Analysing the Visitor Experience: Issues and Implications from a Study of Crowding and Cultures at the Waitomo Glowworm Cave

Stephen Doorne, Wrighton Doorne & Associates, New Zealand


Current tourism growth policies in New Zealand suggest that issues surrounding congestion, crowding and their relationship to the quality of the visitor experience will emerge as significant problems in the future of tourism development and tourism management. The overcrowding of tourist sites has the capacity to not only pose problems for environmental management but also to erode the visitor experience to the extent that commercial sustainability is threatened.

The social carrying capacity concept assumes an inverse relationship between visitor population density and levels of satisfaction. For sites receiving a range of tourist types and nationalities the measurement of satisfaction based on crowding levels is complex and unworkable. In this context the identification of a visitation threshold or 'magic' number, beyond which the visitor experience will diminish may not be a helpful approach for managers. This paper addresses issues of satisfaction, crowding and the visitor experience with reference to the Waitomo Glowworm Cave and suggests an alternative approach to the management of the visitor experience.

Background to Tourism at the Waitomo Glowworm Cave and the Study

The Waitomo Glowworm Cave has been one of New Zealand's major tourist attractions for over 100 years. In December 1887 British Surveyor Fred Mace, with local Maori Chief Taane Tinorau became the first people to explore the subterranean river entrance to what is now known as the Glowworm Cave. Within two years the first commercial tours through the Cave were first conducted by Taane Tinorau. Between June 1889 and the end of 1890, there were 360 visitors to the cave (Arrell 1984).

The Cave was regarded as being of major interest to international tourists and ranked equal in importance to the Pink and White Terraces of Rotorua. The commercial significance of the site lead to the Waitomo Glowworm Cave becoming the Government's first acquisition under the Scenery Preservation Act of 1903. The acquisition was to prevent damage or deterioration of the cave resulting from overuse or excessive tourist traffic. The Glowworm Cave, which later came under the jurisdiction of the Tourist Department, was the most profitable of all the Government's tourism concerns within New Zealand. In 1957 the Tourist Department handed over control of all its business at Waitomo to the Tourist Hotel Corporation.

In 1990, the Waitangi Tribunal returned 75% of the Waitomo Glowworm Cave and associated land to Maori ownership, the remaining 25% of ownership remained with the crown under the administration of the Department of Conservation. Maori ownership is represented by the Ruapuha-Uekaha Hapu Trust which comprises of families descended from the original owners. As part of the Tribunal settlement, the management of the Glowworm Cave, the THC Waitomo Caves Hotel and the Waitomo Tavern, became subject to a 32 year lease. In 1991 this lease was sold to the South Pacific Hotel Corporation (SPHC) and in 1996, SPHC subsequently on-sold the lease to Tourism Holdings Ltd.

The landowners are represented via the Cave Management Committee. The Leaseholder pays an annual fee for a Licence which requires the submission of an Operation Plan to the committee every five years. The Operation Plan provides for "the maximum opportunity for public access to the extent compatible with best protecting and preserving the Maori, scenic, historic, geological, biological and scientific values within the Licence Area" (Department of Conservation 1990, p. 20).

The Operation Plan for the Waitomo Glowworm Cave Licence specifies that carbon dioxide levels in the cave will be measured continuously and tour operations will cease if the carbon dioxide content exceeds 2400 parts per million. Above this level the carbon dioxide causes the speleothems to corrode and at levels above 5000 parts per million there is a slight risk to visitors.

Although there are identifiable limits for levels of visitation with respect to the natural environment of the Cave it is apparent that due to inadequate visitor monitoring these thresholds are frequently exceeded especially during peak periods.

Current Visitation Characteristics

Waitomo Caves village has a population of around 500 people and an estimated tourist population of around 450,000 international visitors per annum, most of whom visit the Waitomo Glowworm Cave (NZTB 1996). As a tourist destination the Waitomo Glowworm Cave caters predominantly to the rapidly growing high volume-short stay North Asian market. These visitors commonly stay in New Zealand for around three to five days and spend most of their time in and around the Auckland - Rotorua area (NZTB 1996). The location of the Glowworm Cave makes it a useful toilet stop and leg stretch for passengers leaving either centre in the morning.

