Could ecotourism hold the key for change in consumptive behavior?
Ecotourism is a booming industry, and many have high hopes for this industry’s ability to make a positive environmental impact the world over. Seemingly, this industry offers the best of both worlds—a wide-scale platform to practice conservation in key areas and a sustainable way to boost the economies of communities in need. While there are undoubtedly dangers associated with the mismanagement of ecotourism, many high-profile organizations—the United Nations, for one—have endorsed this industry for its potential to make both environmental and economic progress in the world.
Yet there is a missed opportunity in the ecotourism industry. Huge efforts are made to ensure the well-being of both the environment and communities in ecotourism areas, while the opportunity to promote long-term change in the consumer behaviors of tourists is largely ignored. While there is a niche market within the ecotourism industry that favors sustainable travel behaviors, this market emphasizes sustainable behavior while traveling rather than sustainable behavior as a whole. By incorporating branding, social marketing, and behavior change marketing techniques, ecotourism destinations can play a large role in changing the damaging consumer behaviors that are damaging our planet.
Resource Consumption: A Global Issue
It is hardly news that the numbers of many of the earth’s natural resources are plummeting into scarcity. According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the realization that many resources will soon run out is becoming increasingly widespread. Furthermore, in our age of globalization, the threat of resource scarcity is no longer localized, and the depletion of natural resources will be felt worldwide. Trade between nations has allowed many populations to enjoy non-native natural commodities, and as the human population on earth increases, the global demands for consumption increase as well.
Some of these natural resources are renewable. Yet, as often happens with biotic resources, the rate of renewal is unable to keep up with the rate of consumption. Other resources, like coal, minerals, and fossil fuels, are nonrenewable and will not be replenished once depleted. Overconsumption is a root cause of the degradation of much of the world’s environment. The depletion of natural resources will undoubtedly have—and in reality already is having—major global consequences, and a global problem requires a global solution.
While this is a global issue, the consumption of natural resources is an issue that is disproportionately distributed worldwide. AAAS states the following:
"The per-capita consumption of key natural resources varies hugely around the world. Typically, but not universally, the citizens of rich industrialized nations use more of the world's resources and produce more waste. Sometimes they thereby deplete their own environments; sometimes other people’s."
Yet citizens of industrialized nations fit a second profile: those who are also most likely to be ecotourism travelers. Furthermore, according to EplerWood International, even the most eco-minded of ecotravelers are not acting on behalf of their conservation values when making their travel purchases. To rectify this disconnect between conservation values and actual behavior, organizations must work with ecotourism sites around the globe to provide the messaging and tools for travelers to change their consumptive behavior once they return home.
Changing behavior through communication
Many ecotourists are in conflict: on one hand they value nature and wildlife, and on the other hand they make consumptive decisions that are detrimental to the planet. According to the World Tourism Organization’s survey in “The US Market for Ecotourism,” ecotourists tend to place high value on having interactions and experiences with the natural world. EplerWood International goes on to say that due to the face that eco-travelers want to reconnect with the natural world, ecotourism products need to better market the values inherent in this type of travel—conservation, nature, and connections with both communities and the natural world. In order to influence the long-term consumptive behaviors of ecotourists, ecotourism sites will need to provide emotionally compelling arguments for change while simultaneously combating existing consumptive habits.
Luckily, ecotourists are particularly poised for behavior change. Over the past few years, scientists have been making tremendous strides in the field of consumer habit research. Consumer habits have become a hot topic for businesses and communicators, and the subject has even sparked large events such as the Habit Summit at Stanford University. According to a wide body of research on consumer habits, a few conditions must exist in order for long-term change to occur.
Habits must be changed, not eradicated: Many habits, even those in opposition to a person’s values, persist due to lack of an alternative. In order to provide new direction for old habits, organizations should identify keystone habits related to detrimental overconsumption and provide alternative, sustainable actions to counteract these habits.
Habitual actions occur following exposure to a trigger: Since the “habit loop” starts with the exposure to a trigger or cue, organizations should use a variety of branding techniques to form visual cues and brand messaging to provide internal triggers for the replacement behaviors promoted at ecotourism sites.
Habitual actions persist because of a psychological reward: In order for a habitual action to persist, our brains must receive some sort of reward for the behavior. Built in to ecotourism communication campaigns should be emotional, social, and perhaps even monetary rewards for the adoption and persistence of replacement behaviors.
The habit loop requires disruption: Removal of the consumer from his or her everyday environment provides a great opportunity to disrupt the person’s existing habit loop. This disruption is built in to the structure of ecotourism, and provides a particularly strong environment for motivation due to the emotional responses reported by ecotourists during their travel experiences. Initially, emotion provides great motivation for change. By channeling an motivation for change into structures that help reshape the habit loop of tourists, long-term change will occur.
There is no doubt that changing overconsumptive behavior will take efforts from a number of different sectors. Governments will need to institute policies that ensure the sustainability of the world’s natural resources, and businesses will need to adopt more sustainable practices. Yet working directly with consumers offers an agility that cannot be matched when working with large-scale organizations. By impacting the behavior of consumers, communicators in the ecotourism industry can make an immediate impact on issues such as resource depletion, carbon emissions, deforestation, waste management, and a wide variety of other pressing environmental concerns.
 Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit (New York: Random House, Inc., 2012).