Authors: Isabella Smith, Eleanor Velasquez , Patrick Norman , Catherine Pickering
Publisher: Journal of Outdoor Recreation and Tourism
Although the popularity of protected areas for recreation has been increasing, short term changes in visitation occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic. To examine how volunteer geographic information data can be used to monitor such often rapid changes in visitation across multiple locations, data from online fitness platforms for mountain biking (Trailforks) and remote area hiking (Wikiloc) were analysed before (2019) and during (2020–2021) the COVID-19 pandemic for 40 protected areas in Queensland, Australia. Mountain biking was popular with a total of 93,311 routes on Trailforks, with 26,936 routes in 2019, increasing to 37,406 in 2020, and then decreasing to 28,969 in 2021. Approximately 66% of all the routes were from just three urban protected areas out of the 12 with route data. There were 4367 routes for remote area hiking on Wikiloc across 36 protected areas, which increased slightly from 1081 in 2019, to 1421 in 2020 and to 1865 in 2021. Across 18 factors, distance from urban areas and networks of mountain biking trails best predicted popularity for mountain biking based on Generalised Linear Models. In contrast, average slope and large networks of hiking trails best predicted hiking, with similar results for each year. The two sources of online data were correlated with trail counter data, although not consistently. The results highlight how external factors affect visitation, but also how the same types of protected areas remained popular, and that the impacts of COVID-19 pandemic on visitation in South-East Queensland protected areas was less dramatic than for other regions. This study further highlights how volunteered geographic information can be used to assess the popularity of protected areas, including in rapidly changing conditions.
Rapid changes in visitation can be challenging to monitor and manage, as occurred with the COVID-19 pandemic. The impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on mountain biking and hiking and factors predicting protected area popularity were examined across different parks. Visitation increased at different stages of the pandemic, with mountain bikers’ preferring urban parks with networks of mountain bike trails while some hikers preferred more remote large parks. Managers can expand on traditional methods of visitor monitoring by using volunteered geographic information to monitor rapid and longer-term trends of visitation to protected areas.