Social media data can be used to understand tourists' preferences for biodiversity

Understanding what people like to see and to do when exploring the natural environment of a protected area is crucial to inform conservation marketing and management. While traditional surveys are usually applied in order to explore such preferences, these require a large amount of resources (e.g. financial, personnel) and are generally time consuming. We investigated whether data uploaded on social media by tourists visiting protected areas can be used as a rapid and cost-effective way to explore preferences in place of traditional surveys, and to inform managers and conservation stakeholders.

In our recent study published in Conservation Letters, we demonstrated that geotagged content mined from social media can be used as an alternative to traditional survey-based methods to explore tourists’ preferences  in protected areas. We compared preferences for biodiversity obtained from a traditional survey conducted in Kruger National Park, South Africa, with observed preferences assessed from over 13,600 pictures shared on Instagram and Flickr by tourists visiting the park in the same period. We found no difference between surveyed and observed preferences, suggesting that content shared on social media can potentially be used to explore what people appreciate (e.g. species, activities) when visiting protected areas. In addition, we found that Flickr can be used to explore existing and new markets for less popular species (e.g. small mammals, frogs, insects), while Instagram can be used to explore conservation opportunities based on human activities and preferences for cultural services (e.g. recreation) inside protected areas.

Protected areas managers and Non-Governmental Organizations worldwide may take advantage of the constantly generated data uploaded by tourists on social media to explore tourism markets in areas where survey-based methodologies are difficult to implement, or when resources are scarce. As nature-based tourism is growing worldwide, along with the use of social media, the availability of information provided is likely to grow in the future, along with its potential for conservation science and practice.