Creating Interpretive Experience In A Conservation Area

Creating Interpretive Experience In A Conservation Area

Creating Interpretive Experiences in Ecotourism

In this post we look at How To Create An Interpretive Experience associated with an ecotourism experience within a Special Area of Conservation in Ireland.

Ecotourism, as defined by the Global Sustainable Tourism Council, typically incorporates a feature of conservation that may be ecological, cultural, historical, archaeological and/or spiritual. The experience should seek to simultaneously immerse visitors in this feature and it’s characteristics whilst preserving it, thus creating a ‘sustainable experience‘.

Careful consideration need be taken to ensure the integrity of the site and features are not impacted by proposed use, nor the access to the features by local peoples affected. In essence, the conservation features should not be altered by the proposed activities, yet means for providing opportunities to immerse within the experience need to bring visitors into close contact with it for it to have any ‘interpretive value‘.

Clearly then, ensuring the sustainability of the conservation features requires considerable research, consultation and planning. It is essential that this process include and be informed by the Interpretive Theme of the experience.

Interpretive Themes vs Topics

An experience with an essence of conservation at it’s core typically can be found to have a main theme or indeed multiple themes that give meaning to, and reasons for the attitude of preservation of the feature(s). Themes go far beyond simple topics, and it has been shown by research and experience that learning and understanding are enhanced by the thematic approach (Ham, 1992), as opposed to the instructive, topic based approach.

An example of a topic may be: Nature and Health.

An example of a theme may be: After experiencing nature first hand, interacting with plants and animals personally, people begin to sense the importance of being in nature for their mental, emotional and physical wellbeing.

Thus to create an Interpretive experience the core themes of it must be identified and consensus reached on how best to communicate this to the visitor, while preserving the resource(s).

The concept of thematic interpretation was first proposed by Freeman Tilden in Interpreting Our Heritage (1957) and later by Dr. Grant W. Sharpe in his work, Interpreting the Environment (1976). Thematic Interpretation was later popularised by Dr. Sam H. Ham in Environmental Interpretation (1992).

The common perspective in these works is that thematic interpretation is a process that provokes the visitor or audience to think for themselves, thus developing a subjective understanding of the experience, as opposed to being instructed to accept a particular view point or set of ‘facts’.

In later years thematic interpretation has been more often referred to as thematic communication and adopted in programs aimed at altering environmental behaviours, occupational health and safety, risk assessment and communication and sustainable development.

How To Engage Visitors By Interpretation?

As discussed interpretation is not direct dissemination of facts and viewpoints, but a process of communication that assists visitors to understand the story or theme within the landscape, culture or special site they are visiting. Think ‘immersion in the experience’ as opposed to just talking about it.

The theme or story may be site and regionally specific, but may have further reaching implications to the region of origin of the visitor, and to the global community too! It’s easy to see then how an engaging interpretive experience may create considerable impact within the awareness of the visitor, the potential flow-on effects of which are incalculable.

When such an approach is used to share conservation and preservation themes, and other similar themes, the resulting impact is more personally engaging and thus more likely to remain within the awareness of the individual and groups.

As Sir David Attenborough puts it;


No one will protect what they don’t care about, and no-one cares about what they’ve never experienced.”


Typical ways visitors can be engaged in thematic interpretation is by way of walks, talks, tours, media, signage and art, all containing the messages of the theme(s). Furthermore, interactive experiences, particularly first hand of nature and animals, are very powerful experiences that create a strong personal link with the theme. In general, the more informal and fun the experience, the greater the impact of the theme.

Developing An Interpretive Experience


Some steps to take…

In this particular case we are talking about an Interpretive Trail we gained approval for from the National Parks and Wildlife Service in Ireland. The trail is located within a section of a Special Area of Conservation, Drummin Wood SAC 002181, registered under the EU Habitats Directive. The trail is part of the ecotourism experience we managed, Crann Og Eco Farm, Certified Gold Ecotourism Operator 2015 – 2019.

