Experiencing and Valuing Nature

Essential to environmental sustainability is the recognition of the range of values within nature that lends relevance and justification to its continued existence. Thus, the experiences of nature we have in rural environments as tourists are relevant to influencing and formulating how we value and connect to it. An example of the kinds of experiences and values that nature can afford us is described in the following passage from Lunn (1963, p. 27):

The mountains have more to offer than peaks to climb and snows to ski down. A sixteenth century professor of Berne University, Marti by name, found on the summit of the Niesen a rock with a Greek inscription: ‘The love of mountains is best’. And we may be sure that the man [sic] who carved these into stone, though he was neither a rock climber nor skier, had none the less known the tranquil happiness of those moments on mountain crests where man has leisure both to enjoy and give thanks for the chief things of the ancient mountains and the precious things of the lasting hills.

This passage illustrates the variety of experience of nature in situ that leads to the recognition of different values in it. In this case it demonstrates a ‘love’ of nature in the form of mountains, an emotion that is perhaps the strongest and healthiest we can sense. It emphasizes an intense connection to nature where it becomes embodied with oneself, an experience that is likely to lead to an emotional reaction to any harm to nature being experienced as harm to one’s self (Iso-Ahola, 1980). Such sentiment equates closely to Urry’s (1995) concept of the ‘romantic tourist gaze’ as people seek through visiting nature: ‘solitude, privacy and a personal, semi-spiritual relationship with their environment’ (Urry, 1995). He also refers to how the sense of a special nature is something that is read and learned, varying across time and cultures.

The nature that we choose to connect to can therefore be understood as one that is determined by processes of social construction and interpretation which are influenced by economic and social changes. For example, the love of mountains is a recent development, as until the 18th century they were regarded as an undesirable environment characterized by hardship, evil spirits and villains (Holden, 2016). The change in their perception was influenced by the Romantic Movement, a collective of European literary, artistic and musical figures, including Rousseau, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Byron, Casper David Friedrich and Goethe, who highlighted the importance of having emotional experiences connected to the natural and supernatural worlds. They emphasized the sentiments of emotion, joy, freedom and beauty that could be gained through the raw power of nature by visiting ‘untamed’ or wild landscapes of mountains, gorges, waterfalls and forests. Their ideology represented a countermovement to the scientific thinking of the Enlightenment period and the process of the Industrial Revolution, challenging both rational reason over emotional experiences and the degradation of nature for industrial development. They subsequently demanded the reestablishment of links between the society and nature as a source of moral and aesthetic value with untouched spaces unaltered by human endeavour holding the greatest value as wilderness assumes a deep spiritual significance (Holden, 2016).

The use of emotional responses to strengthen connections to nature is also emphasized by the UK’s RSPB, who express the meaning of connecting to nature in the terminology of a love for nature and caring about the environment (RSPB, 2013). They envisage that the outcome of these emotions will be a willingness to take action to protect nature. Thus, if this emotional connection is not developed or is lost there will be a subsequent risk to the conservation and protection of nature. They also emphasize the necessity of connecting children to nature as the means to a positive relationship that is continued throughout the human lifecycle. This point is re-iterated by Kaplan and Kaplan (1989), who underline the importance of childhood play experiences in nature for fostering positive attitudes towards the environment in later life. They also stress the constructive benefits of the development of a fascination with nature for counteracting mental fatigue and attention deficit disorders.

Understanding the types of values we associate with nature has been a central theme of environmental ethics and philosophy, underpinning the logic of why we ‘should’ conserve nature and pursue environmental sustainability. The rationale for the choice of pursuit of environmental sustainability can be understood according to two central paradigms: that it makes sense for our own well-being given our economic reliance upon nature; and/or we recognize an intrinsic right to nature to an existence independent of any human gain from its conservation. The former paradigm is probably the most identifiable as our comprehension that we require functioning ecosystems to provide us with the resources we need for a good quality of life has grown (Holden, 2005). This utilitarian argument embraces not only the functional use of nature for survival but also the positive emotional experiences of nature, including those gained through tourism. The second paradigm is more abstract, based on the ‘rights’ of nature to an existence and recognizing an intrinsic value to nature that is independent of human interest. Within this paradigm, to argue for nature’s conservation on the basis of the pleasure it accords us through its aesthetic beauty would not be valid, as this recognition involves the transference of human value and emotion onto nature. Instead, the intrinsic value of nature is based on the recognition of its ability to be able to fulfil its lifecycle independent of our actions.

