How should the National Trust balance increasing visitor numbers with conservation?

Visitors take in the view on The Vyne's rooftop walkway.

What are your views on how to balance increasing visitor numbers with conservation?

Sarah Green, Northumberland

Increased visitor numbers, whatever the challenges they create, need to be celebrated as they reflect demand for the National Trust’s services. However, the National Trust needs to ensure that increased numbers today do not reduce the ability of future generations to enjoy the National Trust’s special places.

This will always be a balancing act and requires significant expertise to ensure that the correct strategies and policies are in place to maintain equilibrium. This involves a supportive national policy framework but also requires a real local understanding of the unique challenges and potential mitigating actions in each National Trust location.

Finally, the National Trust must ensure that it educates visitors, members and stakeholders on the fragility of some of the unique assets it protects as this is a key part of the role of the National Trust and with good communication visitors who potentially may have become frustrated, may become advocates.

Steve Anderson, West Midlands

I’ve never understood why the National Trust doesn’t follow the museums and galleries sector by moving its collections and exhibitions around far more. I think it is almost inevitable that there will be a tension between visitor footfall and conservation. Meanwhile, over-crowding at properties also detracts from a great experience for visitors, and leads to tensions between the National Trust and its neighbours.

The National Trust does own a vast array of land and properties but we know some are at or near capacity during peak season. The National Trust is however ‘for everyone’ so the challenge in the first instance appears to be to spread visitors more evenly; within sites, across the seasons and between properties. My sense is that we are still a long way from anything resembling reaching capacity, and were we to, my first response would be to expand what the National Trust already owns or acquire more places of interest.

Virginia Llado-Buisan, Oxford

Increasing public access to natural and man-made heritage sites is one of the goals behind the cause of conservation: we conserve to prolong the life of these places so people can continue enjoying and learning from them. It is also important to protect places and collections that are fragile or in danger until they can be restored or stabilised. To continue investing in the physical preservation of places and collections is crucial, as is to support research in conservation, bringing together specialists from different fields to devise new solutions for existing and potential problems.

Understanding and recording visitor numbers  and their impact, surveying, mapping and protecting vulnerable areas, and finding long-lasting and reversible solutions to conservation problems are good methods to strike that balance. It is crucial to increase the participation of the public in these tasks, inviting them to watch and give input to help us make a difference.

Raymond Williams, Buckinghamshire

It will be more difficult in the grounds and gardens. Thanks to our wonderful volunteers, who are alert all the time, I do not worry too much about the interior of our properties. Areas are cordoned off, there are clear directions in our properties. Volunteer training needs to deal with the guidance of visitors.

I have found over many years that families respect the gardens and flower beds. We need more revenue. Yes, it is a balancing act but we have to do the balancing! All properties should receive updated guidelines. I am not too worried about problems of more visitors.

The coastal paths might need further examination for signage. I have noticed a deterioration of some of our coastal paths and cliffs. If elected, I will make sure we get the balance right. This is a very important question.

Leigh McManus, Leicestershire

The trust needs to understand what causes the erosion or deterioration including the rate at which it occurs and to be able to monitor this so that appropriate conservation measures can be taken.

Whether something deteriorates over 20 or 40 years, it still deteriorates and we have to understand the best way of conserving it through research of materials and processes, whilst educating the wider audience on the best way to access the special place or artefact that will have the least impact on its fabric.

Guy Trehane, Dorset

5 million members is a success story with a sting in the tail. We cannot accommodate 
“everyone” without endangering conservation “for ever”. Timed tickets and better 
infrastructure in our rural estate must be used to spread accessibility.

Emma Mee, Cambridge

What a great problem to have! It is important visitor numbers are never allowed to degrade properties or erode a landscape, and issues such as waste management and facilities development are well thought out. Not to mention queues and busy sites reduce the experience for everyone. However, with the increase in memberships come the funds to purchase more sites, and ‘spread the load’ across a greater and more diverse collection.

Michael Tavener, West Midlands

The news has recently reported that the National Trust’s Membership has reached five million. This is testament to the National Trust’s ongoing relevance and success. Of course such success does inevitably mean that an increased burden will be placed on the National Trust’s sites as more people visit them. 

I have, from personal experience, seen some of the efforts that the National Trust is making to manage this issue; the trialling of pre-booked tickets before visiting, for example.  As this matter progresses it is important that the National Trust continues to trial actions which strive to limit the impact of increased visitor numbers, and listens to its members so that sustainable and flexible mitigations can be put in place.  Frequent communication to members and visitors will therefore be important to ensure new initiatives can be successfully implemented.

Elizabeth Staples, Staffordshire

It is interesting to note that the National Trust does seem to be a victim of its own success, but without visitors or members it would not be able to continue the work it does. There is no simple answer to this question. I consider each individual problem needs its own solution with perhaps more innovative ideas, from staff and volunteers, being considered and looking at this as a positive problem rather than a negative one.

Inga Grimsey, Suffolk

Strategically, visitor growth and year round opening are important for the National Trust to deliver its core purpose. They can be achieved in a way that does not impact on conservation or the visitor experience. Additional income allows more conservation spend.

Not all rooms have to be open all the time. Conservation can be carried out whilst properties are open, helping to explain and demonstrate the work. Guided tours direct visitors to less vulnerable areas. Vulnerable paths and outdoor spaces can be cordoned off, to avoid excessive wear and tear.

