The relevance of spatial variation in ecotourism attributes for the economic sustainability of protected areas

Alta De Vos, Graeme S. Cumming, Christine A. Moore, Kristine Maciejewski, Gregory Duckworth

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

27 Citations (Scopus)


In contemporary society, protected areas are increasingly expected to justify their existence through the services that they provide to society. Protected areas offer many important cultural services, but appraisal of these nonmaterial benefits has generally proven difficult and most studies have focused on single case studies. Data on tourist numbers across multiple camps and protected areas provide a tractable and previously unexploited case study for better understanding the economic sustainability of cultural service provision and the relevance of potentially confounding variables (e.g., location and infrastructure) for park sustainability. We used redundancy analysis and linear models to relate a 5-yr monthly data set (2007-2012) of tourist numbers and tourism-derived income in all camps in South African national parks to a set of largely GIS-derived, determinant attributes that captured key elements of location, biodiversity, infrastructure, and accommodation cost at a camp level. Our analysis suggests that the degree to which cultural services can be converted into revenue for conservation is strongly contingent on infrastructure, location, and the business model that the park adopts. When considered alone, ecological attributes explained 14.2% and 3% of day and overnight visitation rates, respectively. In contrast, models that considered ecosystems in combination with other elements could explain 53% and 67% of variation. Linear models confirmed the existence of complex interactions between groups of variables and highlighted individual covariates that affected visitation rates. Significant variables included ecological features that provided aesthetic services, number of water bodies, elevation, available units, unit costs, and distance to the coast, airports, and other national parks. Taken in context our results suggest that it may be simpler than expected to make predictions about the potential future economic viability of protected areas under alternative models of management, illustrate how ecological variables may represent the "supply" side in cultural services, and highlight the complex interplay between ecological and built infrastructure. Encouragingly, this in turn suggests that relatively small, targeted investments in infrastructure could lead to disproportionate increases in tourist visitation rates and hence in increased revenue for conservation.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere01207
Number of pages19
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2016
Externally publishedYes


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