As is emphasized in the quotation from Lunn (1963), it is the experience of nature in situ that makes tourism potentially significant as a means for emotional connections to nature. The components of ‘experience’ are recognized as consisting of four realms: entertainment; aesthetic; escapist; and educational (Pine and Gilmore, 1999), all of which have a direct relevance to the tourist experience. Whilst these realms have been applied to tourism in the context of attempting to enhance the visitor experience, their potential relevance to establishing a connection to nature has received relatively little attention. These four realms are not exclusive of each other, and it is their fusion that is influential to the type of experience a tourist will have. Central to this experience are emotions that may be felt within the different realms, with Knobloch et al. (2014, p. 605) recognizing emotions as being at the ‘core of tourists’ experiences’. The importance of emotion of experience for connecting people to nature is stressed by Breakey and Breakey (2015, p. 92), who acknowledge that: ‘people relate more closely and care more deeply about places, peoples, and environments they have lived, breathed, and remembered’.

Although research into linking the emotion of experience with a connection to nature is limited, Wolf et al. (2015) found that when tourists described having a deeply emotional experience, this resulted in a strong place attachment that was extended over time by emotional recollection. The potential of an emotional attachment to nature gained through tourism translating into longer-term pro-environmental behaviour is acknowledged by Ballantyne and Packer (2011b). In their research into wildlife tourism experiences, they found a higher probability for a longer lasting effect on pro-environmental behaviour if an emotional connection to animals was established. Whilst four realms of experience are recognized, empirical research suggests that the aesthetic element will be highly influential in shaping the overall experience in nature tourism (Dorwart et al., 2010). In their study of visitor experiences in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the USA, they found that the perceived quality of the scenery had a strong correlation to the level of experienced satisfaction, being highest when tourists described the park as beautiful (Dorwart, 2010).

The realm of experience of escapism is well versed as a major motivation for participation in tourism. Boorstin (1964) recognized the potential of tourism to provide an escape from the routines and constraints of the everyday life of urban areas. For MacCannell (1992), this desire to escape may be better understood as a search or quest for the authenticity of nature and culture that is lacking in one’s everyday life. The increasing demand for nature-based tourism experiences suggests that there exists a strong desire to escape to it, though it cannot be assumed that the behaviour of tourists will be necessarily pro-environmental when they arrive there. Whilst nature may offer contemplative and spiritual moments, what we consider to be natural environments are also used for a range of other activities, including ones directly harmful to other species, such as big-game shooting.

A seemingly evident way of encouraging a connection to nature is through the field of education that aims to create environmental knowledge. This may be about the specific ecosystem being visited and/or a more general knowledge creation about environmental issues and challenges, for example climate change and biodiversity loss. Given that people have decided to travel to visit nature, it could be expected that many of them would be receptive to acquiring environmental knowledge, and a cognitive experience represents an important motivation for the trip. However, there is a diversity of opinion about the attractiveness of education as part of the environmental experience. Whilst a body of researchers herald the importance of the educational aspect to experience (Cochrane, 2006; Mehmetoglu and Engen, 2011; Io, 2013; Wolf et al., 2015), others suggest cognitive and educational elements are less important to tourists themselves (Kim and Brown, 2012; Knobloch et al., 2014; Hassell et al., 2015).

The work of Mehmetoglu and Engen (2011) has been one of the few studies to highlight the importance of the cognitive or educational element of experiences to tourists, though this pertained to a museum setting and therefore the desire for knowledge would likely have been a key motivating factor for the visit. Whilst Cochrane (2006) found that Western travellers had a desire to learn about the biodiversity of Bromo National Park in Indonesia and that education formed an essential part of their visitor experience, the level of importance attached to educational provision is likely to vary - a reflection of the complexity of reasons and motivations for nature visits. Nevertheless, whilst tourists may not explicitly cite education as the principal or recognized motivation for experiences in nature, it may become a welcome outcome of the visit.

