The tourism industry must take an active role in helping travelers close the knowledge-action gap. | Photo by Caleb Jones on Unsplash

September 26, 2022

More than 60% of people believe climate change is a global emergency, and they say they’re willing to take action to be more environmentally friendly. On the tourism front, 71% of UK travelers say sustainability is important to them.

Words are easy, though. It’s actually taking action that’s difficult.

People understand they need to make changes. They may even know how to make them. The problem is a yawning divide between what people know or say they’ll do and actually changing their behavior and/or taking action. Those sustainability-minded travelers? It turns out that, when given the option to offset carbon from their flights, less than 5% of people actually take action, according to one report.

This is known as the knowledge-action gap (or value-action or intention-behavior gap). It is a widely studied behavioral psychology phenomenon that means that showing interest in or stating an intention to do something does not automatically result in action or behavior change.

This is highly relevant in the tourism industry, where a drastic shift from a traveler-centric, quantity-driven model to one grounded in climate-positive, community-focused, regenerative practices is needed. In order for this shift to happen, travelers’ actions and behavior need to change. They need to choose less carbon-intensive transportation options, refuse single-use plastic bottles, and book locally owned accommodations, among other things.

So, how do we get to that desired state of tourism, knowing what we do about the knowledge-action gap?

Push for Systemic Changes

From the way tourism supports local communities to the way experiences are marketed to potential travelers, radical disruption is needed across the entire tourism industry. An industry-wide transition of this sort, however, requires systemic changes, meaning all parts of the ecosystem must change, thereby affecting the general behavior and delivery of the entire system. 

Systemic changes are needed so that, when individuals make travel-related decisions, the preferred choices are obvious, accessible, easy, and even incentivized. That gap between knowledge/intention and action is significantly reduced.

As an individual, your voice matters. A chorus of voices backed by intentional action (such as voting, using purchasing power, or boycotting) can greatly influence policy change. 

If you own a travel-related company, recognize that you are part of this system and you have a responsibility to make institutional changes as well. Use your financial, technological, and person-powered resources to make deep operational changes that make it easy for travelers to engage in environmentally and socio-culturally positive changes. Tools like the B Impact Assessment help uncover opportunities for improvement.

Create the Path of Least Resistance

True disruption in tourism would create a tourism model that is sustainable and regenerative by default. We’re seeing tentative steps moving in this direction, such as with Google Search making it possible to directly shop for train options in a few countries. Presumably this requires people actually searching for train options instead of flight options, and this requires knowledge and intention. The path of least resistance would pull up both train and flight options when someone searches for any kind of transportation options — or, going further, prioritizing train options even with a flight search and incentivizing trains while disincentivizing planes. Does that sound a bit bonkers? Well, that’s what radical disruption is.

Every travel company can do this to some extent.

When preparing itineraries, default to using locally owned accommodations and businesses. When booking transportation, suggest ground-based options instead of flights; if flights are the only ones, specifically seek out and present non-stop options and tack on a fee for offsetting carbon. Destinations can amplify traditionally underrepresented storytellers and alternative tours, and depress promotion of over-visited attractions. People are far less likely to opt out of things like a donation fee at checkout than they are to opt in to them in the first place.

For companies that have made deep operational changes, create a blueprint that makes it easy for others to walk in your footsteps; this is the corporate path of least resistance. Great open-source examples include Green VR Events event playbook, Much Better Adventures’ carbon labeling methodology, and Intrepid’s animal welfare policy toolkit

Avoid Shaming and Guilt Trips

Making people feel bad about flying away for a weekend trip or not using a reusable shopping bag when traveling doesn’t lead to behavior change. In fact, one study has even found that a barrage of eco-friendly tips can make people less likely to take any action at all.

To close the gap between intention and behavior, make the intervention relatable and desirable. Instead of creating a generic environmental appeal (“reduce your carbon footprint”), help people relate on a personal level (“keep your favorite beach clean”). And, keep in mind that social acceptance is important; if someone’s community is onboard with an action, they’re more likely to take action too.

Applaud Change Makers — Then Normalize Their Behavior

Right now choosing trains over planes and intentionally seeking out accommodations that are environmentally friendly is not easy. People who go out of their way to do these things should be applauded — even incentivized. 

Amplify the businesses and individuals who have found their way over the knowledge-action gap as examples that demonstrate change is possible. Better yet, explain how they’ve made that leap and normalize that behavior. 

These behavior changes might be extraordinary right now, but we want them to become the default way tourism operates. Normalize responsible, equitable, mindful, accessible, safe, sustainable actions and behavior in conversation, marketing materials, client communication, and day-to-day operations. Turn something that seems unusual and different into the way things simply are.

Change is hard. Habits are habits for a reason, and it takes a concerted, intentional, and repeated effort to actually alter behaviors and turn actions into new routines. People want to make changes. It’s up to the tourism industry to step up and make that easier by closing the knowledge-action gap.

My brilliant friend and colleague Milena Nikolova is the founder of BehaviorSmart, which helps tourism businesses design optimal and effective operational models around the ways people actually behave. I highly recommend checking out the company’s resources and services. This isn’t in any way a sponsored endorsement. Milena truly is the best in the business when it comes to closing this gap.



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