Saudi Residents’ Perceptions of Protected Areas

Introduction

Today, protected areas provide unique opportunities for people to preserve the biological, cultural, and historical value of certain areas. With the recent popularization of ecotourism all over the world, protected areas became increasingly popular with international visitors and eco-tourists. Protected areas are usually bright and eye-catching, and have a long history, all of which makes them especially appealing to tourists. They become the sources of extraordinary experiences (Farber & Hall, 2007), which is why they are an excellent source of financial support to the local economy. For instance, protected areas can stimulate visitor expenditure in the area and provide jobs for the local people (Conner & Gilligan, 2003). Preserving protected areas is crucial, and one of the most significant forces in this process is the local community. Andrade and Rhodes (2012) state that cooperation with local people is inevitable and crucial to carrying out an effective conservation project. Creating a thorough approach to preserving the area in cooperation with the residents would allow land managers to increase the effectiveness of conservation projects, erase the possible obstacles to managing, and enhance the value of the protected areas, therefore maintaining and increasing the benefits they provide. This paper aims to explore the perception of protected areas by residents by analyzing peer-reviewed journal articles on the topic.

Global Impact of Protected Areas

Black and Cobbinah (2016) claim that “The establishment of protected areas is an accepted means of achieving biodiversity conservation and associated tourism development” (p. 1). However, the importance of protected areas for local communities all over the world is often not considered by the members of the general public (Appiah-Opoku, 2011), which may affect the people’s engagement with the conservation initiatives, as well as the visitation of parks. Conner and Gilligan (2003) state that protected areas “play a vital role in protecting cultural and natural heritage, and provide opportunities for informal recreation, education, and spiritual wellbeing” (p. 2). However, protected areas can also carry various economic benefits: as Mian, Khan, and Baten (2012) note, parks can offer a variety of community services, including education programs and training, as well as jobs for the residents. Through their study of the communities surrounding the Madhupur National Park, the researchers show that for people who live closer to the protected area, most of the household income comes from park activities (Mian et al., 2012). Nevertheless, certain factors may affect the people’s engagement in the maintenance of protected areas, thus either reducing or promoting its socio-economic benefits for the community.

Factors Affecting Residents’ Attitudes

Residents’ perceptions of protected areas are largely influenced by the visitation rates (Moyle & Weiter, 2017), which is why it is important to understand the theoretical foundation of the factors affecting people’s visitation and engagement patterns.

One of the main reasons for poor visitation and engagement is poor management of the protected area. For instance, in a study performed by Hung and Crompton (2006) in an urban park, the results showed that people were less likely to visit the park due to poor park maintenance. The same principle can be applied to national parks and other protected areas: factors like low hygiene and illicit behavior in the park are likely to restrain the residents, especially the members of the elderly population, from participating in the park’s activities. Thapa (2012) agrees that the fear for personal safety affects both the international visitors’ and residents’ desire to visit the park. Another important adverse factor indicated in Thapa’s (2012) study is the presence of environmental structural constraints, which had a more significant influence on domestic visitors.The participants of the survey identified that factors such as the lack of information about the park and its activities, poor weather, the crowding of the park, as well poor conditions of roads to and within the protected area were among the factors that negatively affected visitation rates (Thapa, 2012). Further implications may be caused by the lack of communication with the park authorities and the low availability of activities (Muderrisoglu, Oguz, & Sensoy, 2010).

Moore et al. (2010) explain that the location of the park is important. For example, the closeness of the park to the place of residence can promote regular visitation (Moore et al., 2010). The study also indicated the influence of social and demographic characteristics of the local population on visitation rates. For instance, Moore et al. (2010) discovered that older adults who were actively engaged in leisure activities and hobbies, as well as religious activities, were more likely to visit the park than those who were not. Similarly, high community involvement and good connections between neighbors increased the people’s desire to visit the park: “Individuals who had stronger informal connections to neighbors represented through their willingness to provide a ride, watch over another place, spend time with a neighbor, or discuss important matters with them, were more likely to use parks than those without those connections” (Moore et al., 2010, p. 333). On the other hand, involvement with political parties, neighborhood associations, and environmental groups decreased the likeliness of park visits in the population of the same age (Moore et al., 2010). Age composition of the community, researchers claim, can also affect local visitation rates. For example, in communities with large youth populations, park engagement of older adults decreased with age (Moore et al., 2010). Age differences can also influence people’s opinions about parks. For example, Moyle and Weiter (2017) found that the attitudes of “respondents who were over 30 years of age were more positive than respondents under 30 years of age, especially concerning the societal/community-wide benefits of parks” (p. 98).

Involvement in park activities can also be influenced by government regulations because a large number of protected areas were established through a top-down approach (Andrade & Rhodes, 2012). In this scheme, the participation of the local community is limited by the government’s regulations. For instance, Andrade and Rhodes (2012) explain that in some cases, “communities are forbidden from extracting natural resources that are important for their livelihoods, and in many instances, traditional communities are removed from their lands with little consultation or adequate compensation” (p. 14). Furthermore, such a system hurts the residents’ willingness to support various activities that may be vital to the park, such as conservation efforts. According to Andrade and Rhodes (2012), there are many cases where the protected area policies were ignored by the local communities, thus affecting the implementation of conservation strategies.

Assessment of Residents’ Perception of Protected Areas

Europe

Ciocanea, Sorescu, Ianosi, and Bagrinovischi (2016) assess the public’s perception of the Iron Gates Natural Park in the southwest of Romania. The establishment of the park was part of the European environmental initiative aimed at the conservation and preservation of endangered species (Ciocanea et al., 2016). The researchers state that for the success of such large-scale conservation projects, it is crucial to acknowledge and educate the public on the process, as well as to ensure that the public is widely accepting of the initiative (Ciocanea et al., 2016). If these requirements are not met, the project may result in conflicts with the local community, which would affect the effectiveness of the practice (Ciocanea et al., 2016). The organization responsible for the management of the Iron Gates Park belongs to the public sector, whereas the regulations on the maintenance and use of the park are established by the National Forest Administration (Ciocanea et al., 2016). These characteristics show that the community is not actively involved in the decision-making process concerning the park and the conservation efforts. Indeed, even though the study revealed that 98% of respondents viewed nature protection as important due to its health and welfare benefits and 89.8% considered environmental protection among their daily priorities, their level of information about the park’s management was relatively low (Ciocanea et al., 2016). The lack of information did not affect the public’s perception of the area: “80.3% realize that protected area is an advantage of the entire region due to tourism opportunities, conservation activities of flora and fauna and landscape protection” (Ciocanea et al., 2016, p. 76). However, it may be one of the causes for the residents’ low involvement with environmental activities, which is only 30%, and their poor compliance with the regulations: the general public was largely unaware of the protected conservation areas within the park and on the regulations that govern activities in these areas (Ciocanea et al., 2016).

Nastran (2015) explores the people’s perception of a Slovenian protected area. The researcher states that “There has been a shift in the last decades from perceiving protected areas (PAs) as patches of unspoiled nature towards them being perceived as sustainable human living spaces” (Nastran, 2015, p. 38), which is another reason for actively involving the public in their management. In the case of the Kamnisko-Savinjske Alps Regional Park in designation, the Slovenian people were afraid of the initiative, as they received little support and information from local authorities (Nastran, 2015). They believed that “t additional restrictions in park management will result in a decline of agriculture, forestry, and small crafts” (Nastran, 2015, pp. 41-42). The distrust towards the park’s management is mainly caused by the fact that the management of other protected areas rarely considered the interests of residents, which led to bad experiences in the past (Nastran, 2015). Overall, both cases are examples of how the government’s failure to address the local populations by providing information and protecting their interests can impair the success of the environmental initiative, even when the general perceptions of the protected area are positive.

South Asia

For the management and decision-making processes surrounding the protected areas in South Asia, local communities are among the key concerns due to a high population density in the region (Karanth & Nepal, 2012). Nevertheless, the study proves that these concerns may not affect the policy-making in the areas, leading to negative attitudes towards the management of the protected areas. In general, in the study of protected areas in India and Nepal, the majority of the residents held positive opinions on the existence of parks and conservation efforts (Karanth & Nepal, 2012). Local people were aware of the benefits that these areas carried for the community, identifying an increase in tourism and access to resources, as well as the preservation of wildlife plants, and animal species, as being very important reasons for their establishment (Karanth & Nepal, 2012). Nevertheless, their attitude towards the sites’ management was less favoring. For instance, in India, there was a high level of conflict with the Indian PA staff, particularly due to the issues of crop loss and human safety (Karanth & Nepal, 2012). Moreover, “Residents in the Indian PAs (KNP and RNP) reported dissatisfaction with restrictions placed on access to PA resources and the resulting loss of economic opportunities” (Karanth & Nepal, 2012, p. 384). Both problems are because the interests of the public were not adequately addressed by the policymakers. For example, compensation schemes for crop losses were ineffective, while the restrictions on access to resources caused economic losses among the residents (Karanth & Nepal, 2012). The researchers agree that these issues hurt the conservation initiatives as they limit the public’s engagement (Karanth & Nepal, 2012).

Africa

The South African region was home to many conflicts between the government and local people with relation to national park management. For instance, despite the policy provisions to implement participatory processes in the management of the park, the authorities of the Tsitsikamma National Park, South Africa refused active participation to residents, which resulted in open opposition between the two forces (Watts & Faasen, 2009). Nevertheless, Black and Cobbinah (2016) argue that there has been a visible development in the relationship between the protected area managers and the local communities in recent years: “recent thinking indicates a gradual recognition of local communities’ role in the establishment and management of protected” (p. 2). International regulations, particularly the Convention on Biological Diversity, have encouraged the policymakers to consider local communities in the decision-making process, for instance, by incentivizing them to support the conservation and management of protected areas (Black & Cobbinah, 2016). In South Africa, some of the initiatives that were aimed at improving the quality of life in local communities, as well as encouraging residents’ participation in conservation were quite efficient (Black & Cobbinah, 2016). For instance, researchers found that the majority of respondents living in the areas near Chobe National Park and the Ngoma Safari Lodge in Botswana held positive views towards the conservation enterprises (Black & Cobbinah, 2016).

Middle East

Even though most of the initiatives for nature protection in regions with low access to resources become a cause of conflict between the indigenous people and the government, the management plan in Saint Katherine Protectorate, Egypt, was to promote the coexistence of the local people, tourists, and biodiversity (Grainger, 2003). From the beginning of the project, the government accepted the fact that, although local communities access to resources will be somewhat limited by the conservation, people “should be entitled to share tangible benefits from the management of the protectorate to offset such costs and ensure their support” (Grainger, 2003, p. 34). The project team was designed to include local Bedouin Rafiq, who had a significant influence on the plan: Drawing on local knowledge and tribal law, the Bedouins came up with suggestions for integrating local resource needs into the management of the protectorate and plans to balance relations among themselves and with the growing numbers of tourists” (Grainger, 2003, p. 35). The requests included an increased number of jobs, provision of electricity and pest control, as well as manual help with agriculture and wells (Grainger, 2003). The cooperation also gave rise to Bedouin ecotourism, which promoted the flow of international visitors, while at the same time facilitating the conservation efforts (Grainger, 2003). Therefore, this case is an example of how cooperation between the public and private sectors can result in benefits for all the stakeholders.

Discussion and Conclusion

Overall, the research showed no significant differences like issues affecting the management of protected areas in developed and developing countries. However, there were still variations in the ways that the government handled these problems. In Romania and Slovenia, which are part of the European Union, the management struggles resulted from the failure of the government to include the residents in the decision-making process, as well as to provide sufficient information on the development of protected areas and their management schemes. There is no evidence of the policymakers attempting to address the conflicts in these areas. Similarly, in South Africa, the refusal of the government to address the people living in the area of the Tsitsikamma National Park led to “poor relationships between the local people and the management of the park” (Watts & Faasen, 2009, p. 25). On the other hand, in the majority of developing countries examined, including Egypt, Rwanda, and Botswana, the management teams were able to address the needs of the local populations, thus reducing the negative experiences and promoting active involvement of the residents in the conservation and ecotourism projects held in the areas. People usually expect that developed countries are better at management and cooperation with the stakeholders than the developing ones, so why would there be such a difference between the countries’ approaches and the results yielded? One possible answer is that people living in developing areas have an increased dependence on natural resources, which is why imposing restrictions on land use without concerning the interests of the local populations would lead to an uproar among the communities and affect the management of the area in ways that are worse than non-involvement or negative opinion. Another reason may be the countries’ struggle for development, which includes both economic and social aspects. A negative relationship between the government and the people in any area of the country would affect its rate of development; however, in the case of protected area management, poor cooperation may lead to financial losses, for instance, if the people try to impair the conservation projects funded by the government. In general, this variation in the approaches of developed and developing countries creates a significant area of interest for future research. For instance, it would be useful to determine and analyze the factors that affect the government’s perception of the need for cooperation with residents.

All in all, maintaining positive residents’ attitudes towards the protected areas is crucial to ensuring the effectiveness of the conservation initiatives. There are a lot of factors that impair the residents’ perceptions of the park; however, the majority of these can be eliminated if the local communities are involved in the decision-making process. Not only will the engagement of the local people ensure their satisfaction, but it can also provide new opportunities for the development of tourism and will have an overall positive effect on the protected area.

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