Protected areas are characterised as environments of constant change, complexity and uncertain conditions. Managers have to achieve biodiversity objectives against a backdrop of great expectations from society. Pressured to deliver quality visitor experiences and generate revenues to fund conservation, they simultaneously face the charge of minimising negative economic, environmental and social impacts from tourism. Effective protected area management should be led by evidence-based decision-making, particularly in areas that require substantial levels of skills and expertise, such as visitor management.
The expansion of tourism research worldwide is significant in terms of the number, sources and communication of research outputs. Through the past two decades, scholars have acknowledged the increasing importance of information on visitors’ characteristics, perceptions and behaviours; visitor use patterns; and the benefits and impacts of visitation to protected areas. Yet, there is growing concern that research remains underutilised by policymakers and practitioners, despite the applied nature of the field. Discrepancies and inefficiencies between the production and utilisation of research have been noted both in a broader tourism context and in protected area settings, pointing towards a research-practice divide. Despite its critical importance, it is not clear to what extent the body of visitor research has helped protected area managers identify strategies to deal with visitor management challenges. We know little about its uptake in management areas, current utilisation levels, and the factors that influence its absorption into policy and practice. The purpose of this thesis is to address these knowledge gaps.
This study adopts a mixed-methods research approach. The first part of the thesis describes and delineates two fundamental constructs in protected area tourism research. These include the components of visitor research and the application areas where research is taken up. The results of a systematic quantitative literature review structurally and geographically portray the nature of the body of knowledge on visitor research produced in protected areas during the years 2014 through 2018. Six categories of visitor research are confirmed, using national parks as case studies. There were four categories often produced: socio-demographic attributes; psychographic attributes; use patterns and behaviour; and experience outcomes. The areas of application, as recommended by the authors of these studies, were evaluated, providing a global perspective of the usability of visitor research in protected areas. Nine visitor management application areas emerged, encompassed in three broader management categories: strategic; tactical and operational; and monitoring and evaluation. The majority of visitor research produced in national parks lead to recommendations for applications in management activities that exhibit a strong visitor interface. These include enhancing the visitor experience; managing visitor use and visitor impacts; improving visitor interpretation and communication; and monitoring and evaluating social and environmental conditions. Even though most studies identified at least one management application area, some areas appeared to be underserved by the current body of knowledge. The findings attest to the importance of accommodating a diverse range of visitor research types for evidence-based decision-making in the value-laden process of managing visitors in protected areas. Apart from the enhanced understanding of the constructs themselves, this thesis also explores linkages between them. The analysis also considered the conceptual, instrumental and symbolic use of visitor research. Academic researchers in outdoor recreation do adapt and embrace the demand for management research. Researchers frequently make recommendations towards instrumental use of knowledge and often suggest more than one area of application. Embedded research capacity further stimulates recommendations towards management applications. That said, recommendations do not automatically translate into implementation. Knowledge utilisation is influenced by many other factors apart from the provision of information.
The thesis explores literature to identify the overarching theoretical explanations and influential individual factors of knowledge utilisation. It also examines the measurement of utilisation. In the second part of the study, the researcher conducted a Delphi survey among a sample of 26 experts from various countries and continents, each highly knowledgeable in protected area visitor research. The main objectives were to determine experts’ views on the current application of visitor research in protected areas and identify factors that influence its uptake. The results revealed five dimensions of influencers connecting to six theoretical explanations of knowledge utilisation. The third part of the study applied these findings to develop and test a conceptual model through structural equation modelling (SEM). For this purpose, the researcher utilised data obtained from a survey of 252 researchers working with protected areas. This part of the study quantifies the research-practice gap of the body of visitor research collected in PAs by studying the movement of knowledge through the different utilisation stages. The results confirm other authors’ hypotheses of sub-optimal use of visitor research in practice. Large percentages of respondents reached the utilisation stages of reference, effort, influence and application only some of the times. Few researchers reported that their results usually influenced management decisions.
The SEM analysis outcomes lead to a novel explanation for the utilisation of visitor research in the context of protected area visitor management. It also reaffirms the importance of the organisational interest and interaction explanations, as widely cited in knowledge utilisation literature. The role of absorptive capacity towards strengthening knowledge utilisation in protected areas is confirmed. The results identify two significant factors that promote better utilisation of visitor research, namely engagement between researchers and practitioners and the skills, capacity and awareness of practitioners to interpret and apply visitor research effectively.
The study outcomes strengthen our understanding of the contribution that both researchers and their research make towards policy transformation in protected area visitor management. Relationship-focussed engagement, where researchers and end-users understand each other’s needs and collaborate to achieve common goals, is required to generate more policy-relevant research. Resultantly, more appropriate research questions are formulated, increasing the feasibility of applied research methods and a greater likelihood of practitioners implementing the recommendations. Ongoing engagement also increases the absorptive capacity of practitioners. The study concludes with recommendations proposed to both protected areas and research communities for improving visitor research utilisation. The final chapter identifies a set of significant remaining knowledge gaps that present possibilities for future research.