Planning Tourism for Reality, Not Hopes and Dreams

With this week’s article we take a look at how behavior-smart thinking can enhance milestone efforts such as creating a tourism plan for a destination. We put the spotlight on the small behavioural barriers that can make a lengthy and complex process of developing a tourism plan ineffective, and outline some simple tactics that can increase the likelihood that a destination plan will live.  

This article is part of a series, co-written by Simon Jones (NatureScapes) and Milena Nikolova (BehaviorSMART), focused on understanding human behavior and how it impacts tourism in natural spaces.

Photo Credit: Thomas Bormans

Photo Credit: Thomas Bormans

The Dusty Shelf Challenge

How many tourism plans are out there that sit on a shelf and collect dust? Thousands would probably be a reasonable guess. Why is this? One factor is often a disconnect between the goals in a plan and the reality of how and who needs to take the actions so that they are implemented.

A wonderfully written tourism plan that is never implemented is, unfortunately, not worth the electrons used to create it. Having been involved in many tourism planning efforts around the world, we are painfully aware of the ones that lead to nothing. We have also learned to understand what has worked with those that are successful. So how do we improve the odds that a tourism plan is actually implemented?

In this article we explore strategies to help ensure a tourism plan is actionable, based on behavioral realities, rather than on lofty aspirational thinking that won’t become a reality.

If you’re planning tourism for a destination, site or attraction, we are not suggesting you radically change your approach. Most planning these days focuses on a participatory approach and well-trodden toolsets for co-creating a tourism plan, which, at their core, are fine. What we are suggesting is to integrate some additional thinking and adjustments to the planning process that may help improve the chances a tourism plan is actually implemented.

Photo Credit: Amélie Mourichon

Photo Credit: Amélie Mourichon

Five Behavioral Thinking Tips for Tourism Planning

Just as we look at the realities of tourism markets, policy, finance, etc. when planning tourism, we should also look at the reality of human behavior in a place, and how that impacts the activities proposed in a tourism plan.

Looking at what causes a great tourism plan to sit on a shelf when it comes to implementation, we have identified five factors that, with a little behavioral thinking applied to each, can make a  tourism plan come to life; these are:

  • Ownership
  • Aligned Incentives
  • Time/Season
  • Momentum
  • Fun/Enjoyment

Ownership – The Right Mix of People… 

Not everyone involved in tourism has the ability or willingness to take action on the steps outlined in a tourism plan; recognizing this from the start is important. In addition, most people that do have a willingness/ability to act will only be able to do so on certain aspects that fit with their goals, interests and abilities. Realistically matching these ‘human resources’ to the respective actions within the plan is a critical component of turning it into action.

This is not to say that a broad group of tourism stakeholders should not be engaged in the planning process, their inputs are critical, but we need to be realistic that not all will be involved in implementation of the actions. The common understanding at the beginning of who is responsible for what towards the common goal can instill social commitments that can play a positive role in implementing a plan.

The people that own the plan, must be the people that can and will lead the implementation of it… Seems simple enough, but let’s dissect this statement as there are several important elements to it.

  1. The collective ownership question: 

No one person, or even organization, has the bandwidth or ability to do everything in a tourism plan, so a group of people from different organizations need to ‘own’ a plan to ensure it is implemented.

Often it is a third party who puts a tourism plan on paper and facilitates the planning process. This team has the knowledge of tourism to enable them to create a plan that (hopefully) makes sense from an industry perspective. However, they are not the owners of the plan; this could be the organization that contracted them and/or other tourism organizations in a destination.

As we are rapidly moving to more resident-centered tourism philosophies, a key component to a successful tourism plan is collective ownership by a local ecosystem of individuals, companies and organizations that will make it happen. This means that multiple people need to feel ownership in ways that go beyond being part of a participatory workshop, or an interview. A participant that has been a part of such meetings may feel they have contributed their ideas, but not feel ownership of the plan, as they were not meaningfully involved in its creation and therefore feel no major responsibility in implementing it.

