Exploring Visitors' Perceptions of the Trail Environment and their Effects on Experiences in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

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Title: Exploring Visitors' Perceptions of the Trail Environment and their Effects on Experiences in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Author: Dorwart, Catherine Elisabeth
Advisors: Dr. Roger Moore, Committee Co-Chair
Dr. Lee-Anne Milburn, Committee Member
Dr. Karla Henderson, Committee Member
Dr. Yu-Fai Leung, Committee Co-Chair
Abstract: Park and natural resource managers are charged with a dual mission, to protect natural resources for future generations and to provide for the appropriate public enjoyment of these resources. A significant component of this responsibility involves understanding visitors' experiences. Various techniques for collecting data have been used to explore and understand park and trail visitors' perceptions and experiences. One of the more applied techniques developed to explore visitor preference and perception, which has been used successfully in the outdoor recreation field, is visitor-employed photography (VEP). VEP is a visual technique that takes a camera out of the researcher's hands and places it into the control of the visitor (participant). Due to VEP's potential for assessing what people find important, it was employed in this qualitative study to examine visitors' perceptions and to determine how their perceptions affected overall recreation experiences along a 2.9-mile segment of the Appalachian Trail (AT) in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GRSM). A purposive sample of n=33 visitors was selected for this study. The study consisted of two parts: a visitor employed photography (VEP) exercise and a post-hike interview. Data analyses involved constant comparison (photo logs and interviews) and content analysis (photos). In addition, enumerative strategies were used to supplement the descriptive data. Analysis of the photographs (n=274) and photograph logs (n=33) found that participants noticed both negative and positive aspects of the trail environment. In addition, 83% of the pictures taken contained attributes that visitors liked and 17% of the pictures contained attributes that were disliked. Five perceptual themes emerged — nature-oriented details, scenic values, management influences, presence of other people, and depreciative behavior. However, from analysis of the transcribed interviews I found that noticing these elements did not detract significantly from the participants' overall outdoor experiences. In conclusion, this method has great potential in understanding visitors' perceptions and experiences in outdoor recreation settings and guiding future visitor behavior research.
Date: 2007-06-15
Degree: PhD
Discipline: Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management
URI: http://www.lib.ncsu.edu/resolver/1840.16/4723

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