Follow the Data
National Trail Officer for Peddars Way and the Norfolk Coast Path, Jack Davidson, discusses how good data gathering and interpretation can help to grow visitor numbers, whilst minimising the impact of recreation.
As with any access management, managing a Trail is a balancing act. More visitors equals more benefit to the local economy – a key performance indicator of my role – but it can also mean more strain on the beautiful but sensitive sites that draw visitors to the trail in the first place. It can be argued that a long-distance trail that exists as a feature on the landscape scale is in itself a mitigation against impact on any one site; it would be easy to assume that trail-users simply pass through these sites, their impact minimised by great access infrastructure that keeps them away from the most sensitive areas. However, our data shows that during peak season – predictably summer – only 15% of Norfolk Coast Path users are thru-hikers. The balance then, isn’t as simple to find as it seemed. Visitor numbers are growing, especially at sites such as nature reserves, so how do we reduce the impact of this, without losing that important visitor expenditure?
We do know that the western half of the Norfolk Coast Path is more popular than its eastern half, the latter having been established in 2014 and 2016 as part of the England Coast Path, and the former being thirty-two years old this year. Counter data supports this, and it is to be expected: the infrastructure to support visits can’t develop overnight, so the spread of visitor concentration will be slow. Much of the western half of the trail runs through or adjacent to the North Norfolk Coast SSSI, which hosts a number of NNRs and other designations within it, but these are largely concentrated on the coastline itself. Enter Coastal Treasures: funded by the Coastal Communities Fund, this project was designed to promote sustainable tourism and new ways of accessing the wealth of heritage interest in north west Norfolk. Supported by a high-quality guidebook, sixteen new circular walking and cycling routes have been created in the area. Whilst circular walks are not exactly innovative, I feel that the Coastal Treasures approach is. In collaboration with Norfolk Museums, the heritage features that each route visits have been exhaustively researched in order to generate a very high-quality of historic content for the book and accompanying website, stories that guide the reader through the landscape as surely as the sturdiest oak fingerpost. Crucially, we have taken pains to keep the inland portions of these walks away from other sensitive sites, whilst signposting points of interest equal to or greater than that of the coastline.
What about undersubscribed sites and trails though? The same principle applies: start with the data. To expand your audience, you first have to understand your audience. We are in the fortunate position of having seventeen data counters at locations along the Norfolk Coast Path, with seven more on Peddars Way. This alone doesn’t tell us much, but placing a self-survey box next to each of these increase the insight we are given, and face-to-face surveys deepen it further still. The main goal of this data gathering has always been to evidence the economic impact of the trail, but it also helps to build a picture of the trail’s demographic. To give just one example, we know that the most-represented demographic is 36-60, and that this group spends almost twice as much as 18-35s on accommodation, but only 20% more on food and drink. This is borne out in the fact that 18-35s are more likely to make a single-day visit to the trail than a multi-day visit, too. It is accepted among National Trail officers and managers that this core demographic is getting older, and that the trails need to develop a greater appeal to a younger audience, without forgetting the users that, may well have been enjoying the trail for their whole lives.
One small way that we are doing this is by installing benches that feature phrases in Norfolk dialect, such as ‘hold you hard’ (meaning slow down) – the idea being, that as well as a place to rest tired legs, it’s a great spot for a #peddarsway or #norfolkcoastpath photo to share on Instagram or twitter: #freetargetedpromotion.
Far from sitting down, a key group within the younger demographic is trail runners. The sport is growing in popularity, and as a relatively low-impact user-group we are keen to encourage their use of the trail. Perhaps best for access managers is the fact that they require no infrastructure that isn’t already in place for walkers. As with long-distance walkers, coffee and cake is a popular way to end a run, meaning that they’re also good for trail-adjacent SMEs. On our social media outlets, we recently covered two runners setting a new Fastest Known Time for the Norfolk Coast Path (all 84 miles in 21 hours, 5 minutes!) and this was tremendously popular, particularly on Instagram where we increased our number of followers by around 8% within 24 hours.
This is just a tiny portion of the many ways we use data interpretation to inform our management of the trail. At the time of writing, we are rolling out new counters on the Coastal Treasures circular walks, to be accompanied by a scheme of surveys that we hope will discern the success of moving visitors inland, as well as continuing to gather data on general use of the National Trails, where we hope to see growth in the numbers of younger trail users.