Botanic Gardens Conservation International
BGCI provides a global voice for all botanic gardens, championing and celebrating their inspiring work. We are the world's largest plant conservation network, open to all. Join us in helping to save the world's threatened plants.

Sustainable Tourism and Botanic Gardens – a Win-Win Situation?

Volume 1 Number 1 - April 2004

Sue Minter





Garden visiting increased greatly in the UK in the 1990s, driven by the traditional passion of the British for plants and augmented by television programmes.  The National Trust; English Heritage, National Gardens Scheme and Royal Horticultural Society’s shows and gardens all received increased numbers, and by 2001 garden tourism was the only area of tourism to be increasing year on year.

Major botanic gardens were funded through the new National Lottery as projects for the Millennium, the most successful being the Eden Project.  Special European Union funding for deprived regions was important for Eden and for the Alnwick Garden in Northumberland, both of which stand as engines for economic growth in these regions.

Botanic gardens can benefit by spotting time–limited or regional funding opportunities and generating new audiences by innovative marketing, interpretation and live performance programmes.  By using new methods of evaluation, botanic gardens can demonstrate to governments their value as displays for sustainable living.

In the UK I think it is vital that any consideration of the role of botanic gardens and tourism is seen within the context of the huge expansion of interest in ‘garden visiting’ which has taken place largely in the last 10 to 15 years.  This interest has been driven in part by promotion of gardening and garden design on television and needs to be seen in a wider context before looking at the specific issues for botanic gardens.

‘Owners’ of gardens from various sectors have responded more or less opportunistically to this explosion of interest.  The National Trust (a non governmental organisation founded in 1895 to acquire and care for Britain’s countryside, coastlines and important buildings and gardens) knew from the early 1990s that it was its gardens that attracted most visitors.  This sat rather uneasily with its preservation of  landscapes and stately homes which tended to absorb its financial resources.  Surveys in 2003 have confirmed that over 60% of its visitors join the organisation ‘for its gardens’, rather than for its stately homes, and that these members are the ‘frequent returners’ who drive secondary spend (e.g. in the shops and cafes).  English Heritage (a public body responsible for protecting and promoting the historic environment) used this initial research by the National Trust to increase visitor numbers and the profile of its own gardens by launching the ‘Contemporary Heritage Gardens’ programme in the 1990s.  They launched design competitions for prominent young designers to augment an historic property with a ‘contemporary’ garden of style and relevance to the property.  The nine gardens realised at sites in the UK were highly successful.  In similar vein, Westonbirt Arboretum in Gloucestershire launched a yearly ‘Festival’ of invited designs, inspired by the annual festival of contemporary garden design at Chaumont-sur-Loire in France founded in 1992.  This has also been very successful.

Meanwhile, the ‘Yellow Book’ of private gardens open to the public under the charitable National Gardens Scheme (NGS), has grown from year to year and contributes millions of pounds to charitable causes.  This occurred alongside the ‘regionalisation’ of the Royal Horticultural Society’s (RHS) shows programme throughout the 1990s, making the Society far less London-based.  Together the NGS and the RHS serve a truly countrywide interest in horticulture and gardening.  For the RHS, this has greatly increased its capacity as an educational charity; training and informing gardeners in the science and practice of horticulture with recently increased emphasis on sustainability.

However, the real quantum leap in garden tourism has occurred due to two political developments which have worked in parallel.  The first was the decision of the British government in 1995 to launch a National Lottery with two beneficiary schemes of particular relevance to gardens (the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Millennium Commission’s Landmark Projects).  The second was the European Union’s (EU) Objective One programme for investment into ‘deprived regions’.

The three key new ventures have been the Eden Project in Cornwall, the garden at Alnwick in Northumberland and the National Botanic Garden of Wales, near Carmarthen, the first and last being Millennium Commission funded.  All these projects demonstrate important lessons for botanic gardens.