  • Managing visitor density will improve the visitor experience
  • Where appropriate the National Trust will need to invest more in infrastructure
  • Where it cannot provide satisfactory physical access due to particular sensitivities, more virtual access can be given
  • The National Trust should also consider where it could undertake strategic acquisitions and partnerships to reduce the impact of visitors on any one area or location

Christopher Catling, Wales

I don't think there is a conflict: we need lots of visitors for the income they contribute to the National Trust's conservation work -- and there are many properties in the National Trust's portfolio that are crying out for conservation. When I visited Croft Castle recently, to pick just one example, I was shocked at the state of the buildings.

Edel Trainor, Northern Ireland  

The National Trust’s core ethos is to protect special places for ever, for everyone, therefore access to special places has to be maintained. I consider that engagement with the public through awareness of the work the National Trust does will result in a greater understanding, respect and appreciation for these special places and therefore their continued protection. In practical terms, the promotion of sustainable transportation to minimise the impacts of car use and car parking should be encouraged for those wishing to visit properties. 

Access to buildings can be managed through timed admissions and ticketing. Access to land can be managed through, for example, the careful positioning and maintenance of paths.  Restrictions to access can be implemented at certain times of the year to coincide with nesting or breeding seasons. The positive side is that increased visitors should translate to increased revenue which in turn should help the conservation of special places.     

Bella Mezger, London

This was a key topic on which we as a Council held the Board to account in June. There has been 24% visitor growth in the past three years alone and this provides a real challenge for the National Trust’s mission of preservation. My view is that this is a sign of success, and is allowing the National Trust to invest large sums in conversation work that supports its core purpose; it also demonstrates increasing accessibility.

However, the growth does need to be actively managed, and digital tools and analytics used to aid its management in a clever, precise and impactful way. It needs to ensure that it has people with the skills to do this, and capability to influence at a strategic level. The ability to measure potential conservation impacts is important, and the Board will need to increasingly ensure that they are satisfied that the Executive have this in place.

Joff Whitten, Suffolk

Conservation when done well doesn’t have to mean a lack of visitors; what it does need, however, is for greater clarity and understanding of how conservation is to take place for the intended response from the fauna and flora, or perhaps buildings and objects.

I give an example of newts and ponds; for ponds to be effective habitats for newts the banks need to be cleared in a way that can detract from the aesthetic but instead be effective for the newts to thrive – if members or the public are unaware of why this has happened it can be unsightly and confusing resulting in a loss of trust in the decision making in regards to conservation which could impact further initiatives such as reducing footfall in target locations. Sites need to be well-managed, well-resourced and well-thought through but increased visitor footfall needn’t be a threat.

Caroline Kay, Wiltshire

The growth in membership and visitor numbers is a headline success story. But properties, objects and landscapes must be carefully monitored to be able to track any adverse effects. Within properties, the widening of the season to 364 days/year offers the opportunity to spread visitors. Events should be programmed to encourage off-peak visitation rather than just on high days and holidays. Curators and property managers should feel able to close rooms on a rotating basis for conservation purposes if necessary, and to display ‘conservation in action’ while visitors are there.

Timed tickets may become a greater necessity. In outdoor settings, alternative routes to mitigate erosion may be needed and occasional closures might be necessary for maintenance and repair. Visitors’ expectations should be managed to expect this. Property budgets will need to reflect greater expenditure to mitigate wear and tear at those properties where significant visitor growth is seen or sought.

Duncan Mackay, Berkshire

I often call the National Trust the best land manager in the world because it constantly tries to balance a portfolio of competing but equal interests without allowing one to dominate.

With the conservation demands of buildings, fabrics or landscapes, the best available solution for the specific issue will become apparent through skilled creative thinking provided that all aspects are considered. I trust the National Trust’s staff to get this balance right with the right direction.

Part of my answer also lies in one of the other questions I answered (The National Trust’s core purpose is to ‘look after special places for ever, for everyone’. In this context, how are equality and diversity relevant?) and the Trust should acquire more, potentially more resilient, land close to where people live, engaging willing doorstep volunteers in adding beauty to it as Miranda Hill suggested in her Society for the Diffusion of Beauty. Octavia Hill developed this into the Kyrle Society and her ideas for urban ‘open-air sitting rooms’ and urban fringe ‘rights of air and exercise’ formed the original concept of the Trust.

Grevel Lindop, Manchester

At certain properties there should be well-publicised limits on visitor numbers on a given day - perhaps by some advance booking. It works in France. National Trust publications might spell out which properties tend to be very heavily visited and propose alternatives that visitors might consider at peak times.

Caroline Jarrold, Norfolk

I think this is a real issue for the National Trust relative to the most popular sites and it may need to enforce more pre-booking of tickets, car parking spaces and restaurant tables for certain properties at busy times of the year and highlight other nearby properties which could be visited as an alternative.

People should be able to get used to it as a new process if it is well-highlighted on the web and in the annual guide and elsewhere. It would make the individual experience more enjoyable and reduce frustration if people turn up and cannot realistically be accommodated. Several years ago, we tried to visit Chartwell and it was so busy that we could not even find a space in the car park and left having wasted a lot of time when we could have visited another site.