Social Media Influences National Parks Visitation

Casey Wichman
About This Project

Social media is a powerful influence on our lives and our culture, driving decisions from what we eat for lunch to where we go on vacation. Now, a new study from Georgia Tech's School of Economics is the first to tie high levels of social media exposure to increased visitors to the U.S. National Parks — and the increased crowding and ecological damage they bring with them.

"There's been a general idea that social media exposure matters for visitation, but this research shows that it matters to a very strong degree," said Casey Wichman, an associate professor of economics and the author of the study, published in April in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. "It's one of the main drivers of the huge increase in visitation to national parks."

However, he says, the overall picture is much more nuanced than it’s often portrayed in media accounts.

Wichman found that parks with high social media exposure saw a 16 to 22% increase in visitors compared to locations that received less attention on social media. The growth began in 2013 when Instagram and Twitter started to gain popularity.

While well-known parks such as Yosemite, Grand Canyon, and Yellowstone saw big jumps tied to social media exposure, smaller, less well-known properties also saw significant jumps. For example, the number of travelers to Lake Clark National Park and Preserve in Alaska increased by more than 180%.


Visitation to National Parks in the United States increased by more than 25% since 2010, rising from roughly 70 to 90 million annual visitors. Anecdotes suggest that this increase was driven by the advent of social media in the early-to-mid 2010s, generating a new form of exposure for parks, and has led to concerns about overcrowding and degradation of environmental quality. However, there is little empirical evidence on the role of social media in influencing recreation decisions. Here, I construct a dataset on social media exposure (SME) for each National Park and relate that exposure to changes in visitation over the last two decades. High SME parks see visitation increase by 16 to 22% relative to parks with less exposure, which comes with a concomitant increase in revenue. Low SME parks have no, or negative, changes in visitation. These estimates account for unobserved park heterogeneity and are based on an instrumental variables strategy that predicts exposure with a park’s online popularity prior to the social media era. Additional analysis suggests that recent social media posts that include media attachments increase visitation, while posts with negative sentiment reduce visitation. These results provide insight for the National Park Service—which faces more than $22 billion in deferred maintenance costs and is considering policy options to manage demand—as well as for management of recreation on other public lands.

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