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Behavior Change
Inventive Incentive Programs Nudge Travelers Over Knowledge-Action Gap

An increasingly popular strategy for closing this gap is incentivizing ways for travelers to “give back” through actions that benefit the environment and local communities.

While kicking back on a beach in the Caribbean or hiking a trail traversing the Alps, would you pick up a rogue plastic bottle or candy bar wrapper to dispose of properly once the opportunity arose? If you’re like most people, you know you should pick the litter up; but whether you actually would or not is a different question.

A growing amount of research shows that people know they need to take climate action — and they say they want to — yet, there is a yawning divide between knowing and doing. The knowledge-action gap (also known as the value-action gap or intention-action gap) is well studied in behavioral economics. It essentially acknowledges that it’s a lot easier for people to think or be aware of something than it is for them to actually behave a certain way.

It holds true when people travel, as well — though the gap seems to be shrinking. According to the 2023 Booking.com Sustainable Travel Research Report, 76 percent of travelers say they want to travel more sustainably; and they’re increasingly adopting “micro-habits” such as carrying their own reusable water bottles and reusing hotel bath towels.

Nonetheless, the knowledge-action gap still exists; and one increasingly popular strategy for closing it in the tourism industry is incentivizing ways for travelers to “give back” through actions that benefit local communities and the environment.

One such example is the Mālama Hawaiʻi Program, which was launched in November 2020 with several hotel partners that offered a free extra night for travelers participating in designated activities such as picking up beach litter, planting trees and building trails. The program has grown significantly since then — with several more hotels signing on, a wider breadth of community partners, and new incentives ranging from waived resort and parking fees to a free night of accommodation.

“Our goal is to attract mindful visitors who will leave Hawaiʻi better than when they arrived. By doing so, visitors will experience a deeper connection and a vacation that really becomes more meaningful to them,” said Hawaiʻi Visitors and Convention Bureau President and CEO John Monahan in the press release for the program’s launch.

It’s not just something travelers will experience; it’s something they want to experience: Booking.com’s findings indicate nearly half of travelers want discounts and economic incentives to encourage sustainable decision-making, and 75 percent of travelers seek authentic experiences representative of the local culture. So, while travelers are receiving something in return for their participation in Hawaiʻi’s incentive program, they’re also finding an elevated experience: “Hawaiʻi visitors are looking for an authentic experience, not just the commercialized luau shows,” said Susanne Kurisu, interim executive director of Hawaiian Legacy Reforestation Initiative.

The Hawaiian Legacy Reforestation Initiative works with dozens of organizations, including the Mālama Hawaiʻi Program and direct hotel partners, to provide tourists with volunteer opportunities. It has planted more than 600,000 native and Hawaiian trees through all of its programs; 30 volunteers and 196 planted trees have been a direct result of the Mālama Hawaiʻi Program.

“Beyond the forest itself, we try to also enlighten our volunteers of the importance of restoring a biodiverse, native Hawaiian forest beyond the trees,” Kurisu said. “We stress the imperative importance of native and endemic versus just ‘any tree’ and the connection to the Hawaiian culture.”

Moving from statewide to nationwide, the Ol’au Palau program will reward responsible travel throughout Palau via an app — which is currently in beta testing. Visitors will be able to accumulate points in the app by doing things such as offsetting their carbon footprint, using reef-safe sunscreen, supporting local businesses that are actively engaged in responsible environmental and cultural practices, eating sustainably sourced local food, and avoiding single-use plastics.

Unlike the economic-based incentives rewarded through Mālama Hawaiʻi, Ol’au Palau points can be redeemed for cultural experiences normally reserved for Palauans and close friends. “Ol’au” is a way to call out to a friend to invite them into your space in the Palauan language; and that’s the intention of these unique opportunities — which include going traditional fishing at secret spots, meeting elders and touring historic sites, and visiting villages for taro patch tours and lunch with the community.

“We know from prior research that eco-tourists stay longer in a destination and spend substantially more than regular tourists; so it makes sense for Palau to attract and reward like-minded visitors,” said Merkii Basilius, manager of Travelr Palau, in the initiative’s press release.

While Hawaiʻi’s and Palau’s program are both wide-reaching initiatives, the slight nudge from knowledge to action doesn’t need to be a big one: A growing number of beachside resorts and restaurants throughout the Caribbean and Latin America offer free drinks in exchange for a bag of garbage plucked from the sand. These may be small gestures with small incentives; but where there’s garbage to be picked up — or trees to plant or weeds to clear — there are compounded positive results.

As Kurisu noted: “One hundred percent of our visitor guests are looking for a way to not only connect, but to create lasting memories and ‘give back’ to the islands.”

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