The not-so-hidden agenda of the Millennium Commission (MC) in the UK was regional regeneration and this is the key to the success of both Eden and Alnwick, which are probably best seen as regional regeneration projects as much as gardens.  By combining MC investment with EU Objective One money and regional development investment from the UK government, Eden is now a huge engine for economic regeneration in Cornwall where the traditional industries of quarrying, mining and fishing are in decline.  In its first year an estimated £150 million was generated for other businesses in Cornwall, which translates to a potential £10 billion in a decade.  Expansion plans this year (with further funding from the same sources) include the construction of ‘The Tree House’, an education resource centre.  This will be an exhibit in its own right (demonstrating the way plants and photosynthesis drive the planet) and also will house public and schools’ education programmes, visiting exhibitions and IT access.  Thus this ‘garden in Cornwall’ is supporting the region’s economy and simultaneously providing education, about the value of plants and positive futures for the planet, to between 1.2 and 1.8 million people a year.

Alnwick is driven by the charismatic Duchess of Northumberland.  It is also a regional regeneration project, using European funding, and has been a beacon for investment in tourism in the North-East of England.  It has a huge water staircase feature, a rose garden and a marketing campaign aimed at families with children.  New features planned include a poisonous plants garden, linked with its identity as the film location for Hogwart's School from the best-selling Harry Potter novels.

The National Botanic Garden of Wales, by contrast, has not attracted the visitor numbers it predicted and depends upon for fulfilment of its business plan; perhaps because of its relatively remote location.  As I write its future is still uncertain.

So what can botanic gardens learn from these trends and developments?  First and foremost, managers need to be opportunistic in locating time-limited sources of funding.  When funding is attached to specific regions, gardens do not need to be in competition, indeed it increases the opportunity for complementarity between gardens in their programmes - and nowadays partnership in projects is often the name of the game.

Secondly, gardens must adopt realistic business plans which have a good balance between sources of funding and not depend too exclusively on visitor numbers.  It is not enough to depend on the ‘wow’ factor of splendid conservatories which has worked for Eden; but not for the National Botanic Garden of Wales.

Thirdly, gardens must address how to access new audiences.  At Eden we have a far higher representation of non-traditional botanic garden visitors.  This is partly because many are general holiday-makers and partly because we attract them deliberately with a ‘funky’ style of interpretation and use of the creative arts in a live performance programme.  Younger people are deliberately targeted by the ‘Eden Sessions’ of music every August.  At Alnwick there is a big drive to encourage children – the fact that this has sometimes upset the traditional horticultural establishment probably means they are on the right track!  Eden has paid great attention to providing for the less-abled and socially-excluded (through collaboration with the Sensory Trust, )although we still have a way to go in attracting an ethnically diverse visitor base.

Fourth, it is worth remembering that botanic gardens already have a good track record as tourism sites.  There is a world-wide network who are already connected to local tour guides, already showcasing the country’s flora and already have education programmes.  Developing better links with government to get acknowledgement (and hopefully funding) for this is a positive step to take.  At Eden, for example, we have a joint contract from the government with the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, to advise on best practice for encouraging the public about novel products derived from plants, which may then drive the commercial markets for them.  It is as if governments have suddenly woken up to the fact that botanic gardens can deliver the public interface they need over a variety of issues related to horticulture, agriculture, sustainability and the Convention on Biological Diversity.  

In the UK this awareness has partly been driven by the awful experience of the Foot and Mouth disease outbreak in 2001.  The resulting closure of whole parts of the regional economy showed that tourism is as big and as valuable an industry as agriculture and significantly raised its profile.  In other parts of the world tourism is important for different reasons; the important consideration is to show that your garden is crucial to your country’s tourism strategy.  In this context, statistics can be very important.  In the UK, independent consultants working for the Tourist Boards showed that gardens began to outstrip other attractions from 1990, and in 2001 were the only sector increasing in visitor numbers (Béréziat, 2003). Having this sort of independent corroboration is very important.