There is no reliable information to indicate the number of domestic visitors although data provided by the THC Waitomo Caves Hotel indicates the New Zealand market to be around 8% of total visitors (between 40,000 - 50,000 per annum). Visitation of the Glowworm Cave is characterised by peaks and troughs. The peak tourist season is between November and April and the cave receives the bulk of its visitation between 11am and 2pm. Today's tourists, for the most part arrive by bus and complete the guided tour in around forty minutes.

The Department of Conservation estimates that current national tourism marketing policies will result in a 27% increase of international visitors by the year 2000 (DOC & NZTB 1993). The New Zealand Tourism Board, however, is targeting a 49% increase in international visitors over the same period (DOC & NZTB 1993). In the 1992/93 Tourism Board International Visitor Survey, Waitomo Caves ranked as the fastest growing tourism centre in New Zealand with a growth rate of 90% from the period 1990/92 to 1992/93 (NZTB 1994).

In this context of current visitation levels and future growth estimates, the issue of crowding at the Glowworm Cave has emerged as a significant consideration for management. Recent and anticipated growth in visitor numbers to the Glowworm Cave prompted the Licensors to commission a study of the visitor experience to assess the 'social carrying capacity' of the Cave, the potential impacts of crowding on the visitor experience, and the extent to which perceptions of crowding are dependent on the nationality of the visitors. The study was conducted by Wrighton Doorne and Associates on contract to the Science and Research Division of the Department of Conservation in 1995-96.

Carrying Capacity and Crowding

The carrying capacity concept has a long and lingering history in application to natural resource management in a variety of settings and scales (Stankey 1981) and has been embraced in recent times as an outdoor recreation management tool (Dasmann 1964). The underlying principle suggests a 'limit to growth' beyond which the depletion of the resource base limits growth and productive capacity. This limit is often expressed as a threshold by the term carrying capacity.

The traditional analysis of carrying capacity is understood to have a minimum of two components: a biophysical component relating to the quality of the environment and a behavioural component reflecting the quality of the recreational experience in terms of crowding (Graefe, Vaske & Kuss 1984; Manning 1985, 1986; Manning et al. 1996; Shelby, Vaske & Haberlein 1989; Hamilton-Smith 1994; Shelby & Haberlein 1986). Approaches to crowding problems have, for the most part, applied normative theory based on the variables of standards of quality and indicators. Although studies generally show that those who feel crowded tend to report less satisfaction, the satisfaction concept is clearly influenced by a range of variables other than visitor density. It has been argued, however, that for high use sites that normative approaches implying the identification of a 'magic number' beyond which quality diminishes may not be entirely helpful in overcoming crowding problems (Manning et al. 1996) and is of little use in the absence of clearly specified goals (Stankey & McCool 1989). Shelby and Haberlein (1986) suggest that perceptions of crowding used as a negative evaluation of density levels maybe a more useful evaluative standard than satisfaction for determining social carrying capacity.

Contemporary approaches to the problem place emphasis on identifying and defining the types of visitor experience to be provided which are subsequently adopted as a set of management objectives. Specific indicators are commonly employed to establish the conditions over time to maintain the quality of the experience and reflect the management objectives. Indicators are, for the most part, quantifiable and facilitate the monitoring and assessment of standards of quality. Carrying capacity in this context becomes but one of a series of considerations affecting the perception of the visitor experience.

Perceptions, Crowding and the Visitor Experience: An Overview

The base assumption of research into crowding is that increased visitor numbers may erode the quality of the visitor experience to the point where the viability of the product is threatened over time. Clearly the type of tourism product will provide a broad guideline as to the 'appropriate' levels of visitation.

A significant influence on the perception of crowding in the outdoor recreation and tourism setting is the degree of interaction between individuals or groups. There are a number of factors which can influence the nature of interactions such as the level of disturbance (Twight, Smith & Wassinger 1981), the differences between interpersonal and/or social values (Vaske et al. 1995), and the level of overt or latent conflict resulting from this (Adelman, Haberlein & Bonnickson 1982). Interpersonal conflicts arise from differences in perceptions of appropriate use of tourism or recreational sites and arises between groups who do not share the same norms and/or values (Ruddell & Gramman 1994; Saremba & Gill 1991). Conflicts of this nature can be interpreted as either value conflicts or social conflicts (Vaske et al. 1995) and may exist independent of the physical presence or actual contact.

