A study from the University of Maine shows that bringing together academics and tourism developers on Mount Desert Island is an effective way to identify climate change impacts and determine what can be done to address them given a community’s strengths, limitations, and resources.
Now, thanks to the work of a transdisciplinary group of UMaine graduate researchers and community stakeholders, MDI might have further information on a path forward to keeping the destination sustainable.
Nature-based tourism destinations, like many in Maine, face challenges from the impacts of climate change. Climate and weather determine the timing, length, and quality of tourism seasons, as well as the risks associated with recreational activities.
The participatory planning approach to addressing climate change impacts has been successful in several international case studies.
Participatory planning—bringing together a variety of stakeholders to analyze complex issues by applying local knowledge—is an approach communities can use to anticipate climate change impacts and prepare suitable solutions. For nature-based tourism destinations, this could mean diversifying recreational opportunities, for example, or developing sustainable transportation plans focused on tourist movements.
The participatory planning approach to addressing climate change impacts has been successful in several international case studies. For example, a 2014 participatory planning study that engaged municipal officials, tourism developers, business owners, and researchers was able to identify climate change impacts and adaptation measures for two tourism-centric areas of Northern Finland.
“MDI tourism professionals are very aware of climate change impacts to their businesses and the resources they manage. A participatory approach allows researchers to center that expertise and experience to help develop locally relevant solutions that consider existing resources, including existing partnerships and ongoing adaptation and mitigation projects,” says Lydia Horne, lead author of the study who completed the research as a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Maine.
In a study published in the journal Tourism and Hospitality Research, UMaine researchers worked with tourism partners on MDI to identify climate change impacts in the area’s tourism system and develop planning priorities. The approach brought together diverse tourism suppliers who do not often collaborate, alongside climate change planners, natural resource managers, and other academic researchers.
The study involved a series of planning workshops conducted over Zoom in spring 2021 that allowed participants to share their observations and experiences related to climate change. Tourism stakeholders identified impacts like the increasing heat and temperature, decrease in snowpack, changes to flora and fauna, increase in ticks, and the unpredictability of extreme weather events on MDI. While providers recognized that, in the short term, the coastal Maine tourist destination might benefit from increased temperatures, it may reach a “tipping point” where the climate becomes too warm and less attractive to visitors seeking a cooler destination.
The participants then worked in groups to create planning priorities based on the impacts they observed. Based on the existing strengths, barriers, and resources in the community, two items rose to the top: addressing increased visitation and making MDI a more sustainable tourist destination by reducing greenhouse gas emissions through more sustainable energy systems and transportation strategies. The participants then identified actions they could take to work toward these goals, such as shifting the timing of activities and product offerings to adapt to shifting visitation patterns as well as improving winter safety messaging and tourism infrastructure in response to increased winter visitation.
“These findings highlight the value of bringing people with different backgrounds and investments together to discuss the impacts climate change is having on a nature-based tourism community,” said Asha DiMatteo-LePape, co-author of the study.
“It was an incredibly valuable experience as students to be able to have important and meaningful conversations with local communities in regards to climate change and tourism, and that is a connection often lacking in academia,” added Valeria Briones, a study co-author.
“These conversations with coastal communities need to happen more regularly to find both short and long term feasible solutions. Many climate projections are on a 50- to 100-year time scale, which are important for long-term planning, but may not necessarily address the immediate concerns and rapid changes that impact the tourism industry face from year to year.”