The Benefits of Experiential and “Nature-Based” Tourism

The Benefits of Experiential and “Nature-Based” Tourism
By Andrew N. Skadberg, Ph.D.

Provided below is a description of why creating, participating in, doing, developing or teaching experiential and nature-based tourism is a good thing. There are multiple beneficiaries and a wide variety of opportunities that arise.
Nature-based tourism most importantly provides opportunities for people to experience the out-of-doors, to breathe fresh air, to notice the beauty of nature. Through effective interpretation and programming people can be guided to gain a new appreciation for the natural world at many levels.

The benefactors of these processes are everyone involved including landowners or providers, the participants, communities and the neighboring communities, and ultimately nature herself. To start, let’s take a look at a list of descriptors, or elements, connected to the potential GOOD that can come from actively seeking to create, and participate in experiential and Nature-based Tourism. But first the definition of “experiential tourism” refers to the experience derived from any form of recreation or tourist activity. Experiential tourism encompasses all touristic experiences including, but not limited to ecotourism, nature tourism, adventure tourism, cultural and historical tourism culinary tourism, outdoor recreation, etc.

Short List of Benefits of Experiential and Nature-based tourism

- Essentially benefits every person, and entity involved.
- Diversity of activities and possibilities nearly unlimited.
- Developed properly highlights the best of nature/people/history/culture.
- Establishes and fosters a connection between people and between people and nature.
- Stimulates creativity for providers and participants.
- Fosters cooperation, between people, businesses, communities, etc.
- Connects kids, families and everyone involved in the process.
- Nature tourism is inherently educational, and experiential which assures impact.
- For communities and society if done in a diversified and cooperative fashion distributes “risk” both economic and for environmental impacts.
- For the providers, if done thoughtfully, it does not require a great deal of capital to get started.


It may seem ironic, but with creative and sensible development of Internet based support, incredible possibilities and potentials open up. Developing these possibilities has been the author’s primary aim since about 1997. A very short list of benefits includes:

- Creating regional and community network(s) creates a multiplicity of benefits for communities, providers, collaborators and participants.

- Creates the ways that the whole spectrum of businesses (providers, attractions, accommodations, services) can cooperate.
- The tourism industry is riddled with the “competitive” mindset, from agencies or NGOs that are supporting it, to businesses. This approach works against the industry, and the Internet provides the ways to overcome this “old school” mentality of competition and helps people move to the creative mind.
- Online resources provide a way for organizations, businesses, associations and people to “pool” their often limited resources to more effectively realize and benefit from their opportunities.

Some Inherent Benefits and the Case Study of a Rancher Provider

The process of developing experiential and nature-based tourism inherently educates and inspires the people doing it (providers and participants) to become more environmentally conscious. This addresses the #1 concern in the world, in the author’s opinion, of connecting people with Gaia and awakening their Spirit. This then leads to more conscientious creation, which leads to the people finding their passion and then the realization that they can participate in more enjoyable activities, both for their work and leisure.

Whether we admit it or not, people love to talk about themselves. People love to tell their stories, what they love, what their experiences have been, their connections to their place, their family and ancestors. The “story of people and places” is the essence of experiential tourism.

Creating natural, cultural or historical based tourism enhances ways to keep family ties strong. Practically every human longs to keep family ties strong. Fathers and mothers want their children to come home after a time away. And fathers want their children to appreciate their work, and possibly continue the family legacy. But experiential and nature-based tourism have qualities that are very special. There is a magical quality that is derived when people desire to create quality experiences - to share the best of their lives, to connect people to nature, especially people who have not had the opportunity or been taught how to appreciate the beauty, wonder and inherent magic of the natural world. Children today have experienced an unsettling disconnect to the natural world. The distraction of bombarding technologies, super stimulation from television, video games, cell phones, etc. have caused most to be unaware of nature. But nature beckons us to re-connect them to her, to create opportunities to spend time in nature. At the same time that the quiet, mystical connection is made to Gaia, an opportunity arises for them to reconnect to themselves too.

