ORONO — Some visitors to Acadia National Park fear climate change will hamper their experience by altering the landscape and services. This perception, which may involve real threats or misconceptions, can influence their itineraries and the quality of their stay, which could decrease tourism spending, according to a new University of Maine-led study. 

It can be challenging to tailor messages about the effects of climate change on the park, which can alter visitor experiences, to ensure guests will absorb the information, be reassured that they will still enjoy their stay and refrain from any actions that could harm park resources. Understanding the extent of their awareness of the threats associated with climate change, particularly by learning how they think, can help enhance park messaging. Therefore, a University of Maine-led research team explored what beliefs, previous experiences and sociological traits correlated with an acknowledgement of climate change risks, real or otherwise, among park visitors.

The study, led by former UMaine Ph.D. student Lydia Horne, builds on previous research spearheaded by Sandra De Urioste-Stone, a UMaine associate professor of nature-based tourism that explored the connection between how people perceive the effects of climate change on Acadia National Park and their travel plans. One of Urioste-Stone’s previous studies revealed that some tourists viewed the park as vulnerable to sea level rise, extreme weather and other effects of climate change that could alter its environment and damage its infrastructure, which made them more likely to change their plans. 

Horne’s research, which De Urioste-Stone oversaw, examines the types of people and mentalities that are likely to perceive these climate change risks.

In summer and early fall 2018, Horne and a group of undergraduate researchers recruited tourists intercepted at trail heads, visitor centers and outdoor attractions in Acadia National Park to participate in an online survey that assessed their belief in climate change and awareness of its effects. Survey questions also asked participants about their knowledge and experiences with climate change, values and what they perceived as threats from climate change to tourism at the park. 

Results revealed that park visitors who identified as female, had a higher belief in climate change, had more first-hand experiences with its effects and were more altruistic and were more likely to acknowledge risks to themselves and the park that are associated with climate change.

In response to their findings, researchers recommend that to change guests’ perceptions of and behaviors in the park as they relate to climate change, park officials should convey information that “focus(es) on visitor experiences with climate change impacts and appeals to altruistic values.”

Educational outreach can appeal to park visitors by highlighting the effects of climate change observed in the park, such as warmer falls and more extreme weather. According to researchers, park officials also can incorporate sayings like “we’re all in this together,” in messaging as an appeal to guests’ altruism to both increase awareness of the threats of climate change and encourage “climate-friendly behavior, such as riding the bus instead of driving in the park.”

Efforts to adapt the park to climate change can help reduce negative visitor perceptions, such as believing in losses of natural beauty and safety, and behaviors, according to researchers.

“Messages can backfire, resulting in unintended and undesirable visitor responses,” says Horne, now a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Northern Colorado. “By understanding psychological and sociological characteristics, we gain a better understanding of what messages will appeal to visitors and encourage the desired behavioral change that creates a positive experience, protects the environment, and enhances visitor safety.”

Parinaz Rahimzadeh-Bajgiran, an assistant professor of remote sensing of natural resources; Laura Rickard, an associate professor of risk communication; and Erin Seekamp, a professor with the Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management at North Carolina State University, also worked with Horne and De Urioste-Stone on the study. The Journal of Outdoor Recreation and Tourism published an article detailing the team’s research.

The study is part of a three-phase research effort to assess how coastal tourist destinations can adapt to climate change through improved understanding of the associated risks and collaboration. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) allocated $152,562 for the overall effort, which also includes a similar study for Machias. The research also was supported by a National Science Foundation Research Traineeship (NRT) award, which aims to help train the next generation of conservation leaders. 

Tourism is one of the largest industries in Maine, and Acadia National Park serves as a major driver. According to the National Park Service, 2.7 million park visitors spent an estimated $304 million in 2020, supporting 4,370 jobs, $135 million in labor income and $411 million in economic output for nearby communities.

The ramifications of climate change threatens the viability of animals, plants, the natural landscape and recreation in the park. Rising sea levels could sumbermerge Thunder Hole and wash out marshes, which serve as buffers against storm damage and breeding grounds for animals; and warmer temperatures can reduce opportunities for winter recreation and make habitats inhospitable for local fauna, according to the National Park Service.

Travellers may rethink their destinations of choice, what activities they participate in and their seasonal visitation if they believe climate change will hinder their stays, according to Horne and her colleagues. While these perceptions are not expected to deter visitation at Acadia, they could affect the quality of tourists’ experiences, their itineraries and resource management by park officials. 

Other studies have found that tourists who participate in more nature-based tourism activities “were more willing to engage in climate mitigation behaviors,” and those with greater awareness of climate change may demand for and be more open to paying for infrastructure improvements and climate adaptation policies, the UMaine-led research team says.“

Visitation to natural areas can be influenced by decisions that travelers make based on perceptions of the risks posed by climate change,” says De Urioste-Stone, also assistant vice president of research at UMaine. “Understanding the impacts of climate change on visitation can help park managers conserve natural and cultural resources, maintain a quality visitor experience, and provide economic benefits to nearby communities.”