The approved trail, to be used as part of the ecotourism experience, forest school classes and guided nature therapy walks, is regarded as a blueprint project for ecotourism operators in Ireland. The trail essentially meanders through the conservation area on pre-existing ancient pathways and tracks, taking in numerous points of interest within the oak woodland. The experience is prefaced by, and used to promote the Leave No Trace Codes for Outdoor Conduct.

Determining the Themes

The starting point for the development of an interpretive experience is arriving at conscensus on the core theme(s) of the experience, and the perceived target audience of the interpretation. In this case the themes arose from years of experience engaging visitors in different activities on different scales.

Enhanced knowledge and training helped for the themes to become clear;

Re-connecting with nature and becoming aware of nature’s cycles and our inter-dependency with nature.

Disconnecting or ‘unplugging’ from information technology to slow down into the moment in nature to release stress, relax, and for benefits of emotional and physical health.

Finding ways to explore and have fun for children and parents together, naturally.

Conservation of nature and the rarity of bio-diverse habitats in Ireland. Discussions, exploration and tours of special area of conservation.

Ecotourism and it’s potential benefits to nature conservation.

Exploring edges and expanding limits of personal and familial experience and levels of comfort in a natural world setting.

Enhancing mental health through interacting with the natural world, stimulating the senses through multisensory experiences.

Conservation of resources and energy and the endless possibilities of the concepts of reduce, re-use and recycle.

Once the thematic content and aims of the interpretive experience have been determined, the means of communication and interaction, that is the content and structure, must be designed. Along with this, the techniques for facilitating the experience that best suit the themes, engaging facilitation for the target audience, and the overlying aims project, should be determined before moving into the application phase.

Attaining Regulatory Approval

In any interpretive experience there are likely to be organisations from which regulatory approval is necessary to conduct the proposed activity. Depending on the activity, its situation, the region and its laws and customs, this process may be lengthy and complex.

More than likely written submissions will be required to substantiate the claims of the proponents of the experience in terms of value of the interpretation to the site, visitors, the local community, the region and the overriding theme, of ecotourism and nature conservation in this particular case.

Written submissions should include, as a rule of thumb, details of potential impacts and how they will be managed, benefits to the community of the interpretive experience, levels of engagement and use of the site and technical monitoring of potential impacts. Periodic reporting is most likely to be a condition to approval of any such activity and thus it is a good idea to include commitment to such reporting in the original submission or application.

It is a strong common sensical approach to propose higher than minimum standard levels of monitoring, management and reporting when seeking regulatory approval, as this demonstrates a very strong commitment to conservation of the resource. It also sets a ‘tone’ of a high standard which enhances a stronger ethos within those facilitating the interpretation, which in turn reinforces the overlying aims of the theme(s).

Stakeholder Liaison

To make any submission for regulatory approval, and to conduct a thorough assessment to meet the requirements of ecotourism for example, liaison and possibly negotiation with local and regional stakeholders is essential.

It is impossible to create an ecotourism and indeed and interpretive experience involving sensitive resources without some degree of stakeholder involvement.

Particularly in developing regions, especially where foreign investment is involved in the experience, considerable scope exists for abuse of rights of local peoples and the inequitable consumption of resources as related to tourism activities.

In our view for any ecotourism venture and interpretive experience to be truly sustainable they must go beyond standards that talk more to ‘sustainable tourism development’ than they do to total sustainability.  For example we suggest;

  • Complete conservation of the natural, cultural, historical, archaeological and ethnographic resources. Anything less than complete preservation is not sustainable and is simply ‘lip service’.

  • Equitable business models that protect and enhance the lives of the regional and local stakeholders at all levels and without exception.

  • Business and operational models of which the main aim is complete sustainability of the natural interpretive resources in perpetuity, as opposed to ‘sustainable tourism business development’.  This must be inclusive of continued assessment demonstrating that the activity should be discontinued where applicablei

  • Restrictions on foreign ownership of any region’s ‘interpretive assets’ combined with capping of foreign investment share in operational profits.

  • Monetary fund with standard conditions for access by all peoples of all regions for the development of truly sustainable experiences incorporating interpretive resources, such that the need for foreign investment is negated.

  • Complete resource consumption versus waste and pollution neutrality or better, without exception.

