Making Tourism More Sustainable With Leave No Trace

Mark Eller - February 23, 2021

Photo: Parks and protected areas are experiencing heightened levels of visitation and related impacts. 

The tourism industry is enormous — in 2019, it generated more than $1.1 trillion in revenues for just the United States market. Although the 2020 numbers were negatively impacted by the COVID-19 crisis, research conducted by the Leave No Trace Center and Penn State showed a pronounced shift toward outdoor, nature-based activities occurred, meaning that parks and protected areas across the nation experienced impacts related to heavy use from both tourists and local residents.

Other researchers, including the Adventure Travel Trade Association, have published data pointing to a similar conclusion — visits to natural areas are projected to rise substantially.

“One of the key takeaways from our research is that a large number of respondents said that they are likely to continue planning their vacations around activities like camping, hiking and other outdoor sports, even after the pandemic recedes,” says Ben Lawhon, the Center’s Director of Education and Research. “Many of them indicated that they are strongly interested trying out new outdoor activities,” adds Lawhon. “The influx of relatively inexperienced outdoor visitors indicates a clear need for effective visitor education.”

While “sustainable tourism” has become an industry buzzword, it’s not always clear what measures actually achieve the goal of reducing impacts to natural resources. There are also sustainability concerns related to protecting cultural values, and for creating durable economies in tourism-based communities. Again, research on how people behave in natural settings can provide valuable clues on the most effective strategies. One recent study showed that even brief exposure to Leave No Trace best practices produces demonstrable improvements in people’s actions in natural areas. Another research effort indicated that the simple step of planning ahead — a fundamental principle of Leave No Trace — increased people’s affinities for outdoor stewardship.

The Leave No Trace Center offers customizable education programs for tourism partners of all sizes. Visit our tourism partnerships web pages for additional information, or use the tourism partnerships contact form to initiate a deeper conversation.


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