When you’re on holiday, relaxing on a beach or soaking up a vibrant city’s culture, the last thing you want to think about is your responsibility to the planet. But carefree holidays are a luxury that is costing more than our bank balances. The food and services sectors are major contributors to greenhouse gases. Tourism, often an expression of our modern hedonic desires, is particularly high in resource use.
But it can be hard to change people’s behaviours. For instance, would you choose a holiday marketed for its low energy and material needs? What about if you could have a 5-star holiday without costing the Earth?
Our research on tourist behaviour shows that people are happy to curb their material consumption on holiday, as long their holiday is rich in other experiences.
This is the challenge that the services sector faces in the drive to decouple happiness, consumption and resource depletion or pollution.
The consumption issue in the services sector
While many of us advocate for the tourism sector to reduce its carbon footprint, efficiency in energy use is not going to be enough to make tourism sustainable.
The call to switch to sustainable consumption is growing, often through combining a degrowth economic model with the decoupling of material consumption from well-being and happiness.
But these ethical and moral considerations around sustainable consumption appear to have relatively little substantial effect in the long term. For the services sector, particularly, the predicament to become more sustainable directly involves the customer.
Asking customers to consume more critically might be a confronting prospect for an industry worried about maintaining customer satisfaction in a consumerist society. But not always.
Showing strength of character
Our solution lies in applying positive psychology. People get fulfilment from using their own character strengths. It builds on the evidence that focusing on character strength-building and human happiness works better than any other approach when it comes to sustainable change.
So, can this be applied to tourism, a sector driven by its promise of carefree behaviour? What would a luxury tourism experience, designed around less material consumption and the application of character strengths look like? And what impact would it have on guests’ experience and sustainable tourism practices?
Our research suggests there are many ways that guests can become involved in making tourism green, using their innate character strengths. We applied these principles to six real-world examples from Christopher’s ecotourism venture.
Guests save their food scraps and feed them to the chickens. They get to meet their feathered friends and collect eggs (often for the first time). Result: together with recycling bins has halved landfill waste and sustains egg production.
Guests apply strength of self-regulation as they have to regulate behaviour by separating food waste the chickens can eat from other waste, placing it into a container and then visiting and feeding the chickens. There are no financial incentives; the motivation is to reduce harmful landfill waste.
Plant a native tree. The host provides interpretation and materials; guests pay $5 for materials, plant trees and take photographs. Guests receive a certificate and sign a register. Result: bird species increased from 20 to 50 on site and guests physically connect to the soil.
Guests apply strength of hope as they feel a healthy environment is something that can be achieved by their contribution. Hope increases when planting their tree after seeing trees maturing about them, the result of previous guests’ plantings.
Choosing a siesta and staying up later. Host provides ceiling fans, cool drinks in fridge (made from the property’s own limes) and attractive al fresco barbecue setting. This encourages guests to rest in the hottest part of the day, then enjoy cooler extended evenings outside connecting with nature. Result: contributes to 30% electricity saving.
Guests apply strength of citizenship as they acknowledge their social responsibility to consume less, change their behaviour to do their bit to minimise resource use, and share the experience as a group.
Selecting natural ventilation at night instead of air conditioning. Host explains how to use the natural ventilation in the accommodation, as cooler night air in summer means cottages are 4°C cooler in the morning. Result: contributes to 30% electricity saving and guests hear charming frogs at night.
Guests apply strength of social intelligence as often they are fearful for their security at night and prefer to have windows locked. They acknowledge this conflicts with the need to consume less and not rely on the air conditioning. Accepting their concerns, they adapt and use natural ventilation in an uncommon location.
Host explains rainwater harvesting resource limitations and benefits of homemade aromatherapy bath treats. Guests choose to share baths or rotate bath use. Result: contributes to 25% gas and water saving while the aromatherapy recipes use natural essential oils and offer guests long-lasting scents.
Guest applies strength of leadership as they try to apply pro-environmental action and encourage other members of their party to change their bathing routines.
Choosing greener travel. Guests can choose not to drive but use the complimentary bicycles and buy a picnic of locally sourced treats. Guests relax and reconnect. Result: memorable experiences (including proposals of marriage!) and less carbon dioxide car pollution.
Guests draw on strength of zest to choose to ride a bicycle (which they may not have done for some time) and joyfully discover the peaceful lanes and the invigorating ride.
In sum, targeting character strengths such as self-regulation, citizenship, hope, perspective and social intelligence may be an effective way to drive change towards more sustainability-oriented behaviours.
Happy, frugal tourism
Today people want personalised travel experiences. Here lies the opportunity for business people seeking to build their brand in the most sustainable way possible.
Involving people in creating a sustainable tourism experience can lead them to behaviour in new, fun ways. Examples like Coral Cay Conservation, Echidna Walkabout and Chepue Ecolodge all directly involve the customers to help conserve resources.
This year commemorates 20 years of the Responsible Tourism movement. Tourism is slowly evolving and with it opportunities for individuals to apply new knowledge and skills which can become transformational experiences. These small actions (known as the “Copenhagen effect”) can make a significant difference.
By introducing positive psychology into the design of tourism experiences, guests willingly and happily trade in their material consumption for forms of non-material consumption that benefit them, their health and the environment, allowing the services sector to ask customers to tread more gently and happily.