Unlocking Eco-Travel: How Behavioral Science Is Reshaping Tourism

It's difficult to convince travellers and industry players to practice sustainability. Can the field of behavioural science shift industry-wide attitudes to make sustainable tourism the norm?
How Behavioral Science Is Reshaping Tourism
Many companies worldwide are offering adventure tourism activities while prioritising sustainability and ensuring minimum harm to the environmentPhotos: Aquaterra Adventures

As more travellers undertake journeys that have a minimal negative impact on the planet, hospitality businesses and tour operators are waking up to the economic and planetary benefits of travelling responsibly. However, it takes work to change mindsets and convert travellers and those in the travel industry to sustainable practices.

Behavioural science—a field combining anthropology, psychology, and sociology to study the workings of the human mind and people's interactions with the world—could help change attitudes by understanding the motivations behind human behaviour and harnessing them for change.

Making Sustainability Easier

Dr Milena S Nikolova, the founder of Behavior Smart, a Bulgaria-based organisation studying behavioural science methods in the sustainable tourism industry, said to OT that most tourists are mindful of their actions but often perceive sustainability as challenging to practise.

"Many of today's decision-makers were trained to treat sustainability as a niche market segment, so the way the tourism economy operates today makes sustainability difficult, complicated and requiring much effort," she said. "Someone on holiday is seeking to get away from the responsibilities of daily life. They are eager to enjoy some time off and share memories with close ones. We cannot expect them to put that aside and focus on responsibility."

Travellers' (mis)perceptions about sustainable tourism tend to solidify cognitive barriers and biases that turn them away from exploring how meaningful and fulfilling it can be. Booking.com's "Sustainable Travel Report 2024" says 47 per cent of Indian travellers felt that time spent travelling is too precious to warrant factoring in sustainability as a primary consideration when drawing up their plans.

Furthermore, 52 per cent of respondents felt the damage already done to tourist destinations is irreversible and their travel choices will not change the state of affairs.

"The effort should be on the side of the industry. We should stop hoping demand can drive sustainability and focus on making it possible through supply. The best way to travel sustainably is to choose travel companies and service providers that have made an effort to make responsible choices easy," said Nikolova.

A Responsible Choice

Aquaterra Adventures, founded by Vaibhav Kala, is a company that has gone the extra mile in making tourism responsible, sustainable, and easy for travellers. This adventure travel outfitter was launched in 1995 to fill a gap in customised treks and river rafting experiences in the Indian Himalayas and beyond. Some of the measures they have undertaken to reduce their impact on the fragile ecosystems they visit are: limiting their group sizes to 12 people for treks and 16 on river trips; camping away from water bodies to ensure that used water does not flow into them; installing slow showers to minimise the use of water in their fixed camps; carrying solar lamps on trips and using batteries solely to power UV water filters; banning motorcycle trips and limiting the use of jeeps on their expeditions; and carrying all solid trash from their trips and burying biodegradable wet waste like peels, egg shells and wasted food.

Dr Milena Nikolova (left) and Vaibhav Kala
Dr Milena Nikolova (left) and Vaibhav KalaCourtesy: Kalina Arsova

Finally, all their trips are run with the necessary permits to aid conservation and support clean-up operations, and over 95 per cent of their staff hail from the Himalayan regions. "Choose the destination well, choose your operators, speak to your guide and ask questions so you know your travel will not degrade the destination or erode its USP," said Kala.

Reap The Rewards By Going The Extra Mile

Greater transparency around sustainable travel choices can soften the cognitive barriers against travelling responsibly. "When people can clearly understand how sustainable tourism practices benefit the businesses and cities they patronise, such as by improving their infrastructural development and social services, then they will be supportive and proactive about sustainability initiatives," said Nikolova.

Thus, sustainability initiatives should treat the entire destination—along with residents, entrepreneurs and visitors—as one ecosystem in which the behavioural patterns of different groups work towards a common goal. If locals are careless towards the natural world and contribute to the wastage of resources and the generation of waste, then visitors cannot be reasonably expected to be more responsible and respectful than them.

Ultimately, understanding traveller motivation holds the key to change. "Travellers embark on a journey to create memories and enjoy an experience they will discuss with their friends and family. This will never change, so if we want to make tourism truly sustainable, we need to ensure that responsibility never conflicts with the joy of travelling," said Nikolova.

Related Stories

No stories found.
Outlook Traveller