Biodiversity research and science tourism

Juulia Räikkönen,
Adjunct Professor, Post-Doctoral Researcher,
Turku School of Economics and Biodiversity unit,
University of Turku,

Ilari E. Sääksjärvi,
Professor, Director of the Biodiversity Unit,
University of Turku,

In the coming decades, we will see the consequences of an ecological crisis caused by accelerating global climate change and biodiversity loss. Recent estimates suggest that up to a million species are facing extinction (IPBES, 2019). As our current lifestyles and global business structures are among the root causes, reversing the biodiversity crisis requires a system-wide reorganisation at the business, institutional and consumer levels. Biodiversity and conservation education will be important but, besides traditional environmental education, we must create effective tools to highlight emotional and experiential aspects of scientific interpretation and engage actors to work for a common goal. Here, we address the potential of science tourism in advancing biodiversity conservation in the Archipelago Sea region.

Earth’s basic feature – biodiversity – has evolved over hundreds of millions of years. Biodiversity refers to all manifestations of life; during life’s long evolutionary history, it has sometimes flourished and sometimes withered in times of mass extinction. Biodiversity has various levels. Species diversity refers to each different species; genetic diversity means genetic differences between individual species and populations. Finally, different species living in the same area form biological communities (ecosystems) together with the physical environment.

The importance of biodiversity and healthy ecosystems boils down to this: life sustains life. Life’s spectrum consists of species, each with a role to play (e.g. as food, predators, herbivores, nutrient recyclers, and pollinators). In naturally functioning ecosystems, a diverse range of life balances the species so that no single species gains dominance. Diverse nature also has a better chance of adapting to ecological changes, such as climate change.

Since 1964, the University of Turku has operated the Archipelago Research Institute on Seili Island to monitor the marine environment long-term. The Archipelago Sea region – part of the Baltic Sea between the Gulf of Bothnia, the Gulf of Finland and the Sea of Åland – uniquely consists of coastline, brackish water and thousands of small islands, forming ecosystems where biodiversity can flourish. Human activity, however, has upset the balance of life, and the consequences are visible in the Archipelago Sea. According to the 2019 Red List of Finnish Species, every ninth species is threatened (Hyvärinen et al., 2019). Many of these species live in aquatic habitats, herb-rich grasslands or forests of the Archipelago Sea region. Besides the well-acknowledged eutrophication of the Baltic Sea, the overgrowth of traditional landscapes is also threatening the region’s species.

The University of Turku began developing Seili Island in close cooperation with a local tourism company to enhance biodiversity conservation and science popularisation. This includes the development of science tourism, referring to leisure tourism experiences based on science, scientific knowledge, or participation in scientific research (Räikkönen et al., 2019). Science tourism stems from educational tourism, thus combining learning and enjoyment.

Seili has been permanently inhabited since the Middle Ages and has had a long history of housing patients with leprosy and mental disorders. Due to its versatile natural and cultural resources, it slowly developed into an attractive tourism destination, with nearly 10,000 annual tourists. Since 2016, that number has risen to nearly 25,000 due to investments in tourism and hospitality services, such as accommodation and restaurant services, meetings and events, a guest marina, a sauna, guided tours and art exhibitions.

For years, the university has organized various scientific seminars, field courses, science camps and other science-related activities. This foundation has been further developed through an exhibition that introduces tourists to the island’s history and the research conducted there. Furthermore, a virtual reality application was designed to enable remote visits to Seili, and a science nature trail will be built to mediate scientific research for tourists. In these actions, we aim to highlight the roles of scientific research and scientists as active mediators, conservation professionals, and enablers of nature-based tourism experiences.

Hyvärinen, E., Juslén, A., Kemppainen, E., Uddström, A., & Liukko, U. M. (2019). The 2019 Red List of Finnish Species. The Ministry of the Environment & Finnish Environment Institute.
IPBES (2019): Summary for policymakers of the global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.
Räikkönen, J., Rouhiainen, H., Grénman, M., & Sääksjärvi, I. E. (2019). Advancing environmental sustainability through nature-based science tourism: The potential of universities. Finnish Journal of Tourism Research, 15(1), 67–87.


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