Expert Alert: Sustainable Tourism

Jun 3, 2021

There’s an old adage in outdoor recreation, “Leave it better than you found it.”

But in a recent post, the administrator of the Duluth Trail Conditions Facebook group wondered if starting the page was a bad idea. She’s noticing social media having the unintended consequence of transforming tucked away outdoor gems into spots that are crowded, and conflict over trail usage is becoming common.

Ken Gilbertson, a professor in the Environmental and Outdoor Education Program, talks about the sustainability of recreation just in time for the start of summer.

Can you talk about outdoor tourism’s impact on the environmentboth good and bad?

It is a mixed bag, so we weigh the cost and benefits with this influx of people venturing into some of the most beautiful places our region has to offer. Some of these spots are ecologically sensitive- so that’s the downside. When masses of people visit sensitive natural areas, these spots become vulnerable to damage. So we need to think about the sensitivity of the destination to keep it sustainable. For example, biking/hiking through a wetland can be very hard on the wetland. It’s so much more than “just a swamp.” Now here’s the good news: we can leverage social media to protect wild spaces and generate awareness. Social media offers us a very valuable communication tool for sharing guidelines and important information about preserving our outdoor spaces.

Are people wanting to experience natural beauty because of enthusiasm for the outdoors ... or for Instagram?

Probably both. There’s the altruistic visitor who genuinely wants to experience the outdoors, and there are those who are engaging in ecotourism for clicks and instant gratification. We just need to figure out how to navigate in our spaces with both types of participants. After all, we go into the outdoors for the nature experience. Why would we want to ruin the very place we are seeking to enjoy?

Why is this topic especially important in Northern Minnesota and Wisconsin?

Our region is thriving, in large part because of nature-based tourism. The most recent data shows the tourism industry in northern Minnesota produces $1.4 billion annually with more than 4,000 jobs. In addition, nature-based tourism is a growing industry, by 49 percent since 2003, according to Explore Minnesota. It is the 3rd largest industry in the state of Minnesota and the primary industry in many parts of the state. Think of the towns that thrive because of the BWCAW or Lake Superior. It is because of Lake Superior that Duluth is a nature-based tourism destination.

Ken Gilbertson

About Ken Gilbertson

Dr. Ken Gilbertson is a professor in the Environmental and Outdoor Education Program and head of the Department of Applied Human Sciences at UMD. His interests include teaching outdoor and environmental education in non-formal settings, wilderness education and interpretation, resource management and planning, sustainability of nature-based tourism in protected nature areas, and the relationship between a skill level and commitment in adventure activities.