Further variables around which perceptions of crowding are formed are the composition and characteristics of others (Manning et al. 1996). Where cultural groups are readily identifiable and a degree of intolerance between cultural or ethnic groups exists, the degree of crowding may appear higher than when the same number of individuals or groups are identified as of the same ethnic or cultural origin. Similarly, the relative size of groups as well as activity and behaviour also appear as variables not necessarily distinct from culture (Manning et al. 1996).

This introduces the issue of visitor origin and its relationship to crowding tolerance. There are two separate axes of comparison here; the difference between various groups of international visitors, and differences between international visitors and domestic or local visitors. In the case of the local or domestic visitor, expectations may be based on previous visitation, historical knowledge of a site and its 'traditional' usage. For international tourists, expectations are more likely to be based on exposure to promotional material, information supplied by tour guides, and 'word of mouth' of other tourists whose nationality may again act as a conditioning variable.

Nationality or country of origin has often been presumed as a significant variable in assessing perceptions of crowding. A number of researchers have noted the lack of empirical evidence to support gratuitous claims that assert differences in travel patterns and practices based on nationality or country of origin (Mathieson & Wall 1982, Pearce 1990, Dann 1993). Despite this, nationality remains a valid intervening or dependent variable in the absence of more coherently conceptualised alternatives. In New Zealand the macro-marketing of tourism targets particular countries leading to the wholesale and retail consumption of products also by distinct clusters based on nationality. The separation of visitors by nationality groups is a dominant characteristic of visitation at the Waitomo Glowworm Cave.

Crowding and the Visitor Experience at the Waitomo Glowworm Cave

Visitors' perceptions of crowding at the Glowworm Cave were identified through a survey of the tourist population employing the widely used nine point crowding scale first developed by Haberlein and Vaske in 1977. The intervals on the scale correspond to descriptions of the level of crowding experienced ranging from (1) 'not crowded at all', to (9) 'extremely crowded', and respondents are asked to indicate a description which matches their perception of crowding. The crowding scale is accompanied by a clear set of management actions which correspond to the proportion of visitors registering some degree of crowding (Shelby & Haberlein 1986). Also included in the survey were a number of questions to determine levels of visitor satisfaction with various aspects of the facilities and tour format. These were presented using a five point Likert scale. The questionnaire was a self-completion, tick-box format translated into six languages to reflect estimates of the main nationality groups visiting the cave.

Over 2000 visitors to the cave were sampled in both peak and off peak periods in 1996. The basic methodology is based on aggregation of results and testing of the degree to which the norms are shared between and across groups. Although there is no comprehensive background data available, information provided by the THC Waitomo Caves Hotel indicates that the demographic and cultural composition of the visitors sampled can be regarded as 'typically representative' of visitors to the Glowworm Cave during the survey period. It should be noted that in the absence of background and supporting data the variable of time is unable to feature in this analysis. As such, the results give no indication of changes to demographic characteristics of visitors or whether levels of satisfaction or perceived crowding have deteriorated, improved or remained the same over time.

Research Results

The data from the satisfaction scores revealed a high level of satisfaction with the overall product (Glowworm Cave, glowworms) but that this level of satisfaction was not reflected in responses to other elements of the product such as: the number of groups in the cave (e.g. 45% in summer were not satisfied); waiting for other groups during the tour (e.g. 44% in summer were not satisfied); and some of the facilities such as the toilets and the size of the shop. It should be noted that assessments of satisfaction can be used as a surrogate measure of how well an individual's expectations were met (Barskey 1992).

In general satisfaction levels were lower during the summer peak period than in winter. This was especially noticeable for elements relating to the level of visitation such as: waiting before the cave tour; waiting to buy cave tickets; the size of the cave tour group; the number of groups in the cave; and waiting for other groups in the cave. When separated by nationality the data indicated that North Asian visitors, particularly Koreans, expressed relatively high levels of dissatisfaction with the above characteristics of the tour.

The data relating to perceptions of crowding varied considerably between peak and off peak periods, in summer an average of 70.6% of visitors registered some degree of crowding compared with 40.5% in winter. The combined average score for summer and winter periods combined was 64.8%. These scores are presented in relation to the nine point scale in Figure 1.

When the data was separated using the available variables of gender, age, transport mode, travel route and nationality the only significant disparities in the data were between different nationality groups. These differences were apparent in both survey periods but the most distinct differences were in summer. Figure 2 shows a comparison of crowding scores for Australian, Korean, Japanese and New Zealand visitors for the summer period.

