Ecotourism and engagement with freshwater biodiversity
: a case study of three Scottish lochs

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy (awarded by UHI)


Ecotourism can be an effective tool for biodiversity conservation, as a way to connect people and nature though increased engagement and environmental education, with the ultimate aim to increase support for conservation, and provide benefits to local communities. It is seldom a focus in freshwater conservation research, although it could reveal important opportunities to increase public support for freshwater biodiversity and achieve conservation outcomes for underwater wildlife such as fish. This research aims to identify pathways to future shared success between ecotourism and positive engagement with underwater biodiversity. This is done by exploring people’s current engagement and perceptions of fish biodiversity in a recreational context, as well as their views on potential opportunities and challenges of freshwater ecotourism based on biodiversity, and mechanisms needed for shared success.
A case study approach focusing on three freshwater lochs in Scotland used mixed methods, including a visitor survey and semi-directed interviews, to explore the perspectives of different stakeholder groups – visitors, local communities, and conservation and tourism professionals. The critical realist and interdisciplinary approach taken in this thesis emphasises the importance of engaging with a range of people and perspectives, and results in the production of a contextual framework for engaging people with underwater biodiversity using freshwater ecotourism. Throughout the thesis, information was gathered on different layers of context (socio-cultural and environmental/physical freshwater contexts, and the place context) revealing specific challenges for freshwater ecotourism and engagement operating across different levels.
This thesis enriches our understandings of people’s perceptions of freshwater biodiversity and fish, and its implication for messaging in an ecotourism context. Awareness, knowledge, and relations associated with freshwater biodiversity are heterogeneous across stakeholders, however commonalities appear with respect to the differences of perceptions and engagement with terrestrial and underwater biodiversity, revealing challenges relating to the physicality of freshwater environments and the hidden nature of underwater species. Embodied experiences in freshwater are associated with the acquisition of knowledge and often fosters increased knowledge and awareness, as well as supportive attitudes towards conservation, but rarely involve freshwater fish, with the exception of fishing.
Mechanisms for the success of freshwater ecotourism are influenced by various layers of context, including at the environmental/physical, sociocultural, and place levels. These mechanisms are interlinked and relate to bridging the knowledge gap about freshwater fish, planning and management processes, the integration and involvement of local communities, and strategies to connect people and freshwater fish biodiversity. Covert, indirect, and generalist interpretive approaches, as well as guided experiences can increase immersion and decrease the psychological distance between people and fish. Storytelling involving local stories can benefit both people and underwater biodiversity in a recreational and tourism context. Understanding the complex interactions between people and freshwater biodiversity, and the influence of context, can assist stakeholders in collectively planning for future ecotourism initiatives in support of freshwater conservation.
Date of Award21 Oct 2023
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of the Highlands and Islands
SponsorsESF studentship
SupervisorEric Verspoor (Supervisor), Philomena De Lima (Supervisor) & Martin Francis Price (Supervisor)

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