Wherever humans and the natural environment meet, there’s often a trade-off…and nature almost always comes off second-best.

But now wilderness areas are being measured against a different set of values, and this can guide how tourism authorities service and promote our national parks.

“Traditional economics and policies look at what people do and what they buy to indicate what they want and need, but that doesn’t capture a lot of the other values that people have,” said Dr Dugald Tinch, an environmental economist at the Tasmanian School of Business and Economics.

These so-called 'non-use' values can be associated with the impact that our choices have downstream. For example, if you knew that certain trainers were being made by children in a sweatshop, would you still buy them? 

The pros and cons

The ‘ecosystem services’ approach that Dr Tinch uses in his work considers a range of values, including non-use values and option values, which people gain from access to an environment with a healthy ecosystem.

Option values describe the value people derive from having the option to use something or visit a place, even if they don’t necessarily follow through on that. This also extends to the action of preserving an environment for future generations to enjoy.

If you asked people in the Tasmanian public if they value certain wilderness areas of their state, many would undoubtedly say yes, even if they’ve not actually visited them.

Dr Tinch wants to compare these ‘untouched’ areas to more popular sites to see if they are being devalued by overcrowding, or enhanced by better visitor facilities and services.

“I’m trying to map the quality of the environment around Tasmania and link this to whether this influences where people are actually visiting,” he explains.

“Is there a connection, or is it about something else, like the facilities? And what does this imply for whether we should be providing more tourism facilities?”

Dr Tinch says it’s only possible to capture these non-market values by surveying the public to find out what makes for a positive or negative experience.

The main technique he uses for this is called choice experimentation. This involves surveys that break down the overall environmental quality into different levels of attributes, with a choice of trade-offs between them.

“That’s the area I mainly work in – fully identifying all the different values and how they interact. This shows where the trade-off is.

“In terms of the environment, someone might say the paths are brilliant, the toilet facilities are amazing, the reception is fully staffed, and there are lots of guides out there to give you information – but it’s still very crowded,” said Dr Tinch.

“Or a place might be less crowded, but you’ve got more of a walk, the path isn’t great, the toilets are dirty, or the area around it has been burnt off.

Where is the trade-off? What would you be willing to give up for less crowds?”

What the public wants

Overcrowding is beginning to become an issue at many recreation and tourism sites throughout Tasmania, so Dr Tinch has approval from the Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service to run surveys at various sites on the east coast.

He’s also investigating the idea that a visitor's sense of utility – the satisfaction derived from the consumption of a product or service – varies according to where they are.

So, you might get a lot of utility at that moment when you’re sitting on a beach admiring the sunset, but when you’re in the busy car park and you’re asked how much you like the beach, your response might not be as positive.

Dr Tinch’s research counters this effect by having people do the same survey while in at a lookout and then later in the car park.

If having 150 other people at a lookout lowers the value of an experience, then this can indicate to policy-makers that the issue needs to be addressed.

Are we causing problems with crowding because of the way we’re marketing a location? And can we manage it with pricing?

“The idea is that we’re trying to directly identify what the public wants by giving their preferences a value. When you can identify how important crowding is compared to all those different attributes, then you can place a value on it relative to the others, and this feeds through to policy.”

Find out about studying Business and Economics at the University of Tasmania here.

About Dr Dugald Tinch

Dr Tinch is a lecturer in Resource Economics at the Tasmanian School of Business and Economics. His recent research has been focussed in the field of ecosystem services, having worked for a number of government departments and NGOs in this field. He has an expertise on environmental valuation and marine systems. He has recently secured funding relating to Antarctica and Tasmanian tourism. He is a multidisciplinary researcher who is published in both the economics, policy and ecology literature.

View Dr Dugald Tinch's full researcher profile