As a remedy to the global trend of urbanization, tourism offers a means of reconnecting people to nature and the environments of rural areas. As we have become aware of the negative changes anthropogenic activities can instigate in the environment and of our dependency upon nature’s stability for our well-being, consideration of our place relative to nature has become one of prominence in the context of an environmentally sustainable future. Concerns over a growing disconnection from nature have resulted in policy that aims to reconnect people to nature, as individuals’ environmental attitudes and behaviour to nature have a critical role to play in the development of ERB and a mutually beneficial symbiotic relationship with our surroundings.
Central to the development of pro-environmental attitudes is the recognition that nature has a range of values beyond the instrumental and that it has a right to an existence independent of its value to humans. Subsequently, embedded into the reasoning of our connection to nature are ethical considerations of our responsibilities to the environment, which are heavily influenced by the evaluation of our position relevant to it. If we consider ourselves as being a part of nature rather than separate from it, then it is not difficult to conceptualize the environment as being composed of an amalgam of beings that form a community of which we are a part. Whilst being part of a community with other non-human sentient and non-sentient beings is perhaps a difficult concept to envisage, as for any community it would involve consideration of the welfare of others, due respect and duties towards them.
Although recognition of humans belonging to a community of nature may appear esoteric, studies have shown that the benefits for individuals of having a connection to nature include the psychological and physiological, helping to improve their welfare and health. An evident way of achieving a direct physical connection to nature is through recreation and tourism that connects urban environments with rural ones. The movement of people into rural spaces for recreational purposes also provides an opportunity to foster pro-environmental attitudes that can contribute to ERB and sustainability into the long term.
Whilst this aim of the connection of people to nature through recreation and tourism is now recognized in government policy, there is a need for research into how it can best be realized and exploited to fulfil its best potential. Central to making a connection to nature is the visitor experience, which consists of a combination of entertainment, aesthetic, education and escapism elements. Tourism has often been advocated as a symptom of escapism from the constraints of the urban environment that is characterized by its restrictive work practices and artificial milieu. Recognition of a desire to escape urban living through tourism has also been interpreted as a search for authenticity and the increased desire to visit natural areas may be understood as such a quest.
Yet it would be presumptuous to assume that experiences of nature tourism possess a shared uniformity. The terminologies of nature tourism or nature-based tourism mask a complexity and diversity of experience that is influenced by factors relating to the type of experience sought and the character of the environment being visited. Natural environments may be used in different ways by tourists, for example as a setting for action, a place for social interaction, a place for spiritual contemplation, and it cannot be assumed that all visitors will necessarily pursue pro-environmental behaviour. Yet in most cases there are opportunities to attempt to encourage a wider appreciation of the values of nature and to develop pro-environmental attitudes and behaviour when the tourist is in situ.
The influence of the aesthetic as part of the experience is a powerful component and is likely to be a shared positive encounter by many tourists visiting natural environments. The aesthetic value of nature thus becomes an important one in arguments for conservation and as a rationale for pro-environmental behaviour. The emotional value of the pleasure of the gaze from looking at topography and landscape, and having enjoyable experiences within their environment, helps to establish a positive relationship with that place. This emotional value presents an argument for the conservation of nature on a rationale of the contribution it makes to our own well-being, expressed as pleasure, rather than a deeper philosophical concern of the right of nature to an independent existence. An attachment to place may be made that instills a sense of being a part of its environment, belonging to its community, where any damage to it, especially as a cause of anthropogenic action, is likely to be emotionally upsetting. There is then an opportunity to build upon this association with place made by the tourist, to broaden the experience to incorporate more knowledge about the environment and how it is changing, both in the location being visited and more generally.
To achieve this, the combination of education and entertainment is likely to be especially important. It is essential that environmental knowledge is transmitted to tourists in an interesting, inspirational and hope- inspiring way, which alongside helping to develop pro-environmental attitudes gives a sense that adopting ERB will actually make a positive difference to safeguarding the long-term future of the natural environment. This use of interpretation will be important for making the transference of knowledge entertaining, helping to build an emotional connection to nature, to induce a love or sense of caring for it. Such identification is often made to sentient creatures through anthropomorphism, lending them human characters and emotions. However, an emotional connection is often more difficult to establish with non-sentient beings, thus a comprehension of our reliance on all parts of eco-systems to support our livelihoods and well-being is important to foster attitudes to support ERB. For an environmentally sustainable future, it is also important to prolong this connection to nature into the long term, and a better understanding of how this can be best achieved needs to be attained. It is likely that the use of social media has a potentially critical role to play in prolonging the longevity of experience as it offers not only an individual history of connection but also a shared one. Alongside providing a forum of recollection and discussion, it may well act as an incentive to taking more trips to visit nature in the future and strengthen the urban to rural nexus for sustainability.