Photo credit: Antenna

Photo credit: Antenna

There are two major levels of community involvement in a planning effort, both of which are critical. The first is the broad engagement and involvement of the tourism (and non-tourism) community in an active role in creation of the plan, but not necessarily a significant responsibility in implementing it (due to time commitments, capacity, etc.). Within this group the reality is that a smaller group of stakeholders will be identified, or emerge, who can represent the community in leading the development of the planning document and have a responsibility in pushing the implementation efforts forward. This more meaningful involvement requires input of ideas and discussion on priorities along with others in the community, but also more significant time commitment (beyond one or two meetings) as well as involvement in the evolution and refinement of elements that go into the final plan.

Sense of ownership is shaped by this substantial involvement in the process and the sense that one’s own vision is embodied in the plan. It also comes through a greater sense of responsibility that, by being closely involved, one is committed to acting on the plan.

For example, a classic participatory planning methodology brings stakeholders together to go through a facilitated process of identifying and collectively prioritizing tourism goals that then form the basis of the plan. But, these meetings are often hosted by an individual organization and 1-2 lead facilitators. They are often seen as the sole leaders and therefore ‘owners’ of the plan that is created.

If in the early stages of planning efforts (before participatory workshops, etc.) a small group of local individuals/organizations are identified that are likely to be able to act on implementing the plan, then providing these local stakeholders with the tools, templates and skills to hosts the broader stakeholder meetings, leading the workshops and facilitating the process, helps to cement local ownership of the plan and improve implementation. This design allows for the engagement of external contributors but they serve as advisors and experts rather than owners or facilitators of the process.

The process also needs to create openings for others that may not have been part of the early process, to get involved and become co-owners during later stages of the planning. These champions need to be engaged in leading the refinement of inputs received in the planning workshops into meaningful actions, spreading ownership and broadening responsibilities to more local stakeholders that can make it happen. This ‘ownership’ group will then be the people that present the plan to the broader community and are recognized as leaders of the implementation efforts.

Traditionally, many of these detailed planning steps are pieces that are done behind closed doors by a small (often external) planning team once they have all the information they need. The output of these steps is then presented to stakeholders. However, such a process does not facilitate local ownership of the plan and often alienates key members of the local stakeholder network.

From a practical perspective, these detailed planning steps require greater participation of people with the ability to implement and willingness to own the process. This will necessitate the third-party planning team and the organization contracting them to step back, play more of a mentorship and advisor role and encourage local ‘owners’ to take a lead in the process.

The reality is that such an approach will require a bit more time, as the planning team will need to engage wider groups of potential owners throughout the process, providing them with the tools, templates and skills to lead efforts themselves. While the time investment is more significant, the end result will be greater ownership of the outcome and a greater chance of implementation success — all important returns on the initial investment of time.

Photo credit: Manish Sharma

Photo credit: Manish Sharma

  1. Ability and willingness to take action: 

It seems common sense, but the people that have the power, resources or willingness to implement what’s in a tourism plan need to be meaningfully involved in the process and own the plan. As different groups have different skills, resources, and levels of commitment, identifying the right people locally and putting them in the driving seat of the planning process will ensure that a dusty shelf with untouched reports on it is not a place for your tourism plan.

We should reiterate that we are not proposing to exclude a broader community group to provide input in a plan, but that the reality is that leadership in implementing plans is often driven by a smaller number of people that feel they own the plan and have the ability and willingness to push it forward. This is usually about 5-10 key people, but can be more. Their willingness is also often dictated by aligned incentives that fit with their personal or professional goals or interests.

Aligned Incentives 

As the major actions for a tourism plan start to take shape, aligning those actions with the people or organizations that have an incentive to see them happen will help ensure the plan is implemented.

Analysis is an important part of tourism planning, looking at current markets, policies, resources, etc. Adding a behavioral layer to this process can help understand the goals, interests, incentives and actions of different tourism stakeholder groups in the destination. Incentives may include:

  • Professional or organizational goals (actions align with what people need to be successful in their own job or as an organization)
  • Financial (the action helps to enhance financial returns to the person or organization)
  • Recognition (by implementing the action, ones standing within the community is lifted)
  • Social pressure (expectation by peers or within the community to implement certain actions)
  • Community and common good (by implementing the action the community or landscape as a whole is enhanced for the benefit of all)
  • Competition (not wanting to be outdone by neighbors, neighboring communities, etc.)

