that would deliver a range of indicators appropriate at a variety of park management levels.

by Guy Castley, Wendy Hill, Catherine Pickering, Wade Hadwen and Graeme Worboys

Current Practices in Monitoring and Reporting on Sustainability of Visitor Use of Protected Areas

This report presents the results of a study of Australian protected area agencies in terms of:  current practices for monitoring, evaluating and reporting on performance in relation to visitor use of protected areas; and,  future approaches to enhance the usefulness of these practices in meeting agency goals.

by Karen Higginbottom, R.W. (Bill) Carter, Susan Moore, Kate Rodger and Yamini Narayanan

Developing Indicators for the Sustainable Management of Visitor Use of Protected Areas in Australia

This project explicitly focuses on indicators for measuring the sustainability of visitor use, rather than the much broader suite of indicators needed to report comprehensively on protected area management. Also, the STCRC requested that the indicators be developed for potential inclusion in the EarthcheckTM benchmarking system.

by Joanna Tonge, Susan Moore, Marc Hockings, Graeme Worboys and Kerry Bridle

Ecologically Sustainable Visitor Use of Australia’s World Heritage Areas

This report is one of a series in the Sustainable Tourism Corporative Research Centre’s overall project to develop a framework, guidelines and tools to enhance assessment, evaluation and reporting of visitor use in protected areas. In this report we review the approaches management agencies have taken to research and assess ecologically sustainable visitor use of Australia’s World Heritage Areas.

by Wendy Hill and Catherine Pickering

Monitoring Visitor Use in Australian Terrestrial and Marine Protected Areas

This report provides an analysis of potential practical applications of current and upcoming IT-based (digital) monitoring and surveillance systems and technology in other industry sectors for use in Australian terrestrial and marine protected areas. The knowledge generated will provide a basis for the potential future development of reliable and cost-effective methods for monitoring visitor movements and activities, and compliance with park regulations (including user pay systems).

by Jan Warnken and Michael Blumenstein