5th Symposium on Fire and Forest Meteorology and the 2nd International Wildland Fire Ecology and Fire Management Congress

Monday, 17 November 2003: 2:00 PM
Tourist knowledge, attitudes and reactions to fire situations in Florida
Brijesh Thapa, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL; and S. Holland and J. Absher
Fire related research has predominantly employed samples from residential communities and visitors to national parks and wilderness areas located in the western states. There is a paucity of research in understanding the public from other regions of the country, such as the southeast, notably Florida where wild land fire plays a pivotal role in the daily lives of residents and potentially millions of tourists. Florida depends on tourism, and besides the residents, recreational and leisure travelers and the businesses that rely on and support the needs of these user groups are also severely affected. Although the displacement of tourists and the negative economic impact to the tourism industry due to wildfires has been anecdotally reported in the popular media, empirical studies about tourist behaviors are non-existent. Therefore, the purpose of this paper was to better understand tourist's knowledge about fire related issues, general attitudes towards fire and travel behavioral changes in reaction to specific wildfire related situations in Florida.

The sample for this study was drawn from January 2001 to December 2001 mailings to non-resident overnight leisure travelers that had visited destinations/counties in Florida. The total sample (aged 18 or older) was 771 for a 66.5% response rate. Attitudinal and knowledge items were adapted from Jacobson, Monroe & Marynowski's (2001) study that sampled Florida residents. Reactionary behavioral change in travel behaviors was conceptualized in a 14-item Likert scale format.

The results of this study are based on a representative sample of Florida tourists to the sampled counties (n=26), with demographic characteristics fairly proportional across age, number of people in household, income, origin, race and marital status categories. About 90% were on return trips for a mean 5 trips to Florida. Florida tourists varied in their thoughts about the role of fire in Florida's landscape. There does seem to be a substantial number (about half) who do not seem to understand the role of fire in Florida's natural environment, and efforts to reduce this unawareness or misunderstanding could raise the tolerance and understanding of some visitors to be more accepting of controlled burns. There was general acceptance of the possibility and acceptability of wildfires that are not close to a destination they are traveling to, so emphasizing the distance away from wildfires, might be a good strategy to reduce cancellations or destination substitution. The negative impact of burned over areas from past fires, seems minimal and with Florida's long growing season and heavy vegetation in many natural areas, the visibility of burn scars would be limited in time. Perhaps the most unexpected finding is that so many people responded negatively to a controlled burn. Perhaps better education of tourists to the ecological benefits and reduction in fuel load issues leading to a safer situation in the long term might reduce negative reactions and attitudes.

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