Jotunheimen National Park, on the western side, during our fieldwork trip. Photo credit: Francisco-Javier Ancin, July 2017.

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Nature is essential for our well-being, not only to cover our basic needs such as food and shelter, but also as a source of more intangible benefits to our physical and mental well-being. However, we often disregard nature, which makes protected areas essential in safeguarding natural environments from human development. Protected areas have become attractions for people who want to escape from urbanized areas and enjoy low impacted nature, either for day trips or for longer vacation.

Identifying which more specific places within protected areas are important for people, and the reasons behind people’s preferences, is critical for managing protected areas effectively. The internet brings the opportunity to collect valuable data from a large sample of people. We, therefore, analysed two digital platforms that allow identification of which specific areas within larger protected places are important for visitors: Flickr and an online survey.

We used publicly shared pictures on Flickr and analysed their meaning, such as scenic landscapes, social events or recreational activities. We also conducted an online survey where participants could locate the places they liked and the reasons they identified it as a special place. We found that scenery and recreation are the most popular values that people report, both through social media pictures and on our online survey. However, there are differences in where important places are found. While pictures uploaded in Flickr are closer to roads, respondents to the online survey placed important areas close to trails, mountain tops and glaciers.

We conclude that Flickr can inform regional management, whereas online surveys are better for finer scale management, as people can actively place markers on a map stating the reasons why those places are important. This is more precise than Flickr as the visitor can explicitly state the meaning of their preferences.

Using digital platforms for understanding visitor behaviour and distribution in protected areas brings new opportunities that outperform older, costly, and time-consuming methods.