Visitor demographics, site-type and activities determine the occurrence and severity of environmental impacts at nature-based tourist destinations.
(1). Increasing demand for access to nature has the potential to increase environmental impacts. Identifying links between increased visitor intensity and habitat damage in context-specific studies is an oversimplification which does not account for visitor demographics or activity characteristics. (2). We compared the prevalence of tourism-related threats/pressures across protected areas in Europe, Ireland, and in sites close to the Wild Atlantic Way (WAW) tourism route along the west coast of Ireland. To better understand the drivers of tourism-related impacts, we analysed impact occurrence (IO) and impact severity (IS) at 43 sites along the WAW using a database of over 6000 visitor movement, demographic and behaviour records gathered by a national tourism agency (Fáilte Ireland). (3). Threats/pressures related to tourism and recreation are prevalent and widespread across protected sites in Europe (49% of sites) with significantly higher (p < 0.001) prevalence of these threats in protected sites in Ireland (58% of sites). Over 33% of protected sites in Ireland are located within 2 km of a WAW Discovery Point and 64% of these WAW adjacent sites have known threats/pressures related to recreation and/or tourism, which is significantly higher than Irish and European averages (p < 0.001). (4). Visitors to WAW sites ranged mostly within 1 km of tourist destinations (99%) and over 75% of all visitors had no observable impact on the receiving environment. Site-type, tourist demographics and tourist activities were informative predictors of IO. IS was influenced by total number of impacts, activity intensity and site-type. Site-type together with visitor activity occurrence and activity intensity were significant for IO and IS, highlighting the importance of understanding local conditions as well as visitor characteristics for impact avoidance/mitigation. (5). Tourism-related pressures and threats are widespread among protected sites in Europe and Ireland. We demonstrate the need to shift the focus from analysing discrete ecological responses in response to generalized tourism pressure to understanding the causes of impacts to mitigate them at source. This will help align tourism and conservation goals.