Identifying Key Experience and Training Needs

Once themes are determined it is the essential to determine what experience and potential training will be required by those facilitating the interpretive experience, to ensure the aims of the experience are attained.

Accumulating the identified experience and training can be a long process and require input from many sources and considerable financial resources. In addition, pilot programs are a recommended next phase to assess the efficacy of the training and the interpretive experience, as well as the capabilities of those facilitating the interpretation.

Depending on legislation and insurance requirements, certification of facilitators may be required, usually where the experience involves children or some or more physical risk. This can add to the lead time to start-up of an interpretive experience and require additional financial resources.

Communication of The Experience Pre & Post Visit

Potential visitors must be able to understand what the interpretive experience offers in terms of connection with nature, education, conservation, recreation and how the experience benefits the environment and local community. The description and promotion the experience should be accurate, complete and reflect the nature and feel of the experience. Access to be made to additional information and interpretive resources that compliment and support the theme(s) and overlying aims.

Wherever possible proponents should endeavour to connect with other organisations, venues and networks of similar and complimentary content. Networking helps to further the aims of all members of that network and avail the potential visitors to create a multi faceted experience in the region.

In time it is likely the interpretive experience will be modified, taking on enhancements or potentially changes required as a result of observation of impacts of the interpretive activities. Communication of the evolution of the experience may be communicated to previous visitors through websites, email and social media to continue the process of education.

Development of Interpretive Materials

The process of determining the theme(s) of the interpretation will involve the identification of materials and techniques for the facilitation of the experience.

Additional resources are likely required for the creation of a range of different materials that may include multimedia (online & in case of a centre), maps, trails, viewing structures, protective enclosures/exclosures, trail markers, interactive equipment/props and educational material.

Furthermore, depending on the type of experience, relevant infrastructure and ‘setting’ may be required involving additional planning, time, resources and approval. Determining the interactive materials required feeds back into the Key Experience & Training stage, informing potential additional needs in this area.

Evaluation & Management

The efficacy of the interpretive experience and the effectiveness of impact management associated with the activities must be assessed over time and against frequency of engagement.

Achieving the aims of the interpretation and the quantitative goals of the impact management require monitoring and experience feedback collation and assessment.

Without such information feedback loops it is impossible to determine if an experience is of the proposed value and if it should be continued.



Eco Certification Standards & Measures, What are they?

Eco Certification Standards & Measures, What are they?

Eco Certification Standards & Measures Explained

In Ireland ecotourism is overseen and certified by Ecotourism Ireland, formed and headed up by Mary Mulvey. This organisation audits and certifies a range of sustainable tourism venues and experiences from places like Crann Og Eco Farm to Inishbofin Island.

Ecotourism Ireland is one of 14 companies in the world recognised by The Global Sustainable Tourism Council. The Council provides the framework and criteria for ecotourism worldwide and has formulated these measures to be adaptable to local conditions with additional supplementary criteria for specific locations and activities.

Why Have Standards

Eco Certification Standards exist in order to promote a unified approach to managing sustainability and equitability in tourism development and operation worldwide. In the process to ensure the conservation of natural and cultural treasures while managing one of the fastest growing sectors in the world.

To create a simple recipe for all tourism development internationally that promotes the ethos of education and raising of awareness, informing policy development for governance, enterprise and other interests, monitoring and assessment and as the baseline for certification.

What Are the Standards

The GSTC developed criteria that consist of four main categories covering all aspects related to sustainable tourism that provide the basic framework for detailed measures;

  1. Demonstrate effective sustainable management
  2. Maximize social and economic benefits to the local community and minimize negative impacts
  3. Maximize benefits to cultural heritage and minimize negative impacts
  4. Maximize benefits to the environment and minimize negative impacts

As you can see these are broad categories, each of them incorporating large areas of study, consultation and assessmen

How to make these categories workable and achievable while remaining relevant internationally?

Decades of experience, research and consultation by the Council looked at the range of guidelines and standards implemented around the world by different countries and organisations. Consultation was conducted on every continent and in multiple languages whilst trying to arrive at a set of formulae that could be easily adapted to differing cultures, environments, laws and customs.

