Published 2 years ago.
About a 5 minute read.
Image: Dr. Iva Njunjić examines a specimen | Taxon Expeditions
The natural intersection of citizen science and tourism is obvious: If travelers are already participating in these activities, why not encourage deeper understanding and awareness about the natural world while also advancing scientific research?
When travelers visit Antarctica with tour operator Polar
Latitudes, they do more than kayak
past glacial ice dating back 30,000 years and capture picture-perfect moments
with the help of professional photography coaches. Many also make meaningful
contributions to long-term and ongoing research by tracking whales and
collecting seawater samples through citizen-science projects.
Citizen science is when average people help collect data or perform simple
analyses or tasks, usually recorded online, to advance scientific research on
real-world issues. Its popularity surged during the
when scientists were unable to travel to research sites and people stuck at home
sought out activities to keep boredom at bay. But citizen science isn’t new; and
tourism, which encompasses a wide range of activities and touches nearly all
corners of the world, is in an ideal position to assist with projects while
offering travelers interesting hands-on experiences.
“We can help scientists collect data that is really important to them that they
don’t have access to, and at the same time, it’s a really nice way of engaging
guests in science,” said Dr. Annette Bombosch, a citizen-science coordinator
on the expedition staff at Polar Latitudes, which offers more than a dozen
departures per season.
The natural intersection of citizen science and tourism is obvious: If travelers
are already participating in these activities, why not encourage deeper
understanding and awareness about the natural world while also advancing
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“We learn science by being outside, by being in nature,” said Meghann
McDonald, executive director at Vermilion Sea
Institute, which combines citizen science
and tourism through its Stars to Seas
program in Bahía de
los Ángeles, Mexico. Learning about nature through hands-on citizen science
also encourages travelers to take meaningful action to protect the environment.
“Pretty much everyone says this has been a really great experience for them
because it really changed their trip,” Bombosch said. “It gave them the feeling
they could give something back to this environment and they’re not just a
Unlike Polar Latitudes, which incorporates various citizen-science projects as a
component of its itineraries, the Stars to Seas program is a travel experience
specifically focused on data collection related to whale sharks. Taxon
Expeditions is also intentionally built around
research, with travelers participating in citizen science as contributors to the
projects. The company’s expedition activities range from setting up traps to
catch elusive insects in Panama to identifying damselflies and dragonflies
in Northern Montenegro.
“All our expeditions have the same goal: to discover and publish new species for
science together with our participants,” said Dr. Iva
Njunjić, co-founder and
co-director of the company. “Since the goal is usually the same, our
participants mostly choose expeditions based on the destination they are
interested in to explore biologically.”
By building a tour company focused on citizen science, Taxon Expeditions
scientists are able to sidestep the lengthy, complicated process it takes to
obtain grants because travelers fund the projects while participating in them.
This points to two of the main advantages of incorporating citizen science with
tourism: Some destinations are logistically difficult and expensive for
scientists to visit, but leisure travelers gladly pay their own way to visit
these same places. Additionally, tour operators revisit the same areas
throughout the year as well as year after year, allowing for long-term data
collection, which helps scientists spot trends.
While the marriage of citizen science and tourism has many advantages, there can
be some drawbacks. Polar Latitudes works in partnership with and contributes to
projects managed by organizations such as NASA and Scripps Institute.
However, because of the projects it undertakes, Taxon Expeditions must secure
research permits, which can require extensive time and paperwork. Additionally,
transporting equipment into the field is a challenge.
“Since we have to bring the entire collection of lab equipment we will need
during the expedition — like microscopes, vials, nets, and insect traps — there
is a lot to organize, pack and try to transport in one piece,” Njunjić said.
Yet, overcoming these challenges and incorporating citizen science into travel
experiences has the potential to leave an impression long after travelers return
home. At Polar Latitudes, for example, many guests participate in
Happywhale, which tracks marine mammals such as
whales and seals that guests have photographed. When the whales that travelers
have identified are spotted by others who have uploaded images, citizen
scientists are notified — creating a way for those hands-on experiences to
In addition, Bombosch said guests with Polar Latitudes are encouraged to
participate in other projects after their trip. One former guest, for example,
actively observed clouds during the COVID-19 lockdown as a form of motivation —
a citizen-science project she initially participated in on her trip.
“Citizen science is a new way for people to ‘travel’ to their gardens and
neighborhoods, and experience them like they never did before,” Njunjić said.
When it comes to citizen science and travel, no trip is too far away or too
close to home to make a difference. Whether people take to the ocean to
photograph and track whales, journey into the jungle to identify parasitic
flies, or step into their backyard to observe clouds, their contributions to
citizen science are important.
“It makes a real difference to the scientists. It makes a real difference to the
travelers,” Bombosch said. “And it definitely makes a real difference to those
places — because, without the knowledge of how they’re changing, we can’t
Published Nov 16, 2021 10am EST / 7am PST / 3pm GMT / 4pm CET
JoAnna Haugen is a writer, speaker and solutions advocate who has worked in the travel and tourism industry for her entire career. She is also the founder of Rooted — a solutions platform at the intersection of sustainable tourism, social impact and storytelling. A returned US Peace Corps volunteer, international election observer and intrepid traveler, JoAnna helps tourism professionals decolonize travel and support sustainability using strategic communication skills.