Figure 1: Mean Percentage Crowding Scores for all Visitors. Source: Wrighton Doorne and Associates (1996a, p. 12)

Figure 2: Perceptions of Crowding by Nationality at Waitomo Glowworm Cave, Jan 1996. Source: Doorne (1996b)

The above data shows a bivariate structure which indicates disparities within each nationality group but also the irregularity of the incidence of congestion during the survey capture periods. Figure 2 shows that New Zealanders registered higher perceptions of crowding than other nationality groups for all periods. The characteristics of this group were also comparable with visitors from the United Kingdom, Europe Other and Asia Other. Japanese and Korean visitors registered the lowest perceptions of crowding, these scores were indicative of North Asian visitors generally.

Although research indicates that crowding perceptions and levels of satisfaction should not be treated as directly related the results from this study indicate that for both these elements levels of visitation are an issue for most nationality groups. A comparison of the satisfaction data and the crowding data indicates a range of tolerance levels for different aspects of congestion. Korean visitors, for example, registered amongst the lowest perceptions of crowding but were also the least satisfied with the number of groups in the cave and associated issues such as waiting for other groups during the tour. This reveals a relatively high level of tolerance to encroachment on personal space combined with a degree of impatience for delays which reflects the urgency with which their tours within the country are constructed. New Zealanders by contrast were relatively satisfied with the characteristics of the tour itself but registered the highest perceptions of crowding. This suggests a more relaxed approach to recreational activities generally but a low tolerance to numbers of visitors within a confined space. For both groups however the number of visitors to the Cave should be regarded as a problem condition during the summer or daily peak periods.

As noted earlier other factors such as the cultural composition and behaviour of other individuals or groups may affect perceptions of crowding. The staff at the Glowworm Cave frequently recount instances of escalating animosity between various nationality groups, particularly Japanese and Koreans. The cultural composition of successive groups may be responsible for the relative intolerance of Korean visitors to the number of groups and waiting during the cave tour. Whilst revisiting traffic management practices may alleviate congestion to some extent the overall levels of visitation and the market orientation of the product are more structural elements of the crowding problem.

Management Considerations

Comparable studies of crowding at tourist sites show that those individuals or groups with lower tolerances to crowding are displaced by those with higher tolerance (Wall 1982; Shelby & Haberlein 1986). Kearsley (in press), however, notes the wider implications for community satisfaction and the sustainability of tourism when increased visitation of international tourists causes displacement of domestic recreationists.

The discussion of carrying capacity earlier in this paper identified that a threshold approach to managing visitor numbers is generally rendered unworkable due to the complexities of any given situation. The case of the Glowworm Cave at Waitomo illustrates that the problem of crowding is far more complex than purely commercial interpretations might imply. As Hamilton-Smith (1993) observes, 'rationing' the Waitomo experience surfaces as an option to preserve the natural or social environment but this in itself raises the more thorny issue of whether access to heritage sites should be managed via differential policies.

An alternative management approach advocated by this study focuses on the definition of an appropriate visitor experience incorporating a range of considerations such as employment, revenue generation, the cultural, environmental and commercial context, as well as logistical factors. This is articulated as an overall policy objective achieved through a series of short, medium and long term development goals. These goals require the identification of indicators against which the implementation and monitoring of the effectiveness of programmes can be assessed. The issue of crowding in this context becomes only one of a series of management considerations. In general terms this approach is proactive rather than reactive.


Several recommendations regarding the management of the visitor experience at the Waitomo Glowworm Cave were suggested from research discussed in this paper. These included: the identification of management objectives and processes; the development and implementation of appropriate visitor monitoring processes; and the incorporation of a visitor experience monitoring programme modelled in the report as the Continuous Analysis of the Visitor Experience (CAVE).

The study also identified that the overall orientation of the product and the nature of its delivery has changed little throughout the tourist history of the Cave. The policy of providing one product for all people regardless of language, nationality, age, or visitation levels does not reflect the emergence of niche marketing practices throughout the industry. The approach catering to the broad spectrum of tourist markets can be regarded as the most significant factor in the crowding issue.

Whilst the policy of 'opening or closing gate', either literally or through differential pricing, to regulate visitor numbers is seductive in its simplicity the approach should be regarded as addressing the symptoms rather than the cause. An approach whereby management 'takes the driving seat' clearly requires a more concentrated commitment to issues surrounding the product but given the current levels of tourism growth and competition in the tourism industry in New Zealand there is little room for complacency.


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