Some of southern B.C.’s smallest provincial parks get the most love on Instagram, raising fears the social media platform is contributing to overcrowding and damage to parks. Yet those same posts might lead to more effective park planning and management, according to research.
A Postmedia analysis of hashtags on Instagram for popular south coast parks show that for some parks, the number of “likes” and comments for a park’s hashtag is a strong predictor of attendance.
That matches with research conducted by Spencer Wood, a senior research scientist at the eScience Institute for Data Discovery at the University of Washington and with the National Capital Project at Stanford University. Wood and his team have been using statistical models to study the role of social media in motivating people to get outdoors.
“There are correlations between the number of (social media) posts that get shared in a place and the number of people who visit a place,” said Wood. ”People are certainly going to sites to get some iconic photo.”
Wood said that talking about a park online does increase its popularity but that those sorts of effects have been happening for decades with print media.
Postmedia‘s analysis found that along the Sea to Sky Highway, Garibaldi, Stawamus Chief and Joffre Lakes showed some of the strongest correlation between ”likes“ and attendance, even when controlling for distance from urban centres and population growth. For other parks along the route, such as Narin or Bridal Veil falls, there was only moderate or no correlation.
Wood said the motivations driving park attendance are complex and differ by site. Changing demographics mean certain types of experiences are more popular than others and population growth means there are more people using the same amount of space.
“At some sites, it’s just a coincidence,” he said. “People are sharing their experience on Instagram but it’s probably not what’s driving people to the site. At other sites, we think yes, it is the publicity that’s driving people to the site. But neither is a guarantee.”
Josie Heisig, an influencer marketing specialist with Destination B.C., a Crown corporation that co-ordinates provincial tourism marketing, agrees the link between social media and increased visitation isn’t cut and dried.
“It’s hard to directly say that someone will book a trip because they’ve seen one Instagram post,” she said, “but it definitely leads to that path of them booking a trip.”
Destination B.C. has a front-seat view of social media’s explosive potential. In 2013, the company kicked off a promotional campaign using the hashtag #explorebc. This past B.C. Day long weekend, the hashtag surpassed five million uses on Instagram.
One of the most popular #explorebc posts showed a humpback whale breaching just metres from the dock at a lodge north of Port Hardy. Shot in 2018, the video has been viewed more than 48 million times across various platforms. The week following the post, which was amplified through Destination B.C. channels, business at the lodge shot up more than 1300 per cent with bookings being as far out as 2020.
“For the Great Bear Lodge, there was a direct number of bookings and inquiries after the video was posted,” said Heisig. “That’s one where we can see the direct correlation.”
Wood, who has done work with the U.S. Forest Service, said that a sudden boost in attendance can be a problem for sites that aren’t ready for it. As in B.C., many parks in the U.S. that used to hold visitors without trouble are struggling with overcrowding and providing services to visitors.
Wood and his team developed a dashboard of social media and other measures the U.S. Forest Service and others can use to determine which sites are the most popular and what new types of opportunities they need to be developing.
Social media data is improving the ability to make decisions about where to provide new opportunities, improve accessibility and focus ecological restoration, said Wood. It’s a way to help determine “what sort of policies and plans we should be making in order to improve people’s access to the outdoors.”
Hashtag data was collected from the Instagram API using hashtag searches by park name (i.e.: ”#joffrelakes“ and ”joffrelakesprovincialpark“). Park visitor estimates were provided by B.C. Parks. Parks were selected based on the number of visitors in 2018 and their distance from Lower Mainland municipalities.
A correlation coefficient (R) was calculated using the number of Instagram ”likes“ for related hashtags and park attendance data for each year from 2010 to 2018 in order to estimate the relationship between ”likes” and attendance at each park.