Saturday, July 20 is Parks Day in Canada, an annual event marked by fun and activities at many of the country’s parks and historical sites.
But before heading out for a picnic or camping adventure, Brock University Geography and Tourism Studies Professor Dave Fennell is urging visitors to do a bit of homework and become familiar with the places they’re headed.
He points out that most parks and historical sites post plenty of information online, including codes of ethics and regulations visitors are expected to respect.
“It’s incumbent upon us as individuals to fill in that gap of knowledge before we get to these places,” says Fennell.
Unfortunately, he says, not everyone obeys the rules. He has seen some parks where trees have no lower branches because people have ripped them off to make a campfire. Exposed tree roots, hardened campsites and water quality issues are further indicators of overuse.
“There just doesn’t seem to be the respect and responsibility there ought to be,” he says. “Don’t be an ugly tourist. Be a responsible tourist.”
Fennell’s message isn’t just for the adults.
“This respect for nature is something you can pass on to your children,” he says.
The problem with tourism is what he calls the “all about me” attitude. People who spend lots of time and money travelling to a destination can get annoyed when park regulations seem to get in the way of their fun. But, he says, “it’s not really about them, it’s about the natural world.”
According to Fennell, a combination of active and passive management strategies is often necessary for people to get the message. That means education as well as enforced regulations.
Algonquin Provincial Park, for example, uses a permit system.
“You have to register to use one of the campsites on the lakes because there are just too many people wanting to use these places,” he says.
Fennell, one of the first people in the world to study ecotourism at the graduate level, describes ecotourism as an attitude and an ethic about how to approach the natural world.
In 1988, amendments were made to Canada’s Natural Parks Act that prioritized ecological integrity above use.
Now, unlike the square parks of the past, new national parks are built on the basis of ecosystem management and according to the integrity of the natural world.
Canada is trying to establish at least one park in each of its 39 unique physiographic regions and 29 marine regions.
“We’re doing a much better job with the terrestrial system than we are with the marine system,” Fennell says.
By visiting these protected areas, are tourists making things worse? Fennell says not necessarily.
“With parks and protected areas, you always have to balance use with preservation,” he says. “That’s why the way we plan, develop and manage these places becomes really important. The management has to be innovative and very site-specific.”
Canada has always been a model of park management for the rest of the world, says Fennell, but it still faces challenges.
“Our parks are in a difficult state right now,” he says. “It costs a lot of money to make sure our parks and historical monuments are in good shape from an infrastructure standpoint.”
Managed properly, ecotourism can attract visitors and generate revenue, not only for the ecotour operators and local businesses, but also for conservation and the upkeep of places.
Fennell’s biggest piece of advice is to get out and enjoy what Ontario and Canada have to offer.
“There’s so much here we should be proud of and that we need to take care of for the future,” he says. “These are really special places. They’re the crown jewels in Canada.”
Visit the Parks Canada website for more information on Parks Day activities and places to visit in Ontario or across the country.