Mapping this information out can help to tweak goals and actions within a plan and align them with specific tourism stakeholder groups to ensure they have the greatest chance for implementation and success.

The more targeted the behavioral analysis the more focused goals and actions can be within a plan on who and how they will be implemented. A quick way to start is to ask these simple questions about each stakeholder group and tabulate/map the answers.

  • What are citizens’ top tourism interests as it relates to the plan (different groups will likely have different interests)?
  • What are each organizations/individuals incentives in realizing the interests listed above?
  • What benefit does each organization/individual get from the implementation of the action within the plan?
  • What is each organization’s/individual’s ability (financial, technical, etc.) to implement the interest items listed above?
  • What are their main obstacles to moving forward?
  • Are the interests of one group, organization or individual at odds with the interests of others and how do these impact the implementation of the plan?
  • Who has the time, and how much time is required, to move the actions forward?

Starting with these questions and tabulating the results, matching organizations/individuals with actions within the plan, will help to align who has the incentive to move each component of the plan forward and where there may be barriers that should be removed.


During a tourism planning workshop a local community NGO identified an interest in conserving an area of land next to an existing national park as it was an important area to protect the clean water supply for the community. This goal also aligned with local tourism businesses interests as it could be used for hiking and kayaking activities. A different segment of the community, however, was against the idea.

By mapping the interests, incentives, benefits, abilities and issues of each stakeholder group, aligned interests and issues could easily be identified that helped to guide additional discussions between key stakeholder groups. It was identified that those against the project were divided into two camps, one group was worried that the conservation of the land would take away from the tax base for the community and another that resources used to protect the land and build trails could be used for downtown revitalization efforts instead.

With this information, further discussions were had, identifying that each party could agree that water quality was important and that any investment made in the land should have a financial return and community benefit greater than the input investment.

A separate member of the community identified that there were grants available for land conservation efforts, reducing the local investment requirement that would allow for downtown revitalization. It was decided that a feasibility study would be needed to ensure that conserving the land could stimulate enough tourism revenues to more than offset the reduction in the tax base from the land being conserved. The local government agreed to fund the feasibility study and collectively the group agreed on a process for deciding whether the project would proceed or not. The local NGO agreed to organize an awareness campaign within the community about the potential project as well as lead the land conservation efforts, assuming the feasibility study confirmed it was feasible to proceed. Local businesses agreed to work with the government to secure funds for trail and other investments needed on the property to enhance its tourism and local recreation potential.

Photo credit: Yaniv Knobel

Photo credit: Yaniv Knobel


Time is a valuable resource and understanding who has availability and/or the interest in providing time to implement the plan is important. Leaders within a community are often overstretched and have limited time, even if they have willingness to see the plan implemented. Being realistic about the available time of key people to implement components of the plan and the actions in the plan that are a priority for them helps to set realistic expectations and design the process in a way that maximises engagement. Actions can also be combined with other ongoing activities, leveraging time commitments people may already have made towards an activity to also complete an action in the tourism plan.

There may also be opportunities to identify people that have more available time and an interest to play a greater role in their community. Lifting up new leaders within the local ecosystem and understanding their incentives, abilities, interests and capacities may help to find new champions for actions with the time and incentives to make it happen. Such a process can also help to identify what support, such as training or mentoring, potential new leaders in a community may need to take on such projects and plan for that support as part of the overall strategy.

Photo Credit: Jason Goodman

Photo Credit: Jason Goodman

Time of year and season is also a factor that should be closely considered in the implementation of actions. Some actions can only happen at certain times due to weather; at other times during the year, major parts of the community may have other priorities that prevent them from focusing on the plan (such as harvest, holidays or tourism high season). There may also be local cultural or practical preferences that dictate when and how actions will be most productive. Identifying and understanding when people will have time to focus on implementing the tourism plan helps for realistic scheduling of activities. Making a targeted effort to align with people’s schedules and accounting for their availability has another important psychological effect — it activates reciprocity: you respect my time and schedule, and I will respect the plan and commitments we are making. This can be an important factor in ensuring that stakeholders will stay engaged and fulfill obligations even if the process is extended in time.