Fifth, botanic gardens need to 'wise-up' about selling the effectiveness of their education programmes as generators of change towards a more sustainable lifestyle.  This is one-step further than what education programmes have traditionally tried to achieve, from awareness per se to actual change in behaviour.  At Eden we evaluate exhibits and public and school education programmes using the usual techniques (questionnaires, focus groups etc) but also using the latest techniques from the Centre for Innovative Learning in the USA such as ‘Personal Meaning Mapping’.  This technique (usable by volunteers) captures the visitors' mindset before a visit and measures the incidence of key words against the mindset/words used after a visit, thus enabling a quantitative estimation of change.  It actively demonstrates learning and shows a percentage shift in understanding (typically, at Eden, of 20% to 37%).  The technique is also widely used by Science and Discovery Centres, museums and galleries, so it can be used to compare learning in botanic gardens with learning in other cultural institutions.  At Eden this programme, run by Andy Jasper, is placed in the Marketing (rather than the Education) Department, showing that Eden is as committed to marketing learning and change as to marketing itself as a venue.

Finally, it is important that botanic gardens demonstrate their own sustainability, so that visiting tourists see how waste is recycled on site (Eden has a ‘Waste Neutral’ strategy and we are building a Waste Neutral exhibit), how renewable energy is employed (Eden’s Tree House will have a photovoltaic roof) and how purchasing choices by visitors can contribute to sustainable futures in plant-based commodities, so enlisting the tourist as consumer to generate change.


Béréziat, Claire (2003)  An Examination of the Garden Sector in the Context of the UK Visitor Attraction Sector.  Moffat Centre for Travel & Tourism Business Development.


En Grande Bretagne, dans les années 90, les visites de jardins botaniques ont fortement augmenté, poussées par la passion traditionnelle des Britanniques pour les plantes, à laquelle s’ajoutait la sortie de programmes télévisuels. Les manifestations et jardins du National Trust, English Heritage, National Gardens Scheme, Royal Horticultural Society ont tous accueilli des nombres croissants de visiteurs et en 2001, le tourisme des jardins était le seul domaine du tourisme à avoir augmenté d’une année sur l’autre.

Des jardins botaniques importants ont été financés grâce à la nouvelle Loterie nationale, comme des projets pour le "Millenium", le plus réussi étant le projet Eden. Les financements spéciaux de l’Union européenne pour les régions défavorisées ont été importants pour le projet Eden et pour le jardin Alnwick dans le Northumberland, tous deux étant des moteurs de développement économique dans ces régions.

Les jardins botaniques peuvent être avantagés s’ils identifient les possibilités de financements ponctuels ou régionaux et s’ils attirent de nouveaux publics grâce à des programmes innovants de marketing, d’interprétation ou de spectacles vivants. En utilisant de nouvelles méthodes d’évaluation, les jardins botaniques peuvent démontrer aux pouvoirs publics leur valeur comme vitrines du développement durable.


A partir de 1990 se ha registrado un incremento de visitantes en los jardines del Reino Unido debido a la pasión de los británicos por la plantas y al aumento de programas de televisión. Los programas y jardines del Fideicomiso Nacional (National Trust), del Patrimonio Inglés (English Heritage), de los Jardines Nacionales (National Garden Scheme)  y de la Real Sociedad de Horticultura (Royal Horticultural Society) aumentaron considerablemente y para 2001 el turismo de los jardines era el único rubro del turismo que aumentaba año con año.

Grandes jardines botánicos se establecieron auspiciados por la Lotería Nacional (Nacional Lottery) como proyectos del Milenio, como el proyecto Edén, el más exitoso. Dicho proyecto al igual que Alnwick Garden en Northumberland consideraron fundamental el apoyo a regiones con ciertas privaciones el cual ha sido aportado por la Unión Especial Europea (Special European Union), ambos jardines promueven así el crecimiento económico de sus regiones.

Los Jardines Botánicos pueden beneficiarse reconociendo oportunidades de financiamiento por tiempo limitado o regional y generar nuevas audiencias a través de mercadotecnia innovadora, programas de interpretación y representaciones en vivo. Utilizando nuevos métodos de evaluación, los jardines botánicos pueden demostrar a  los gobiernos su valor para promover una forma de vida más sustentable.

About the Author

At the time of writing, Sue Minter is the Horticultural Director at the Eden Project.
Eden Project
Tel + 44 (0)1726 811911
Fax + 44 (0)1726 811912
Andy Jasper can be contacted at the Eden Project, email: