Exploring Tourist Experiences, Risk Perceptions and the Role of Social Media Within Close Encounters With Marine Wildlife in the South Pacific
Pagel, Chantal Denise
One or more files will be made publicly available from 2023-11-15.
MetadataShow full metadata
Over the past two decades, wildlife tourism has experienced a noticeable shift from passive and distant observations towards highly interactive close encounters between tourists and wild animals. This is particularly evident in the realm of marine wildlife tourism, with the growth of commercial swim-with programmes which target a range of large marine animals. These close in-water interactions are potentially dangerous for humans who are in an unfamiliar marine setting and who have little experience in, or understanding of, the risks associated with such encounters. The behaviour of tourists in the water is likely influenced by the pursuit of ‘visual trophies’ for sharing via social media channels. More specifically, the trend of the ‘wildlife selfie’, which requires close proximity to often large and unpredictable animal species, is gaining popularity, and may contribute to risks to safety and to harassment of wildlife. This study explores the influence of social media and image capture on perceptions of risk emerging from close in-water interactions between tourists and wildlife. This exploratory qualitative research focused on three different marine wildlife species at three different commercial swim-with-wildlife settings in the South Pacific region. It adopted a constructivist approach, using semi-structured, in-depth interviews as the main research instrument. Marine wildlife tourists’ perceptions regarding their motivations, experience and skill, risk and safety, and the influence of social media were sought. A total of 68 interviews were completed with participants from swim-with-humpback-whales tours in Niue, swim-with-New-Zealand-fur-seals tours in New Zealand and dive-with-bull-sharks tours in Fiji. Additional information was obtained from interviews with each of the local tour operators, who provided insights into the client-operator relationship, as well as operator perspectives on risk factors and the influence of social media. Thematic analysis of the data revealed nine comprehensive themes, seven related to the perception-based realities of tour participants and two derived from the opinions of tour operators. Tour participants’ perceptions of risk were found to be multi-faceted, with aspects that were psychological, physical, visual, social and environmental. Social media was identified as an essential communication tool used to share experiences on multiple levels. At the same time, tourists perceived picture-taking (including wildlife selfies) as distracting, and identified animal welfare as a key concern. For tour operators, non-compliance with guidelines and regulations induced by photo-taking behaviour, as well as risks associated with factors such as clients’ undiagnosed medical conditions, emerged as important issues. This research proposes a theoretical model (SWARM) to explain the complex interrelationships in the different stages of the swim-with marine wildlife experience. This model also suggests protocols and procedures that can foster safer and more sustainable interactions between tourists and marine wildlife in swim-with contexts. Protocols include the development and application of precautionary measures such as comprehensive briefings, the provision of skilled guides and the monitoring of the constructed human-wildlife relationship in the 21st century media landscape.