Social Media Influences National Park Visitation

This peer-reviewed article explores the empirical link between social media attention and national park popularity.

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April 1, 2024


Casey Wichman

Reading time

1 minute


Visitation to National Parks in the United States increased by more than 25 percent 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 percent 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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