During the peak of the pandemic and travel restrictions of 2020/21, Phillip Island Nature Parks offered virtual travel to viewers worldwide by live broadcasting their iconic Penguin Parade via webcams. Known as Live Penguin TV, the nightly online events attracted global media attention and viewership reports of 25 million.
Live Penguin TV produced a much more interactive experience than the usual place-based webcams found at zoos and other places of interest. While demand grew significantly for many webcams during the pandemic, traditional webcams are often static, not staffed, and run 24/7 despite activity—or lack thereof.
Innovative features of Live Penguin TV were that it was scheduled to air every evening at sundown for about an hour when hundreds—sometimes thousands—of the 32,000-strong Little Penguin colony swim into Phillip Island’s Summerland Peninsula to waddle across the beach and return to their burrows in the sand dunes.
Located around 90 minutes’ drive south of Melbourne, the Penguin Parade is an internationally recognised wildlife tourism attraction that is managed by Phillip Island Nature Parks, a not-for-profit that leverages the tourism industry for its research, education, and conservation programs.
Multiple webcams at the site provided different angles, tracking, and zoom features; another camera set up in a studio captured park ranger hosts (and, on occasion, guest presenters and translators), who provided live expert commentary and discussed conservation issues. Audiences watching on Facebook and YouTube could ask questions in real-time and interact with the hosts and other viewers via social media chat functions.
As one of Victoria’s key tourism destinations and dependent on visitor spending, Phillip Island was hit hard by the pandemic and the sudden halt of international, domestic, and day-trip travellers. Local communities living in tourism destinations are also vulnerable to a loss of income, with flow-on effects on social life.
Tourism-related businesses, including the Penguin Parade, were forced to close during the Victorian lockdowns. While Phillip Island Nature Parks could reopen attractions when restrictions eased in regional Victoria, major challenges remained without market access. International and state borders closed, and 5 million residents in Greater Melbourne were in lockdown—some of the longest in the world, lasting more than 260 days. The strictest COVID-19 containment measures meant that Melbournians were under curfew, restricted to a one-hour outdoor time limit, and unable to travel further than 5 kilometers (around 3 miles) from home.
Phillip Island Nature Parks’ key services include protective and conservation initiatives through research, education programs, habitat restoration and management, and wildlife rehabilitation. Operations are self-funded and dependent on ticketed visitor programs and tourism experiences; further funding is attracted through the Penguin Foundation, which allows people to donate or symbolically adopt a wild animal on the island.
Responses to a survey with 590 viewers and more than 73,000 social media comments were analysed to gain an understanding of the impact and influence of Live Penguin TV.
Social media data confirmed the media reports regarding viewership numbers, with the top-performing livestream on the launch night reaching 840,000 unique views. More than 7.4 million unique users viewed Live Penguin TV from 119 countries worldwide.
Not only was Live Penguin TV displayed on millions of screens, but people were highly engaged and interacted with the content. Thousands of comments and questions were posted by viewers every night—1,200 on average, but up to 5,000 on popular nights—exposing real challenges for park ranger hosts in terms of chat moderation and management.
Watching Live Penguin TV became a ritual for many viewers during the lockdown in Victoria – 28% of research participants reported that they watched by themselves or with family on a nightly basis, and 38% at least once weekly.
A significant finding was a sense of community and connection generated with other viewers online. Live Penguin TV helped viewers cope with lockdown isolation, especially those suffering from extreme loneliness, depression, and anxiety due to the pandemic. Viewers collectively referred to themselves as ‘Waddle Watchers’, and after the final nightly livestream aired, they established a private Facebook group for interested viewers to keep in contact.
Para-social relationships generated with park ranger hosts also played a critical role in viewers’ experiences. The regular park ranger hosts became like celebrities and were highly valued by viewers, who reported wanting to visit the Penguin Parade to meet and thank the hosts.
Gamification, personalization, and conservation Impact
Interaction, as well as elements of gamification and personalisation, enhance webcam user engagement and connectivity. For example, viewers would guess how many penguins had arrived the previous night, with the answer to be revealed by the hosts. Some gave names to their adopted penguins.
The study’s findings support research claiming that virtual tourism experiences can instil a willingness to protect places and environments. The top reasons for watching Live Penguin TV relate to wildlife conservation and the natural world, education about them, and feeling connected to the outside world. Many viewers were influenced to take conservation action, such as symbolically adopting a penguin and donating to the Penguin Foundation, suggesting that the conservation messages were received positively.
Analysis of the Live Penguin TV data reveals that the campaign positively influenced travel motivation and actual visitation, supporting the argument that some webcams shape consumers’ attitudes and behaviours in terms of destination preference and visitation intention.
Increased likelihood to travel, bookings, and visitation were all reported for Phillip Island and the Penguin Parade, as well as the state of Victoria and Australia more broadly, by interstate and international viewers.
These findings suggest that Phillip Island Nature Parks’ innovative approach to virtual tourism experiences during travel restrictions is likely to contribute to the post-COVID recovery for Phillip Island by engaging online audiences to promote increased visitation from domestic and international eco-centric travellers.
Live Penguin TV served several purposes, including maintaining a connection and relevance with audiences, securing government funding to continue critical conservation operations, as well as retaining as many staff as possible during the lockdowns.
The success of Live Penguin TV suggests that interactive webcam travel can be employed to offset at least some of the impacts caused by the lack of visitation during a crisis. In the case of this virtual tourism experience, the campaign supported recovery by engaging new and old audiences online, encouraging them to donate in the short term, and influencing visitors to return to the destination or business once it was safe.
Live Penguin TV also kept Phillip Island Nature Parks and, by extension, the destination of Phillip Island visible and relevant in the marketplace and the eyes of the state government, which was crucial to maintaining funding for conservation activities.
Scheduled, hosted, and interactive models of webcam travel may be adopted by other tourism operators or destination management organisations to support similar sustainable tourism and conservation initiatives for wildlife and the natural world.
Blaer, M. (2023). Interactive webcam travel: supporting wildlife tourism and conservation during COVID-19 lockdowns. Information Technology & Tourism, 1-23. https://doi.org/10.1080/02508281.2022.2153994