Policy and Management Recommendations Informed by the Health Benefits of Visitor Experiences in Alberta’s Protected Areas
Keywords:parks, protected areas, health and well-being, health travel motives, health travel benefits, nature relatedness, nature contact, policy, planning, management, health promotion
AbstractExecutive Summary: Leisure in parks and other forms of protected areas are connected to an individual’s health and well-being. In this paper, we report on the results of a multi-year study that surveyed 1,515 visitors to three Provincial Parks and three Kananaskis Country Provincial Recreation Areas in Alberta, Canada. Results revealed several important findings with significant policy and planning implications for Alberta Parks, as well as the international parks and protected area community more broadly. Findings show that anticipated human health and well-being benefits were a major factor motivating individuals’ decision to visit a park or protected area. Perceived psychological/emotional benefits (89.1% of visitors), social benefits (88.3%), physical benefits (80.3%) and environmental well-being benefits (79.4%) were deemed the most important motivations. However, there was a negative correlation between age and each of these perceived benefits, indicating that older visitors were less motivated to visit protected areas for these reasons. Perceived benefits (outcomes) followed a similar pattern to motivations. The most improved factors were psychological/emotional (90.5%), social (85%), and physical well-being (77.6%). A demographic analysis revealed that females rated financial, social, psychological/emotional and spiritual well-being motivations higher than males. Income and education were also positively related to individuals’ ratings of physical, psychological and environmental well-being. Interestingly, health motivations and benefits (or outcomes) were correlated highly with nature relatedness, meaning the more connected one is to nature, the greater the motivation to visit parks and the greater the health and well-being benefits received from park experiences. Overall, this study represents the largest examination of the human health and well-being benefits associated with visitor experiences in a Canadian protected areas context. The results substantiate the need for park organizations to better understand the “service provider” – “client” relationship from a human health and well-being perspective so that integrated policies and visitor experience programs can be developed or enhanced where appropriate. The Alberta Parks Division, and the international protected areas community more broadly, should actively develop the social science foundation internally, and externally (through partnerships with the social science research community), to ensure that decisions are science-based, society-oriented, and effective at meeting both conservation and visitor experience objectives. Finally, our research indicates the need for a better empirical understanding of the human health and well-being motivations and benefits of visitors representing different social and population subgroups (e.g., youth, elderly, couples, family units, new immigrants) and of the role of distinct natural environments in health promotion.
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