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, archeaological 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, it’s situation, the region and it’s 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 overididing 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 committment 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 commitmment 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).
To make any submission for regulatory approval, and to conduct a thorough assessment to meet the requirements of ecotourism for example, liaison and possibly negotitation 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 applicable.
Restrictions on foreign ownership of any region’s ‘interpretive assets’ combined with capping of foriegn 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.
Accummulating 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, aswell 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 activites(s) 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.