Two key questions to integrate with your planning process is therefore:

  1. When can actions be implemented?
  2. When are people available to implement actions?

Momentum (Behavior-Smart Quick Wins)

‘Quick wins’ are a common phrase in tourism plans. These are actions that can be started immediately to get the ball rolling on implementing the plan. The reason quick wins are important is that they show early success, even if small, and encourage others in the community to get involved. They also build confidence among those implementing to then take on larger or longer-term activities, which require effort and will provide results some time in the future.

A constraint in many tourism plans is the simple fact that the envisioned activities are costly, take considerable time to implement and are complex to execute (although these activities are usually vital to enhancing tourism in a destination). Preparing, fundraising and additional planning is often needed for such tasks, for example building trails and visitor centers or marketing campaigns. The biggest challenge, however, is the behavioral effect that this complexity triggers – the disengagement that may be caused by the inherent human difficulty of imagining complex outcomes that are extended in the future. This is why activating some successes early on to fuel excitement and hope, and maintain them through smart timing of efforts and achieved milestones can be key to planning realism.

Some behavior-smart solutions can be integrated into a tourism plan to ‘get the ball rolling,’ as they usually require minimal investment and focus on ‘tweaking’ existing designs, tourism products, visitor flows, regulations, etc. in ways that change behaviors and outcomes. Working together on these simple actions, can strengthen collaboration and buy-in for more complex longer-term initiatives.

For example, water usage is an issue in many destinations. Traditional methods to limit usage including policy, pricing, and broad public awareness campaigns have little effect on visitors as they don’t directly impact them and they take time to organize and implement. A ‘quick win’ behavioral solution to such an issue could be to provide information in visitor rooms in a fun format making guests aware of the local water shortage problem and offer simple water-saving tips that are realistically easy to implement. A sign visualising the difference between a 5-minute and a 10-minute shower placed in the shower area is a good tactic that can produce immediate effects. Linking this, in a fun way, to an easy benchmark that highlights what others are doing and the impact, provides context and reinforced the message. A samples message may read:

Please be aware, we have severe water shortages in this area. A 10-minute shower consumes 25 gallons of water; 75% of people staying in this room kept their shower to 5-minutes, saving enough water for someone in the community to drink for 25 days. So please save some water, we can make more ice cubes for your drink at the bar… and you’ll get there 5 minutes quicker!   

The objective, when developing a tourism plan, is to identify quick behavioral actions that can be tweaked relatively time and cost effectively to show early successes with the plan. Additional examples of behavioral tweaks can be found in our earlier articles (see links at bottom of this article).


As we develop the details relating to each action in a tourism plan, it is worth considering how to design actions to make them as fun and engaging as possible for those that are involved in their implementation. Doing so will help to enhance involvement in the action and its implementation.

People enjoy meeting up and socializing, so actions that can integrate a degree of socialization can be great ways to achieve a goal, while also having some fun together. For example, if an action identified in the plan is to clean up a stream and trail in the region, this could be contracted to a company to do, but alternatively it could be designed as a community event to bring the community together to clean the area and have a celebration at the end of the day (food, music, etc.). This can be attached to an evening concert or a fun competition that wraps up the action in positive emotions. Making the right thing to do the fun thing to do is even more important as all of us suffer from crisis fatigue and are unwilling to go along with more crisis messaging and dramatic framing.

Photo credit: Jeremy Bezanger)

Photo credit: Jeremy Bezanger)

Opportunities to integrate behavioral thinking into tourism planning are significant. Each planning effort and location will have its own context and possibilities, but by adding a behavioral layer to planning efforts we help improve the chance that actions will be implemented, because we are able to understand and plan for the reality of human behavior in a place. In addition, it helps us identify behavioral tweaks that may provide ‘quick wins’ to achieve early success as well as ways to better engage the community in the actions set out in the tourism plan.

Further examples of behavioral tactics can be found in other articles in this series.

Look out for our next article “Pricing & Packaging Tourism Activities” 

This article was brought to you by:

NatureScapes & Behavior SMART