In a New Light: How Behavior Change Can Shape Tourism’s Climate Shadow

sun shining through tree

Back in January, I introduced the idea of the ‘Climate Shadow,’ the concept ideated by Oregon-based journalist Emma Pattee to discuss its potential in the context of tourism. This holistic approach for many of us working in sustainability is promising and exciting, but how can we apply it to the context of traveling?

It all comes down to human behavior. How we think, behave and act decides how big or small our environmental and social impact is; our behavior shapes our climate shadow. If destinations and businesses consider their climate shadow when thinking about the influence they have on the behavior of their guests, they are creating an opportunity to play a bigger role in contributing to a more sustainable and equitable world. Travel and tourism, as Mark Tanzer, Chief Executive of ABTA, neatly summarized in their Tourism for Good roadmap in 2020 “is a powerful force for good; creating economic and social value, sustaining jobs, supporting businesses,…boosting investment and [playing] a unique and strategically important role in our global trade and diplomatic relationships.” But travel and tourism can only fulfill this role if it tackles the challenge of climate change, and sustainable development; so, destinations and businesses must use every opportunity they have to shape the behavior of their guests during their vacation to kickstart a chain reaction of environmentally-conscious choices that can transfer into everyday life.   

Here are three key behavioral insights I believe any travel and tourism businesses of any scale can use to influence the climate shadow of their own and of  guests as a force for good. 

Lead by example

Historically, in order to relieve themselves of their environmental and social responsibility, businesses and organizations heaped the responsibility on their customers instead. Plastic bottles asking you to ‘recycle them’, energy companies encouraging you to flick light switches off; we were all under the pressure to reduce, reuse and recycle. Customers today are wiser to these short-sighted tactics, and are rightfully demanding more action to match their own from businesses and governments to tackle the climate crisis. In order to effectively and authentically support sustainable development goals, travel organizations and tourism businesses should seize the chance to influence guests’ behaviors in ways that can influence their climate shadow in meaningful ways This does not mean going beyond the scope of your business or area of expertise, it means thoughtfully identifying the choices and behaviors that are relevant to your service and that clients make while enjoying an experience with you . 

For example, hotels can engage guests in reducing energy consumption by first, communicating the goals they have and the changes they’ve made, and second, inviting guests to join them, and be part of the solution and success. Better still, they can make these messages part of the design of the experience;  by including a summary at the point of welcome and arrival at the reception desk for example, or gamifying by installing funny prompts/signs next to switches or offering rewards for no towel changes. If you show it matters, your guests will understand it matters too. If you make it engaging, they are likely to play along. 

Leverage the context change

Behavioral sciences provide us with the understanding that most of the choices are driven by the context. What’s more, as this article in Behavioral Scientist highlights, “researchers have demonstrated that significant context changes, whether they be physical, social, economic, or emotional, can be powerful motivators of new behaviors. For example, interventions aimed at increasing sustainable behaviors like public transportation usage and conserving water and energy were far more successful when targeted at people who recently moved.” 

Context changes create opportunities for behavior change. Photo by Ibrahim Rifath on Unsplash

Traveling or going on vacation is one big context change. More often than not, it involves a new country, a new culture, or a new cuisine that is unfamiliar to the traveler. We try new food, we try activities we haven’t done before; to travel is to open ourselves up to new experiences and in cultural knowledge and traditions. In travel and tourism, we can leverage this context change to encourage positive climate behaviors through the experiences that we offer. A simple and delicious vegetarian meal tasted and enjoyed during a holiday can become a family-favorite; restaurants or hotels can encourage this by sharing the recipe of their signature pasta or curry dish via a recipe card or through their digital channels.  Not only is this an opportunity to promote your business beyond the flight home, but an opportunity to boost the climate shadow of guests by supporting the positive association and enjoyment of a fresh, low-impact meal at home.  Similarly, a no plastic policy at a hotel or resort, where guests are instead provided with a reusable water bottle, could be a wake up call for vacationers still in the habit of drinking bottled water. A nice reusable bottle to take home, after being introduced and used on vacation, offers an easy transition into adopting this behavior back in everyday life.

These ideas address small switches, but the change in context can promote even bigger lifestyle shifts: think back-to-basics, self-powered expeditions that encourage participants to reflect on overly cluttered and consumer-led lifestyles or how advanced sustainable societies such as the Nordics demonstrate the real benefits of less polluted urban living, to the extent that vacationers demand that quality of life for themselves back at home. In the open and receptive frame of mind we adopt when experiencing something new, lies the opportunity to show new behaviors and promote different ways of living. 

What’s more, destinations can play their part by offering experiences that make it easy for travelers to understand and internalize the concept of climate change and sustainability. Tours that take visitors into unique natural landscapes – often fragile ecosystems at risk – allow them to see, hear and understand what’s happening from the local guide firsthand, bringing the reality of landslides, melting ice, desertification and wildlife loss closer to home. Because like it or not, climate change is central to the narrative of these environments. Framing this to include evidence but also positive actions is important, as these tours must be enjoyable above all to attract and have an impact on vacationers. Experiences of pristine natural areas far from their own day-to-day can be catalytic; offering new perspectives, memories, and a sense of attachment to a place which can endure a lifetime.

kayaker in front of iceberg

Connecting travelers with climate narratives. Photo by Job Savelsberg on Unsplash




Leverage contagious behaviors 

Contagious behavior, sometimes referred to as Social or Behavioral Contagion describes the social dynamic of copying behavior in a group. When thinking about our Climate Shadow, choosing a green energy supplier or voting for environmental policies, our choices and behavior are contagious and will directly or inadvertently influence others in our social group. This is of vital importance in the context of climate action for two reasons: the first being it supports the belief promoted by Greta Thunberg that no one is too small to make a difference. If enough travelers cotton onto a behavior, then preferences, attitudes and actions change. Secondly, it invites us to consider the snowball effect of our own actions; how might we, as travel and tourism businesses, influence change beyond the short days and weeks of a vacation?

It can be as simple as service providers promote reduction of single use plastics by reminding their customers to bring reusable water bottles with them or sell visitors such branded bottles upon arrival at the destination with a simple map of water points around the city. Other travelers see reusable bottles and water points being used, so fill up their own bottles. The tourist returning home taking their new branded bottle to work, virtue-signaling to their colleagues not only about their great vacation, and affiliation to a reputable travel brand, but their new plastic-free behavior. From reusable tote bags for shopping, or coffee cups for cafe stops; our climate shadow has the potential to encourage proliferation of climate positive social behaviors. 

traveler carrying reusable bottle

Promoting contagious behaviors on vacation. Photo by Bluewater Sweden on Unsplash



Travel has the power to influence behavior and facilitate change in daily habits and choices, empowering people in small actions and intentions that together snowball into seismic cultural shifts — changes that shape our climate shadow and bring us closer to climate-positive living.

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply