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Understanding wildflower tourism in a global diversity hotspot

Mason, Sally-Anne (2015) Understanding wildflower tourism in a global diversity hotspot. PhD thesis, Murdoch University.

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Protected areas found in biodiversity hotspots play an important role in the conservation of the unique biodiversity found within them. Such areas also provide an opportunity for visitors to engage in tourism activities such as the viewing flora and fauna. Because tourism is increasingly being used as a tool for valuing and conserving areas rich in biodiversity there is an urgent need to understand and manage the interface between tourism activities and protected areas. This is especially important within biodiversity hotspots. This study examined the impacts of wildflower visitors on flora in three national parks (Lesueur, Fitzgerald River and Stirling Range National Parks) located in one of two Australian global biodiversity hotspots (Southwest Australia). Complementary associated analyses of visitors’ perceptions of impacts on biodiversity were also undertaken in order to understand the social context in which such wildflower tourism occurs.

The first objective was to describe and measure one environmental effect (namely trampling) on vegetation communities within selected protected areas. Recreational trampling damage of natural vegetation is an increasing problem in the global context and has the potential to impact on vegetation communities that are of high ecological interest found in biodiversity hotspots. Wildflower tourism in the national parks of Southwest Australia has the potential through trampling to damage the largely shrub-dominated vegetation on which it depends. Virtually no published data exists regarding how these areas of shrub-dominated vegetation respond to human trampling. This study is the first to do so, using plot based surveys and trampling experiments. Plot based surveys measured the vegetation height and cover at three sites frequented by wildflower tourists. Vegetation height and cover declined in response to use by tourists. Trampling experiments, which relied on trampling treatments of 0, 30, 100, 200, 300/500 passes, where 0 passes represents the control, were applied at four sites. Trampling led to a significant reduction in vegetation height immediately post-treatment, for all treatments, with a non-significant recovery over time. Trampling also significantly reduced vegetation cover, with the resistance indices for the experimental sites ranging from 30-300 passes. Collectively these results illustrate the low resilience and resistance of these valued communities and the possible impacts of wildflower and other nature based tourism, through trampling.

The second objective was to describe and measure how biodiversity is valued by visitors and their knowledge of it, collectively referred to in this thesis as visitor perceptions of biodiversity, in protected areas in a global biodiversity hotspot. This information was collected via a comprehensive visitor survey undertaken across the three national parks (n=602). The importance of intrinsic and non-use values, and particularly being able to ‘bequest’ biodiversity to future generations, was a highlight of these findings. This finding is on contrast to previous research where the instrumental or use value of biodiversity has dominated responses. Visitors were knowledgeable regarding threats to biodiversity, although they seemed to under-estimate the threats they create as tourists. Visitors were clustered according to how they valued biodiversity and other key variables. Cluster analysis revealed two types of visitors, separated largely by activities, with one group focused on walking and the other on appreciating nature and scenery. This typology provides a finer grained analysis to those conducted previously by separating out these two different types of nature explorers, which to date have been aggregated as one cluster.

The photographs taken as part of the trampling experiments (before and after applying passes) at each national park were incorporated into the visitor survey. This methodology used is innovative as no previous study has incorporated the actual photographs taken before and after trampling applied to a vegetation community into a visitor survey completed at the same location as the trampling study. The visitors had a lower acceptance of change in vegetation as a result of trampling (30-100 passes) than the levels of acceptable change using the resistance indices (30-300 passes). This is an important finding for the management of trampling impacts in the three national parks especially when considering the social level of acceptable change in vegetation when compared to the resistance indices derived from experimental results.

Given the increasing number of people visiting protected areas in Western Australia and worldwide the interaction can be effectively managed using a range of management strategies. These management strategies include: taking into account the sensitivity of the vegetation when creating or designing new trails; implementing educational programs in protected areas to encourage appropriate tourist behavior such as staying on established trails; and knowledge of the values of the visitors to assist in developing conservation and park management goals. It is essential to understand the connection between wildflower tourism and biodiversity in order to effectively manage and protect these important natural areas now and for the future.

Publication Type: Thesis (PhD)
Murdoch Affiliation: School of Environmental Science
Supervisor: Moore, Susan and Newsome, David
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