National parks are key for conserving biodiversity and supporting people's well‐being. However, anthropogenic pressures challenge the existence of national parks and their conservation effectiveness. Therefore, it is crucial to assess how people perceive national parks in order to enhance socio‐political support for conservation.
User‐generated data shared by visitors on social media provide opportunities to understand how people perceive (e.g. preferences, feelings, opinions) national parks during nature‐based recreational experiences. In this study, we applied methods from automated natural language processing to assess visitors' sentiment when describing experiences in Instagram posts geolocated inside four national parks in South Africa.
We found that visitors' sentiment was positive, and mostly included emotions such as joy, anticipation, trust and surprise, with only a small occurrence of posts with negative feelings. Appreciation of nature, in association with a diverse set of other aspects, such as activities, geographical features and tourist attractions, was used to describe experiences related to nature, wilderness, travelling, holidays and adventures. The type of nature‐based experience described by visitors was park specific, revealing different profiles of parks providing wildlife or scenery experiences.
Findings support and highlight the societal role of national parks in providing visitors with opportunities to develop positive connections with nature. Social media data may be used to understand visitors' perceptions, and how the image of national parks is constructed by users in the virtual social environment. This may help inform management for promoting a high‐quality tourism experience, as well as conservation marketing aimed at fostering socio‐political support for national parks and their long‐term conservation effectiveness.