Summary Visitation levels are on the rise in protected areas throughout the world. In response, many icon sites are showing signs of overuse and more protected-area managers report tourism and recreation as threats to sustainable management. Clearly, there is a growing need to assess (monitor) and manage visitors to mitigate their impacts. In this paper, we articulate why targeted visitor-impact monitoring matters and highlight how existing monitoring programmes fail to deliver the necessary information to protected-area managers. We suggest that the availability and quality of visitor data are currently insufficient to facilitate the development of proactive management strategies in most protected areas. We call for more scale-sensitive (time and space) collection of visitor load and environmental (response) data. Specifically, since icon sites (like waterfalls and mountain peaks) are the focus of visitor motivations and activities, we highlight the case for proactive assessment, management and reporting of condition at these sites. Ultimately, visitor trends will be influenced by visitor management. If visitor activities degrade the icon, the financial benefits of tourism and recreation to a protected area may not be sustainable. In addition, the conservation and protection objectives of the protected area will also not be met.