This dichotomy of the importance of education to the nature experience reflects the complexity of the nature tourism market, which often fails to differentiate the range of experiences being sought and the motivations and attitudes that underpin behaviour. Subsequently, within the market there are likely to be a range of different levels of responsiveness to education based material. For example, eco-tourists may have different motivations and desired outcomes of the experience from adventure tourists. Factors of distance travelled, temporality and the level of familiarity with a particular environment may also influence the interest in learning about nature. For instance, in more readily accessible nature areas that are closer to home, visitors may just desire to walk somewhere different or take in a beautiful view. However, when travel is undertaken to natural areas that are different in their biodiversity and involve substantial effort and investment in planning, travel and monetary cost, it is likely that the expectation to acquire knowledge about the environment will be higher. There is then a potential variance in responsiveness to education between taking a visit to a national park close to home for an hour or so compared to making a concerted effort to visit a biodiverse hot spot that may be thousands of miles away.

The responsiveness of an individual to educational material is also likely to be influenced by the way it is presented as a part of the experience. If educational materials are held as being prescriptive or coercive, this may counteract the desire for relaxation and escape, leading to them being ignored. Also, if they are presented in an uninteresting way, there is likely to be a lack of desire to engage with the knowledge they are attempting to transmit. Thus, in attempting to connect people to nature through the tourism experience, there is a strong case for linking education with entertainment as a medium to get people engaged. Entertainment will typically evoke emotions of enjoyment and involves the response to the experience as laughter, or passion; of being amused. Within the context of nature experiences, in consideration of a visit to a national park, an example of the entertainment realm could include viewing traditional woodcutting techniques or visiting an animal sanctuary.

A further aspect of levels of receptiveness to educational content and closely linked to presentation is the role of interpretation. The aim of environmental interpretation is to engage people through communication to develop an awareness, appreciation and understanding of nature, providing an opportunity to formulate pro-environmental attitudes and behaviour towards a more sustainable future (Archer and Wearing, 2002; Newsome et al., 2002; Tubb, 2003). The desire to use tourism to create experiences to move people towards pro-environmental behaviour has been outlined at policy levels in the context of the UK’s national parks. Commenting on visits to national parks, DEFRA refer to them ‘inspiring lifelong behaviour change’ (2010, p. 13). Suggested actions include learning about what makes national parks special places in order ‘to encourage wider action on sustainable living and make a personal connection’ (DEFRA, 2010, p. 10). Whilst traditional interpretation techniques and materials include the use of leaflets, websites, visitor centres, information boards, self-guided trails and guided tours, it is particularly the use of information technology and social media that incorporate blogs, video sharing sites and podcasts that offers a great potential in creating, reliving and sharing the experiences of nature (Gretzel and Jamal, 2009). The use of social media offers an immediacy of experiences through the sharing of visual images and stories that can be transmitted to and shared with others by the touch of a button (Flinn and Frew, 2014).

Whilst the realms of experiences in nature have been identified individually, it is accepted that the majority of visits will involve one or more of them; the desired experience involving all four, aiming to create a ‘sweet spot’ where the experience is one that is highly meaningful to the visitor (Pine and Gilmore, 1999). However, one aspect of experience that is neglected within the four realms, but that has a direct relevance for developing a connection to nature through tourism, is the memory and recollection of visits after returning home. Memories of experiences that are strengthened through sharing recollections with friends, directly or more indirectly though social media, provide a continuity of experience and the maintenance of the urban to rural connection. In consideration of what constitutes memorable experiences, Tung and Ritchie (2011) found that recollection after the visit is an important element of the experience and requires further investigation. Given that memory recollection aids the creation of the longevity of experience, it may act as an important step in understanding the values and connection to nature established through visitation and critically encouraging long-term behavioural change to environmental sustainability.

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