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 inInterpreting Our Heritage (1957) and later by Dr. Grant W. Sharpe in his work,Interpreting the Environment (1976). Thematic Interpretation was later popularised byDr. 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 multi-sensory 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 of the project, should be determined before moving into the application phase.
Attaining Regulatory Approval
Identifying Key Experience and Training Needs
Communication of The Experience Pre & Post Visit
Development of Interpretive Materials
Evaluation & Management