Working with farmers and ranchers in Texas I imagined creating the possibility of a rancher, who might have been was previously disconnected from the backdrop of beauty of his property, to become aware. To awaken to the genuine privilege that he has had to live and work in nature. During the process of developing a quality experience, he would learn more about conservation and protection of the environment, animals and plants. Then he would create a unique experience based upon his life experience and passion. Then he could decide that one of his audiences would be underprivileged children from inner-city Houston. All that would be necessary to make this happen would be for the rancher to connect up with a science of geography teacher and then to arrange transportation to his ranch. During this process, the rancher would be the harbinger of great, and beautiful impacts on the children that got to experience what he created. This would be so easily accomplished and was one of the “dreamed of” outcomes of the Texas Education Vacation initiative, a project of the Texas Travel Industry Association back in 2005.

Supporting and Educating Providers

Likely the best way to explain this is to describe what we were doing when we were working with landowners and rural communities in Texas. A group of concerned farmers, ranchers and community leaders came to the university with issues regarding having enough money to maintain their farms and ranches. This is a common problem. In many cases the farmers end up having a job, which essentially they do to “subsidize” their ranching and farming activities.
We began working with them and West Texas community leaders to assess ways to provide assistance to diversify their ranch and farm operations. Our approach was to assist them to add a new “business enterprise” to their operations, which is the best way to handle a new activity, or a completely new type of business. In order to assess the economic viability of a new set of operations, it is best to handle it as a “stand alone” operation. The Nature Tourism Guidebook: Evaluating Enterprise Opportunities, was the final product of this process.

Now the great thing about experiential tourism (eco, heritage, agri, etc.) is that the opportunities are essentially limitless. The variables for what kind of businesses a person create are only limited by the imagination. In fact, we often used the example that you could have two families living adjacent to each other, on very similar lands, but the experience for the visitor would end up being completely different. This is because the type of product that is created depends on the personal interests of the creator, the personality of each of the people involved with providing the services, the kinds of activities being supported for the visitors, the types of accommodations, the types of outside activities that are being promoted, etc. All of these things are variables that can be used to create unique “experiences”.

The Fragmentation of Tourism Creates Confusion

There is a very important digression that needs to be introduced about how tourism has been segmented into so many “categories”, or “niches” as it is commonly called in tourism circles. This, I believe, has been one of the greatest detractors of coordinated and thoughtful tourism development. People think that “ecotourism” is a unique, exclusive experience. Of course, definitionally, it does have important aspects. However, those have all been lost as a result of mis-use of the term by un-informed “marketers” that are trying to use the “fad” of ecotourism to attract customers. All of this has resulted in great confusion in the marketplace, and a loss of the intent of ecotourism, which in its inception was noble. Now, how do you know if what you are going to find is a “real” ecotourism experience? Do we start tacking words on like “really real ecotourism”?

In fact, this type of segmentation really has caused a fragmentation in an industry that in which the “product” can be captured in one word “experience”. Stan Hodge, the state tourism statistician for Texas, just months before his passing in 2005 provided the most emphatic support of this concept when he said “the emerging trends in tourism make clear the three most important factors in the tourism industry 1) experience, 2) experience, and 3) EXPERIENCE!

So let’s look at this briefly from the participants, or tourist point of view. Except for really specialized people, who only are looking for certain kinds of experiences, and repeating those experiences (e.g. serious birders) the majority of people when they do “tourism” end up partaking of many types of tourism in one trip. For example, usually people have a main focus, or interest such as heritage or visiting a museum, but on that trip they are likely to also participate in other forms: “nature tourism” – any viewing of nature or taking pictures (we do this driving in our cars); “culinary tourism” most people eat while they travel, “cultural tourism” – when you enter into a region, country or place that is not your home, you are going to partake in that places culture; “shopping tourism” – almost everyone buys something when they travel, “agritourism”, almost everyone sees farms, visits a market, eats local foods and maybe even takes a tour on a farm while also on their “heritage tour”. I could go on and on with this example, I think you get the point.

