Turning experiences into research: A conversation with Christy Hehir about tourism’s role in conservation

Hello Christy, thank you very much for taking the time to talk to PGF-RGS – first of all could you explain what your thesis is?

My research measures the value travelling has for conservation and is recognised and funded by the ESRC (Economic and Social Research Council). My environmental psychology-based PhD research collaborates with leading tour operators and international wildlife charities to measure when and why tourists donate to charity. Using a post-travel and a further follow-up survey, 924 respondents’ travel patterns and donation histories were analysed to assess the role of travelling, particularly to see endangered species, in spurring new donations to conservation charities. Outcomes of this research identify the types of experiences/activities that add value and engage tourists to (re)connect with the environments they visit and reveals why some trips trigger higher instances of new philanthropic support towards conservation than others.

In our conversations you have raised how travel experiences influenced development of your core thesis theme. What did you see or hear that made you question what you were doing and how did you then transfer those experiences to academic research?

My polar adventures ignited this when I travelled to Antarctica, having been elected as the UK’s student representative of International Polar Years in 2007-2008.  I was then selected to join the UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme) on a research expedition to Svalbard in 2011. Such experiences did not just change my life, they gave me a purpose for life. That purpose, if we protect the poles, we protect our planet.

My travels made me question whether tourism can ever be sustainable? Arguably, tourism can only be sustainable if it does not involve travel, thus rendering it impossible. This is particularly evident within ‘last-chance tourism’, whereby visitors travel to worldly attractions, for example, the Amazon rainforest and Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, before they disappear due to environmental degradation. But what benefit, if any, does this increasingly popular travel trend have for wildlife and conservation? Such experiences have consequently led to my Master’s thesis, ‘The future of Antarctica. Is tourism an ally or an enemy?’, the publication of my first book, ‘Arctic Reflections: Moment of Inspiration, a Lifetime of Action’, and now my PhD.

A poster produced by Christy regarding her research

There are many geographers out there who have used their own experiences to generate their PhD. What advice would you provide to people who are thinking of embarking on this academic journey – to turn personal experiences into research projects?

One word: passion! If you are passionate about your field of research – then the PhD journey is a privilege. Every day, I get to read, write and hopefully contribute a little to conservation – that’s a pretty cool (polar pun intended) day job!

So, going back to your thesis – one of the themes that comes through is sustainable tourism and the idea of ‘last chance tourism’. As geographers, we tend to both love travel and protecting our world. Often, we also need to travel as part of our data collection. From what you have developed with your research do you have any suggestions to how we can make our fieldwork and leisure travel as sustainable as possible?

My PhD research has recently been awarded Research England funding to transform its findings into guidelines aligning tour-operators and non-profits, entitled Making Tourism Count for Conservation. The guidelines identify five ways tour operators can encourage tourists to donate.  To me, it is critically important to demonstrate and evidence the impact of social science beyond the realms of academia and I am passionate about ensuring my research has real-world impact. I hope these guidelines can highlight how small change can have a big impact on conservation.

Personally, my top tip for travel is to take fewer but longer trips. Or in other words fly as little as possible and if/when you do fly – stay as long as you can, connect with the place and make the most of it.

Christy and the other panellists on the Human and Social Sciences Workshop at Explore 2019 at the Royal Geographical Society, London (November 2019)

Finally, you are an RGS Rep for the leisure and tourism research group – what does the role involve and what has been your experience with RGS to date?

The RGS has played a huge part in my career. I have been a PGR Fellow of the RGS for many years and can often be found writing up my PhD in the Antarctic Meeting room in the RGS library on a Monday ahead of the weekly lecture series, which I regularly attend for a dose of, inspiration and wisdom. Last November, I was invited as a panellist to the Human and Social Sciences Workshop at Explore 2019 at the RGS in London. Speaking for the first time on the infamous RGS stage to share a few of my PhD research insights was such a privilege, a real life-goal moment. The RGS has not only taught me lots over the years, but events like Explore continue to give me the courage to think big and pursue my research goals.  I hope from my brief time on the stage that I was able to give back a little to the room I have gained so much from.

And yes, I am also currently the elected Postgraduate Rep of the RGS Geographies of Leisure and Tourism Research Group (GLTRG).  The challenges of this year have highlighted the importance of this research group. Within GLTRG we continue to work as a research community and we not only think about how best to restart tourism, but how we can use COVID-19 to learn and reimagine tourism moving forward. The GLTRG Group is open to all academics and practitioners.

Thank you Christy for taking the time to talk to us!

Twitter: @christyhehir #givewhereyougo , Email: or LinkedIn: Christy Hehir

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