Environmental sustainability has always been an issue close to my heart. Throughout my career I have made several attempts at contributing to this field. Much of my early work was descriptive, focusing primarily on gaining insights rather than creating change. Then came the realisation that, ultimately, I want my research to translate into real change – a measurable improvement of the environmental sustainability of the tourism industry. This insight required a complete reorientation of my research. I had to use social science theory to develop smart interventions that had the potential to change tourist behaviour. I had to find a way to objectively measure the behaviour of tourists to avoid self-reporting bias (Karlsson & Dolnicar, 2016). And I had to test the interventions using field experiments to be able to conclude with certainty whether they had the intended effect on behavioural change (Rossiter, 2001, 2002; Viglia & Dolnicar, 2020).
Research of this nature takes a lot more time and effort, and inevitably comes with failures – because not every intervention works. However, the research program aimed at enticing consumers to cause as little harm as possible while in pursuit of enjoyment has been, without any doubt, the most satisfying and rewarding of my career so far. As of today, I believe that the following of my contributions to this field have been most noteworthy:
The insight that even people with high pro-environmental values forgive themselves for not behaving in environmentally sustainable ways when they are on vacation
Most people care about environmental sustainability. It is reasonable to assume, therefore, that consumers would behave in the most environmentally sustainable ways across all consumption contexts. Unfortunately, this is not the case. A milestone study implemented by my PhD student Emil Juvan (Juvan & Dolnicar, 2014) demonstrated that even people who have exceptionally strong pro-environmental values – manifesting in their volunteering for environmental organisations – give themselves permission to behave in environmentally unsustainable ways when on vacation. Fully aware of the negative environmental consequences of travel and vacations, they adjust their beliefs to relieve the tension they feel about behaving in ways that do not align with their values. They use justifications – excuses – to make themselves feel better about this misalignment. Justifications include that they are still more environmentally friendly than other tourists, that they have no option but to travel, and that their behaviour in their daily lives is so environmentally friendly that they deserve to let themselves go a little bit when on vacation. The insight that even people with highly pro-environmental values give themselves absolution in hedonic – enjoyment-focused – behavioural contexts is critically important. It means that hedonic contexts are systematically different – they require fundamentally different interventions to trigger pro-environmental behaviour.
The insight that traditional messages targeting pro-environmental beliefs are not very effective in hedonic contexts such as tourism
The traditional path to changing peoples’ behaviour is to change their beliefs. Changing beliefs is firmly grounded in dominant theories of human behaviour, such as the theory of planned behaviour (Ajzen, 1985), and stands at the core of most (social) advertising campaigns. Yet, despite many tourism businesses and destinations relying heavily on the use of communication messages when attempting to make tourists choose more sustainable behavioural options, there is little evidence that this approach is effective. A study using stickers located at the exact points where people made a choice of behaving in an environmentally friendly way or not, for example, did not achieve the expected results (Dolnicar, Kneževič Cvelbar & Grün, 2017). In a study that successfully increased the voluntary opt-out rate from daily (unnecessary) hotel room cleaning, providing information to hotel guests about the negative environmental consequences of every unnecessary daily room clean, along with the information that it was in their control to avoid this negative impact by waiving the room clean, had no additional effect. The environmental information did not further increase the rate of opting out. The failure of belief-based behaviour modification strategies in hedonic behavioural contexts is a key insight, calling for new theory to be developed that accounts for these systematic differences compared to people’s everyday behaviour contexts (Dolnicar & Grün, 2009). It appears that people’s desire for enjoyment overrides the everyday mechanisms that drive their behaviour. It also means that we need to develop different practical approaches to change their behaviour. It should be noted, however, that well-designed information provision can have an impact on making tourists behave more sustainably, as León and Araña (2020) demonstrate in their study on towel and linen reuse in hotels.
Nudging (Sunstein & Thaler, 2008; Sunstein, 2014) is an obvious choice because it does not rely on people changing beliefs, but rather alters infrastructure to make the desired behaviour the easiest behavioural option to display. Nudging approaches have proven exceptionally effective in making tourists behave in more environmentally sustainable ways. Reducing plate size at hotel breakfast buffets, for example, reduces plate waste by one fifth (Kallbekken & Sælen, 2013). Changing the default from automatic daily hotel room cleaning to free cleaning on demand, reduces room cleaning by nearly two thirds (Kneževič Cvelbar, Grün & Dolnicar, 2021). And replacing thick cotton serviettes at breakfast tables with recycled paper serviettes – with the option to pick up a cotton serviette from the buffet – reduces the use of less environmentally friendly cotton serviettes by 95% (Dolnicar, Kneževič Cvelbar, Grün, 2019a). All these interventions save hotels money without limiting the choices of hotel guests, thus do not negatively affect guest satisfaction.
The development of practical measures proven to increase environmentally sustainable behaviour among tourists
We have developed several measures to entice tourists to behave in more environmentally friendly ways without causing additional cost to tourism service providers and without expecting tourists to compromise on their vacation enjoyment. Some of our interventions were ineffective (and therefore impossible to publish, unfortunately). Others have been highly effective. For example, offering hotel guests to share the savings from not cleaning a hotel room reduced room cleaning by 42% (Dolnicar, Kneževič Cvelbar & Grün, 2019b). Changing the default from automatic room cleaning with the option to opt out via a door handle sign, to daily room cleaning upon demand only (but at no extra cost), reduced room cleaning by 63% (Kneževič Cvelbar, Grün & Dolnicar, 2020).
My personal favourite among the interventions we have tested was a stamp collection game for families. The aim of the game was to reduce plate waste, which is substantial in tourism and has significant negative environmental consequences (Juvan, Grün & Dolnicar, 2018; Dolnicar & Juvan, 2019). For every day that families left no plate waste behind at the dinner buffet, they received a stamp. At checkout, they could redeem the completed stamp collection booklet for a little prize. Plate waste among families dropped by more than a third as a result (Dolnicar, Juvan & Grün, 2020). Food is increasingly acknowledged as a key factor that can and should be leveraged to make tourism more environmentally sustainable (Bertella, 2020). Future interventions should focus not only on reducing waste, but also on enticing consumers to increase their intake of vegetarian foods.
A framework for the development of future interventions
There is an increasing understanding that tourism needs to be proactively managed to be sustainable (Vogt, Andereck & Pham, 2020; Koens, Smit & Melissen, 2021; Bertella, Lupini, Romanelli & Font, 2021; Scuttari, Pechlaner & Erschbamer, 2021; Mihalic, 2020). To date, only a small number of practical measures (interventions) have been developed and proven effective in field experiments in changing tourist behaviour to be more environmentally sustainable (see Dolnicar, 2020). Many more such interventions are urgently needed to speed up the greening of the tourism industry. In my paper titled “Designing for more environmentally friendly tourism” (Dolnicar, 2020) I have offered a guide on how to approach this challenge, hopefully offering tangible guidance to other academic researchers as well as tourism businesses interested in reducing their environmental footprint. My research group and I will most certainly continue our endeavours to develop new, innovative and creative ways to entice tourists to behave in more environmentally sustainable ways without having to sacrifice their vacation enjoyment.
I am deeply grateful for the support of the Australian Research Council (FL190100143, DP180101855). Without this financial support it would have been impossible for my colleagues and I to make the contributions discussed in this chapter.
Written by Sara Dolnicar, University of Queensland, Australia
Read Sara’s letter to future generations of tourism researchers
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