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Product, Service & Design Innovation
Citizen Science Engages Travelers, Contributes to Conservation Efforts

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 pandemic, 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 scientific research?

“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 tourist.”

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 continue.

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 protect them.”