…the Criteria was designed to adhere to ISO codes of conduct and the standards-setting code of the ISEAL Alliance, the international body providing guidance for the development and management of sustainability standards for all sectors.” (GSTC)

Detailed Criteria for Certification of Ecotourism

The four main categories identified by the GSTC led to the development of eight detailed Certification Criteria Categories:

1. Environmentally Sustainable Practices

2. Natural Area Focus

3. Interpretation and Education

4. Contributing to Conservation

5. Benefiting local communities

6. Visitor Satisfaction

7. Responsible Marketing

8. Cultural respect and awareness

Each of these categories comprises a number of measures that countries, sectors and operators must attain in order to achieve certification by this system. Together they comprise what is defined as the minimum standard in approaching ‘social, environmental, cultural, and economic sustainability.’

Ecotourism Certification Measures


Environmentally Sustainable Practices

From the adoption of minimal impact codes to regulatory compliance and implementation of Sustainability Management Systems. The use of renewable energy technologies, non-motorised transport and promotion of environmentally friendly transport. Staff training and education regarding environmental impacts, and communication to the public of commitment to sustainable practices. Adoption of an energy and waste management plan, use and promotion of ethical and eco-labelled services and products.


Natural Area Focus

Work with local stakeholders and ensure that local access to sites of environmental, cultural , spiritual and historic sites are not impeded. Implementation of the Leave No Trace Codes of Conduct. That the experience involves personal experience of nature by the visitor while ensuring visitor to guide/staff ratios remain moderate. That a protected natural, cultural or historical area is included as part of the experience.


Interpretation and Education

Educational staff are appropriately trained and experienced. Interpretive experience plans are in place and inform design of the experience/program/product. Specific interest groups and demographics are catered to and interaction with other visitors and interest groups is incorporated into the experience. Information is provided to past and future visitors of improvements.


Contributing to Conservation

Active involvement in a payback schemes involving conservation and membership to conservation groups. Actively involved in local environmental project(s) and information events. Provide information on local flora, fauna and nature reserves. Tree planting programs and creation of natural habitats for endemic species.


Benefiting local communities

Work with the local community and support employment of local guides. Provide access to work experience and involve community members/groups in development of the experience/product. Encourage the purchase of local and organic foods. Membership of local and regional tourism business networks and support local businesses.


Visitor Satisfaction

Comply with all relevant legislation and monitor visitor satisfaction. Review by industry peers and professionals on an ongoing basis. Share insights gathered by visitor satisfaction feedback.


Responsible Marketing

Description and promotion of product is accurate and complete and reflects the nature and feel of the experience. Potential visitors to be informed as to what the experience offers them in terms of connection with nature, education, conservation, recreation and how the experience benefits the environment and local community. Minimise use of paper based promotion and utilise internet based methods or promotion and marketing, exclusively if possible. Develop and enhance networking and promotion of other ecotourism and conservation organisations, venues and networks.


Cultural respect and awareness

Local access to the experience and resources is not impeded by the operation. Information is provided on local heritage and foster where possible cross border and international cooperation with similar operators and networks.

High Level Of Certification Is A Great Achievement!


As you can see meeting all of the measures and criteria, which serve as the minimum standard, is no small or easy task for any operator, region or country

To achieve such standards requires development of a management system that allows for and fosters continued improvement and innovation. This in turn requires comprehensive monitoring and feedback loops across all categories of the criteria assessment program.

How can the small to medium sized operator or a region new to the concept of sustainable ecotourism hope to meet such standards? This is a good question that lands right in the middle of that blurry zone where tourism morphs into ecotourism. It raises lots of questions about what is really sustainable, and from what perspective?

This will be the subject of a Free Resource, designed to help the smaller operator or newcomer fast track to the cutting edge of ecotourism, that will be the subject of another post coming soon!

We will edit this post to add a link to it once it’s ready.



Why Gold Certified Ecotourism is a big deal!

Why Gold Certified Ecotourism is a big deal!

