Mount Desert Island tourism can use participatory planning to address climate change impacts, UMaine research shows

A study from the University of Maine shows that bringing together academics and tourism developers on Mount Desert Island (MDI) is an effective way to identify climate change impacts and determine what can be done to address them given a community’s strengths, limitations and resources. Now, thanks to the work of a transdisciplinary group of UMaine graduate researchers and community stakeholders, MDI might have further information on a path forward to keeping the destination sustainable.

Nature-based tourism destinations, like so many throughout Maine, face unique challenges resulting from the impacts of climate change. Climate and weather determine the timing, length and quality of tourism seasons, as well as the risks associated with recreational activities.

Participatory planning — bringing together a variety of stakeholders to analyze complex issues by applying local knowledge — is an approach communities can use to anticipate climate change impacts and prepare suitable solutions. For nature-based tourism destinations, this could mean diversifying recreational opportunities, for example, or developing sustainable transportation plans focused on tourist movements. 

The participatory planning approach to addressing climate change impacts has been successful in several international case studies. For example, a 2014 participatory planning study that engaged municipal officials, tourism developers, business owners and researchers was able to successfully identify climate change impacts and adaptation measures for two tourism-centric areas of Northern Finland.

“MDI tourism professionals are very aware of climate change impacts to their businesses and the resources they manage. A participatory approach allows researchers to center that expertise and experience to help develop locally relevant solutions that consider existing resources, including existing partnerships and ongoing adaptation and mitigation projects,” says Lydia Horne, lead author of the study who completed the research as a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Maine.

In a new study published in the journal Tourism and Hospitality Research, UMaine researchers worked with tourism partners on Mount Desert Island to identify climate change impacts in the area’s tourism system and develop planning priorities for the area. The approach brought together diverse tourism suppliers who do not often collaborate, alongside climate change planners, natural resource managers and other academic researchers.

“As students studying climate change, yet working and living outside of MDI, we knew it was critical to co-develop the workshops with community partners who could contribute their lived experiences to the project,” says Alyssa Soucy, a Ph.D. candidate in ecology and environmental sciences and co-author of the study. 

“Because we live outside of the area, we don’t have the best picture of local conditions in comparison to the partners who live and work on the island. Their input is important because they’re impacted directly by local climate conditions, whereas we are viewing the situation from the outside-in,” says Gabriela Wolf-Gonzalez, another study co-author who participated in the research as a master’s degree in ecology and environmental sciences.

The study involved a series of planning workshops conducted over Zoom in spring 2021 that allowed participants to share their observations and experiences related to climate change. Tourism stakeholders identified impacts like the increasing heat and temperature, decrease in snowpack, changes to flora and fauna, increase in ticks and the unpredictability of extreme weather events on Mount Desert Island. While the providers recognized that, in the short term, the coastal Maine tourist destination might benefit from increased temperatures, it may reach a “tipping point” where the climate becomes too warm and less attractive to visitors seeking a cooler destination.

The participants then worked in groups to create planning priorities based on the impacts they observed. Based on the existing strengths, barriers and resources in the community, two items rose to the top: addressing increased visitation and making Mount Desert Island a more sustainable tourist destination by reducing greenhouse gas emissions through more sustainable energy systems and transportation strategies. The participants then identified actions they could take to work toward these goals, such as shifting the timing of activities and product offerings to adapt to shifting visitation patterns as well as improving winter safety messaging and tourism infrastructure in response to increased winter visitation.

“These findings highlight the value of bringing people with many different backgrounds and investments together to discuss the emerging impacts that climate change is having on many facets of a nature-based tourism community; they can bolster community resilience by providing a springboard for focusing in on climate change actions that are relevant and obtainable,” says Asha DiMatteo-LePape, co-author of the study who conducted the research for her master’s degree in forest resources. 

“It was an incredibly valuable experience as students to be able to have important and meaningful conversations with local communities in regards to climate change and tourism, and that is a connection often lacking in academia. It was apparent these conversations with coastal communities need to happen more regularly to find both short and long term feasible solutions. Many climate projections are on a 50 to 100 year time scale, which are important for long-term planning, but may not necessarily address the immediate concerns and rapid changes that impact the tourism industry face from year to year,” says Valeria Briones, a study co-author who also conducted the research for her master’s degree in forest resources.

The researchers found engaging tourism providers was an effective way to identify climate change impacts and potential adaptations for Mount Desert Island. Similar approaches may benefit other natural resource dependent tourism destinations in Maine and beyond.

“Our research demonstrated the importance of collaboration and dialogue to create relevant solutions for communities dealing with the impacts of climate change. The passion in the workshop room was clear as everyone sought to work together towards joint solutions,” Soucy says.

The project was also unique in that it was graduate student-driven, led by Horne, Soucy, Briones, DiMatteo-LaPape and Wolf-Gonzalez. All five co-authors were students of and advised by Sandra De Urioste-Stone, associate professor of nature-based tourism in the School of Forest Resources, and are part of the National Science Foundation Research Traineeship program that seeks to train the next generation of transdisciplinary conservation leaders. Partial funding to support this research was received from the Senator George J. Mitchell Center’s Sustainability Grants Program.

“Although we started this project with different backgrounds, we were brought together by our interest in serving our communities and empowering community-members to develop locally-driven plans. This project allowed us to learn from those outside of the traditional research community and from each other,” says Wolf-Gonzalez.

Contact: Sam Schipani,