Planning for tourism in protected areas. Public participation is critical.

The planning process consists of the steps to be gone through in preparing a plan, which usually involves much public participation and debate at all stages.

Each park and protected area needs a plan that describes how tourism and associated development will be managed. The plan represents the desired future state or condition of the protected area and the most efficient and equitable path to that future. Such a plan details the specific goals and objectives mandated for the area in its founding legislation, decree or government policy, describes the objectives for tourism development, and specifies the management actions, budgeting, financing and park zoning needed to achieve those goals. In a sense, park plans for managing tourism attempt to maximize the benefits of tourism while minimising its costs. Tourism policies are an important component of the overall document, sometimes called a management plan.

In the distant past, protected area management planning tended to be ad hoc: often, individual developments took place without an overall policy structure or goal. As the limitations of this approach became apparent, one large plan, typically called a master plan, was developed, following the approach used in city master planning. There was a reaction in the 1980s towards a more streamlined approach, with a strategic statement of goals, policies and actions, sometimes based on a “visioning exercise”. In many quarters these documents became known as management plans. In the 1990s, in a search for still greater simplicity, the concept of management plans was in some cases slimmed down to mere policy statements. Despite these developments in practice, the importance of management planning has grown over time and, increasingly, many protected area agencies are required by law or policy directives to produce and follow management plans of some kind.

My own group now typically recommends at least three management plans (a Park Management Plan, a Wildlife Management Plan and a Tourism Management Plan) which together constitute a Park Master Plan.

It is important in designing a planning process to adopt a procedure that is understandable, defensible, where decisions can be traced and where the value judgements inherent in protected area planning are made explicit. Most of all, it is essential that all stakeholders are appropriately involved in the process. Making management decisions about tourism in protected areas is not easy; it involves not only protected area managers but also affected citizens, including the local public, visitors, private operators and scientists.

To ensure that each group can contribute its different type of knowledge to decision making, it is essential to establish a public participation programme, which may be modest or comprehensive, depending upon the needs.

Protected area-based tourism has many stakeholders. Each group has its own particular values and objectives – its own “culture”. This complex mosaic of stakeholder interests makes constant demands upon park management and planners.

Successful planning generally involves all groups in such a way that each can contribute constructively to the various components of the process, and thus feel “ownership” of the plan. The entire decision-making process must be designed for stakeholder involvement throughout, not just added on to the process, after the fact.

Consensus-building is needed for acceptance, so that public resources can be allocated to implement the plan or measures taken to manage and sometimes restrict public use of the protected area. Therefore, developing a stakeholder participation programme is an important element of success.

Each participation programme should be designed to meet the specific needs of the situation, rather than imposing a pre-determined methodology that may have worked well in other conditions. It is important too to avoid tokenism: managers should not tell the stakeholders they want their involvement, and then only budget two weeks for it.

This will lose credibility for the whole project. Managers should also explain decision making and the planning process in simple, everyday language.

Here are some simple guidelines for a Public Participation Process:

Phase 1

Early involvement

  • Consult informally to determine the major issues raised.
  • Estimate level of public interest, and the most likely stakeholders.
  • Identify key individuals.
Phase 2

Initial planning

  • Chart agency’s decision-making process.
  • Identify stakeholders and publics.
  • Determine information exchange needs.
  • Clarify public involvement objectives.
Phase 3

Development of a public participation programme

  • Choose detailed methods of stakeholder involvement.
  • Establish internal agency communications.
  • Commit resources.
  • Schedule and assign work.
Phase 4

Implement the programme

  • Carry out the programme.
  • Monitor the public involvement programme.
  • Evaluate the results of involvement.
Phase 5

Post decision public participation

  • Develop post decision requirements (at the least notify public of decision, and how their comments were used).
  • Implement as required.

Lorton Consulting, along with our professional associates, have extensive experience in the development of wildlife and nature based tourism and the related facilitation of host community participation and beneficiation. Contact us if you need help with tourism planning for a protected area.


  1. Great article. I work in Mongolia and have designed and teach a course at the National University of Mongolia on Tourism and Protected Areas over the last eight years. I’ll use this article in the next course. As a final exam group project my students must create a theoretical tourism management plan for a perk of their choice.

    However, PA management planning here is still in its early stages. Plans are created quickly with little public input. Too many donor organizations support this, with the result being poorly written plans that are not actionable. As a consultant for PA management, it’s an up hill battle.

    Would like to get email notices of any future articles on the subject.

    • Darryl Lombard

      Hi Keith. Happy that you found the piece useful. I’m fascinated by the work you are doing in Mongolia. Great stuff. I don’t really have an e-mail update service so suggest you just visit the site from time to time. I have mountains of stuff waiting to be written, but as a practicing consultant I am extremely busy (and often in the field) and I simply don’t have enough time to write. Maybe this year I will achieve a better balance!

Leave a Reply