This fragmentation, in my observation, has been a result of various agencies that are “missioned” to support their constituents in their specific area of responsibility (historical societies promote “heritage” and agricultural agencies promote “agritourism”). But this segmenting of the marketplace has created a great deal of confusion for entrepreneurs and communities who are uninformed about how to create quality tourism experiences. Often times they think that they are going to create a “agritourism” (or is it agrotourism, or agritainment?) product, but don’t really know what that entails, or how that fits into the greater tourism rubric. The point here, is people are mostly looking for experiences. And the provision of the best tourism experiences should be a “blending” of a variety of experiences. Providing people, who are looking for new, interesting and quality experiences, that - good, robust experiences that satisfy the whole person. This does not mean that individual providers, or businesses or organizations cannot focus on a particular specialty, or niche, it just means to see the tourism product being more comprehensive, wholistic, within the greater context of “experiences”. The best tourism provision sees that the tourist is moving through geographical space, and partaking of a variety of experiences that satisfies a variety of interests, desires and needs. Most human beings are “generalists”, with some special interests, but open to many different experiences. And generalists comprise, by far, the greater “opportunity space” for regions, communities, businesses and attractions.

By taking the perspective of a bunch “specializations” is like treating tourism experiences as a bunch of “islands” of experiences. This is not a good perspective. The best experiences, in most cases, will provide the traveler a blended experience. Taking care of the whole person is the key. The tourism providers, whether it is the community, individual businesses, or other organizations should pay special attention to making good segues and connections between the experiences. This is why the best tourism is developed through a cooperative and collaborative mind-set as compared to a competitive one. The idea is to make a “big pie” which everyone contributes to, so each entity can have a nice big piece of the collective pie, instead of fighting over one tiny pie. We can see this phenomenon in how businesses “cluster” businesses such as fast food chains in cities. In tourism, this concept is called a “critical mass of attractions.” This concept is developed by what was mentioned before, moving from the competitive mindset to the creative (and thus cooperative). This philosophy or approach has been proven successful in innumerable contexts, but are also supported by such diverse people as John Nash, the Nobel Prize winner in Economics, and Wallace D. Wattles, the author of “The Science of Getting Rich”.

Diagram 1: Establishing a critical mass of attractions via coordination and technology – (example provided for Iowa)

Creating Critical Mass and Virtual Meeting Places
The Network – creating critical mass and supporting via technologies

It is a well established theory in tourism that regions are necessary to sustain a viable base of resources for attracting visitors. These principles for regionalism are now being embraced as necessary for all levels of economic development (see Rural Policy Conference hosted by the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, 2004).

We can see an even broader implication of this understanding and envision, potentially, an entire restructuring of societies. Toward that end a critical element of this process will be the utilization of technologies for forming, and facilitating these network functions. To illustrate this idea tourism can be a lead driver for this process so a “case-study” should focus on tourism. However, since tourism as an industry touches most sectors of the economy, in some form or fashion, it is easy to expand the idea of “critical mass” to the other aspects of regional and community development. The beauty of the Internet and computer software and technologies is that once the network is constructed the machine will actually coordinate, track, and monitor all activities, in perpetuity.

Diagram 1 depicts the need to establish a critical mass of attractions in order to attract more visitors and to be able to support a regional, national and international branding effort for enhancing tourism development (the map in Diagram 1 is Iowa). In addition, through the pooling of organizational, institutional and community resources, capacity building is enhanced via improvements in efficiencies and effectiveness due to improved communication and coordination.

Effective coordination is easily accommodated by utilizing Internet Communication Technologies (ICT). Due to the ease of “manifesting” and supporting “The Network” with ICT tools, we will be better able to support regional networking and collaboration. The model we employ is about cooperation and creativity rather than a competitive model. This focus results in the greatest benefits for the greatest number of people, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”.

Completing the Circle – Connecting with Gaia, and the Individual

So going back to wrap up on this idea of the benefits of nature tourism, we can see the heart of the matter is about life experiences. One of my earliest realizations in my professional career in Leisure, and outdoor recreation, I realized that there has been a disconnect between people and the natural world. In fact, my earliest recognition of my “mission” or purpose came to me in about 1987. I have written an essay about this experience so I won’t go into detail here. However, in a nutshell, the insight came to me that my job in this world was to help people get access to the natural world, and quality experiences, so that an opportunity was created for the Spirit of nature to touch people’s hearts. In this process people can become awakened to the importance of our absolutely, interdependent relationship with the Earth and nature, or the living Spirit of the world named Gaia.