Gold Certification is a Big Deal…

As it requires incremental improvement, innovation and maintenance of a very high level of commitment to ecotourism, sustainability, conservation and customer satisfaction.

Internationally ecotourism is overseen by The Global Sustainable Tourism Council and in Ireland the ratified certifying body is Ecotourism Ireland, headed up by Mary Mulvey. The criteria for certification are lengthy and cover the full spectrum of commitments to responsible, sustainable and educational ecotourism.  Achieving Gold Certification is not easy.

Make no mistake, this is not green washing!


In total there are 59 Measures (covering multiple criteria) that are to be addressed by a certified ecotourism operator, which are assessed by formal application and a comprehensive audit by an ecotourism industry professional. Finally the application and audit are reviewed by The Assessment Committee consisting of representatives of Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the National Standards Authority of Ireland (NSAI), National Parks & Wildlife Service, Irish Trails Office and Tourism Ireland.

Ecotourism Ireland defines Gold Certified Operators as:

“These Ecotourism approved experiences are at the forefront of the industry. They are provided by businesses dedicated to educating tourists about the natural world and local culture. They are striving to be environmentally innovative and socially responsible.

Their ecotourism products have a positive impact on the environment, local communities, and their clients. They will invest both time and money to maintain positive ecotourism practices.

These Ecotourism approved experiences have had an on-site assessment, which verified that they have received 85-100% of the available points.”


We have recently attained Gold Certification by Eco Tourism Ireland for the venue we manage Crann Og Eco Farm in County Galway Ireland. This is the second Gold we have attained resulting in four consecutive years certification at this level. We managed the project from no certification to Gold since 2014, and have maintained an ethos of continued improvement in management and the ecotourism experience itself. The venue is currently certified Gold until July 2019.

It’s not easy!

In this particular case it has not been an easy task because we are a small operation and we deliberately keep the numbers of visitors to the experience very low to preserve the venue itself, the surrounding natural habitats and the overall experience. It’s all about getting back to nature, not how many people we can squeeze through the venue and how much money we can make as a result!

Thus our turnover is small and resources limited. This means we must do everything in house and make use of every resource that comes our way. We are masters of the principles of reduce (consumption & waste), re-use (whatever possible) and recycle (everything imaginable).

This also means that continuing to improve our performance in terms of certification, while maintaining the standard of the experience we offer and conserving the environment, requires an enormous commitment and plenty of sacrifice.

Having a higher throughput of visitors and subsequently higher revenues would make it easier as we would be more able to outsource some of the functions we perform in house, thus returning more time resource to the core team. This in turn would provide greater scope for enhanced ROI for our time and addtional vacational opportunities, all of which help to enhance the morale and resilience of the core team.

Make no mistake, maintaining a quality ecotourism experience with very high levels of customer interaction, education and recreation, at levels returning nearly 100% 5 Star reviews requires an enormous commitment of time, energy, personal involvement and diligence.

It is very nearly a 24/7 undertaking, certainly during the ecotourism season, and as we also host third party events and provide additional wellness products aside from ecotourism throughout the year, it’s a full time 10 months per year committment. The other two months are usually taken up by planning, marketing (constant), maintenance, renovation and improvements. Somewhere in there we try to take a break too!

What are the benefits of Gold Certification?

Ecotourism is one of the fastest growing sectors in the world and is a major employer in some regions. It appears this is a trend that will continue for a considerable period. Certification to a high level by world renowned organisations enhances reputation and authenticity. It demonstrates commitment, diligence and quality of experience to potential tourists.

We at Eco Freelance strongly advocate a return to nature for wellbeing, education and conservation of the environment on which we all depend for survival (check out Our Mission Statement).  Assisting the projects and people we do to achieve high levels of quality, sustainability, conservation and education strongly contributes to the progression of this ethos.

An operator of a venue and experience that promotes this ethos must by definition ascribe to strong principles and performance in areas of sustainability, efficiencies, transparency, education, conservation and cultural awareness.

In doing so such an operator, venue, experience and community demonstrate to others, local and foreign, more symbiotic ways of living and relating to the natural world.  And that’s what we’re all about!



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