Nature-based tourism has the potential to enhance global biodiversity conservation by providing alternative livelihood strategies for local people, which may alleviate poverty in and around protected areas. Despite the popularity of the concept of nature-based tourism as an integrated conservation and development tool, empirical research on its actual socioeconomic benefits, on the distributional pattern of these benefits, and on its direct driving factors is lacking, because relevant long-term data are rarely available. In a multi-year study in Wolong Nature Reserve, China, we followed a representative sample of 220 local households from 1999 to 2007 to investigate the diverse benefits that these households received from recent development of nature-based tourism in the area. Within eight years, the number of households directly participating in tourism activities increased from nine to sixty. In addition, about two-thirds of the other households received indirect financial benefits from tourism. We constructed an empirical household economic model to identify the factors that led to household-level participation in tourism. The results reveal the effects of local households’ livelihood assets (i.e., financial, human, natural, physical, and social capitals) on the likelihood to participate directly in tourism. In general, households with greater financial (e.g., income), physical (e.g., access to key tourism sites), human (e.g., education), and social (e.g., kinship with local government officials) capitals and less natural capital (e.g., cropland) were more likely to participate in tourism activities. We found that residents in households participating in tourism tended to perceive more non-financial benefits in addition to more negative environmental impacts of tourism compared with households not participating in tourism. These findings suggest that socioeconomic impact analysis and change monitoring should be included in nature-based tourism management systems for long-term sustainability of protected areas.
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