One of the most vexing issues we currently face is how to convince people to put the planet first. Working in a team with Professor Roy Ballantyne, Jan Packer and Karen Hughes have spent almost twenty years tackling this very question – how can we design wildlife and ecotourism experiences that prompt and support visitors to adopt environmental actions once they get home? It’s a complex problem, one that requires a program of projects that systematically take what we’ve learnt from one to build the next. Have we cracked it? Well, not completely, but we’ve certainly made substantial inroads!

Motivational factors and the experience of learning

Our early studies explored motivation – why do people come to sites such as botanic gardens and zoos and what are they interested in experiencing? How do these motivational factors impact on visitors’ experiences? (Packer & Ballantyne, 2002; 2004; Ballantyne, Packer & Hughes, 2008)? Not surprisingly, most simply wanted a nice day out with family and friends; learning about nature was a possibility but certainly not a priority. However, we did find something interesting – visitors were generally keen to discover new things, expand their knowledge and be better informed, as long as the information was presented in an interesting way. People see zoos and aquariums, for example, as places where learning is fun and emotionally engaging.  Our research found that the educational and entertainment aspects of a visit are not only compatible, but synergistic, and people seek an experience that has elements of both.  Although most visitors don’t come with a deliberate intention to learn, they do seek, or can be drawn into, an experience that incorporates learning (Packer, 2006). This told us that the design of on-site environmental messaging and activities would need to be engaging but not have the appearance of being overly effortful.

Strategies for encouraging environmental behaviour change

A series of studies exploring the design and impact of on-site factors followed – these were predominantly conducted in wildlife tourism settings – zoos, aquariums, wildlife sanctuaries, beaches (Ballantyne, Packer & Hughes, 2009; Ballantyne, Packer & Falk. 2011; Ballantyne, Packer & Sutherland, 2011). Worst project ever was handing out surveys on whale watching cruises – those who have weak stomachs will know exactly what we mean (Hughes, Ballantyne & Packer, 2006)! These studies revealed that most visitors already knew the planet was in trouble; what they wanted was evidence and guidance about what they personally could do to make a difference. For many, the scale of the problems seemed insurmountable or too far removed. Linking global issues to things happening in visitors’ local area, engaging visitors’ emotions, asking people to reflect on their own actions, and providing specific and easily achievable strategies for action all proved to be important in changing people’s environmental behaviour (Ballantyne, Packer, Hughes, & Dierking, 2007; Packer & Ballantyne, 2013a; 2013b).

Translating intentions into actions using post-visit action resources

Because our projects predominantly gather data pre-visit, immediately post-visit and long-term (4-6 weeks after the experience) we were able to surmise that hearts were certainly willing during and immediately following the tourism experience. Many visitors were able to clearly articulate how they would change their off-site behaviour and expressed strong intentions to do so. Across the studies, around 10% of visitors adopted substantial and sustained environmental actions, but for most, their good intentions simply didn’t materialise. Many either forgot or slotted right back into old routines (Ballantyne & Packer, 2011; Hughes, 2013).

Undeterred, we set about designing projects to explore the design and impact of post-visit support on long-term behaviour change. We figured that post-visit exercises and discussions worked for school excursions – they should work with all visitors. A series of field experiments in captive and non-captive wildlife contexts showed promising results – visitors provided with post-visit support (activity kits, online resources, prompts, social media posts) were significantly more likely to adopt environmental actions in the weeks following their visit than those in control groups (Ballantyne, Packer, Hughes, & Gill, 2018; Hughes, 2011; Hughes, Packer, & Ballantyne, 2011).

Tailoring conservation messages to personal values priorities

While these improvements were encouraging, the team still had niggling doubts that we weren’t engaging and inspiring as many people as we could. What were we missing? We went back to thinking about pre-visit and on-site factors, asking ourselves whether the ‘one size fits all’ model that we (and most tourist sites) were using was actually the best approach. This led to a collaboration with academics from University of Western Australia to examine whether visitors with different value priorities responded to on-site environmental messaging in different ways. Experimental studies with twelve zoos and aquariums in Australia, USA and Canada provided some interesting insights. First, educators and interpreters working in zoos and aquariums tend to prioritise Self Transcendence values; not surprisingly, they also framed site messaging and activities around these values (Packer, Ballantyne, Hughes, Sneddon, & Lee, in press). Second, most zoo and aquarium visitors also shared these values (Ballantyne, Hughes,  Lee, Packer, & Sneddon, 2018). What about people who prioritise the other three values?

We conducted extensive focus group interviews at zoos and aquariums in Australia, USA and Canada and identified clear patterns in the preferences and perceptions of visitors who prioritised different types of values We translated these findings into a values-based interpretation matrix (Ballantyne, Hughes, Sneddon, Packer, & Lee, 2021), and developed visitor enrichment materials tailored to each of four values groups. Our studies revealed that visitors who were provided with conservation messaging that matched their values were significantly more likely to adopt conservation behaviour than those exposed to the generic zoo messaging (article in preparation). The ramifications for practice are still being discussed, but the possibility of using apps to deliver customised values-based tourism experiences and post-visit support directly to visitors’ phones is not so far-fetched. The days of using a ‘one size fits all’ approach to changing visitors’ environmental behaviour could soon be numbered.


We are incredibly grateful to the many visitors who have given their leisure time to respond to our questions; the zoos, aquariums, wildlife parks and wildlife tourism operators who have partnered with us; the many colleagues who have joined us on this journey and become our friends in the process; and the Australian Research Council who have made the whole thing possible through a series of Discovery and Linkage Grants.


Written by Karen Hughes and Jan Packer, The University of Queensland, Australia
Read Karen’s letter to future generations of tourism researchers


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Women’s voices in tourism research Copyright © 2021 by The University of Queensland is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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