Changing tourism behaviour can feel like a mountain to climb; especially when faced with ambitious sustainable development goals. Where do you begin? In our first article about The ‘Right’ Traveller, we debunked some myths; revealing why pursuing this segment alone cannot deliver the transformational change needed to drive sustainable tourism economies. Because while there are exceptional circumstances where individuals will stick to their principles, and minimise their impact wherever possible, the majority of travellers will always prioritise the experience first. After all, the reason we go on holiday isn’t to save the world, but to take the weight of it off our shoulders.
In this second article in the series, we look at the intention-action gap, which occurs when our actions don’t match our intentions or values. It is perhaps one of the best-understood topics of behavioural science and is particularly significant when it comes to addressing human behaviour towards environmental change. By better understanding why public awareness builds plenty of good intentions, but doesn’t result in desired action we can start focusing on how we use what we know about human behaviour to drive change in travel and tourism. In their efforts to meet their sustainability targets, we’ll explore how some leading destinations have already applied behaviour-smart thinking to take climate action, and advance on their sustainability journey.
The intention-action gap
When we talk about change and developing sustainable tourism economies, the conversation always comes back to the intention-action gap; the term we use to describe the difference between what people say they’re going to do, and what they do in the given moment. That’s because, according to a poll by Kantar in 2021 while 78% of people are concerned about the climate crisis, 46% don’t feel obliged to change their habits to mitigate it. Travellers believe that sustainable travel is important on a global scale (81%) but according to a McKinsey survey of 5,500 air travellers, only 36% are willing to fly less to reduce their impact. But even in the knowledge their actions matter, our Chief Behavioural Officer Milena, explains, “People travel to create memories and have an experience. Often, their number one motivation is to relax and not feel responsible. In both cases, sustainability becomes a barrier. By focusing our efforts on targeting the right traveller, we are placing too much responsibility on the individual to follow through with their intentions, act responsibly and make sustainable choices at every turn.”
The fact that the responsible mindset feels directly in competition with the holiday mindset is why we know targeting the right travellers won’t drive the change we need fast enough to meet sustainable development goals. So how can we drive behaviour change in tourism, when it so often seems in direct competition with enjoying ourselves? Here are three ways leading destinations employed behaviour change tactics to accelerate their sustainability transformation:
VisitNorway changed the choice architecture
A traveller’s actions are a result of the choices they make, and how we present these choices in the physical environment people experience can have a huge influence over their decisions. In behavioural sciences, we call this the ‘choice architecture’. The reason choice architecture is so effective is it doesn’t appeal to individual values, but makes the right decisions the easiest or the most attractive. A familiar example of this can be found in supermarkets, where food options placed at optimal positions in-store – eye-level, or at the end-of-aisle – influence a shopper’s purchasing decisions.
Making local food central to the visitor experience became a strategic focus for Norway more than a decade ago. Today, we can see how destination promotion supports this; if you land on the VisitNorway website you will immediately notice the emphasis on local cuisine. Rather than appealing to travellers’ values and encouraging them to choose the most sustainable option, VisitNorway changed the way its website presented information.
First, they made sure that visually, the website focused more on food and drink to bring it to travellers’ attention and make sure that when planning their trips, they had the country’s gastronomy top of mind. Secondly, the search algorithms were adjusted to ensure that when travellers look for experiences and places to visit the suggestions will prioritise local experiences, especially places and businesses that hold sustainability certification. “In this way, VisitNorway increases the likelihood that a traveller will spend more on food and will learn more about local traditions, both of which are sustainable travel behaviours,” explains Milena. “It is done in a way that aligns with how people plan and enjoy their holiday, and demonstrates the destination’s commitment to sustainability so it is behaviour-smart.”
VisitFinland makes it the default
Another way to guide travellers is to remove the barriers, options and choices they are confronted with altogether, and make the sustainable option the default. In line with Finland’s pledge to become carbon neutral by 2035, VisitFinland and more than 60 other travel and tourism businesses and destination organisations have signed the Glasgow Declaration on Climate Action in Tourism. Together, they constitute 10% of all signatories, solidifying Finland’s position as a world leader in sustainable tourism development. To meet ambitious net zero targets, the team here at BeSMART are working with VisitFinland to position carbon-neutral and low-carbon options as the default along the supply chain, effectively making net zero the easier and preferred option for tourists.
“By working to experiment with setting low-carbon/net zero option as default, Finland is the first destination to explore how tweaking the supply ecosystem can help steer traveller patterns towards more sustainable practices without limiting the economic benefits,” Milena explains. “So for example if by default all hotels, restaurants and attractions within a destination give you walking directions first followed by public transportation, this increases the likelihood that more visitors will move around the place by foot. If by default you make one meal of the day entirely vegetarian, then you contribute to the lower footprint of the visitor experience”.
Feel Slovenia make it easy
When it comes to fulfilling their intentions, many people fall short on their actions because they are subject to behavioural bias, favouring instant gratification over options perceived as more effort. To boost the use of more sustainable transport routes in their country, in June 2023, Slovenia introduced a new public transport ticket which makes it so affordable and so easy, that travellers would simply be foolish not to use it. The ticket, available in daily, three-day, weekly, monthly and yearly passes allows unlimited travel across a multitude of modes and carriers, so they can effectively travel across the country on one ticket, at one price. Currently, the ticket excludes urban transport, but this is planned to be introduced in the next phase of the initiative, anticipated to be rolled out before 2024.
By making the whole country accessible on one ticket, Slovenia is making sustainable travel easy for tourists, by simultaneously optimising their experience of the country with transport availability and affordability.
From a barrier to a facilitator
In each of these examples, the destination removed the perception that sustainability is a barrier to the experience, not by appealing to values and bridging the intention-action gap but by eliminating the barriers. In this way, they have set the stage for all travellers to be the ‘right’ travellers, by making the sustainable choices invisible and non-negotiable. By activating these behaviour change tactics and making sustainability a facilitator of the experience, we can all contribute to normalising responsible travel choices, be that low-carbon transport or local, organic food, and reveal the best of what each destination has to offer.