Published 8 months ago.
About a 5 minute read.
Image: Ol'au Palau
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
A growing amount of
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
and reusing hotel bath
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
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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
“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,”
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
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
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
supporting local businesses that are actively engaged in responsible
environmental and cultural practices, eating sustainably sourced local food, and
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
Published Jun 12, 2023 8am EDT / 5am PDT / 1pm BST / 2pm CEST
JoAnna Haugen is a writer, speaker and solutions advocate who has worked in the travel and tourism industry for her entire career. She is also the founder of Rooted — a solutions platform at the intersection of sustainable tourism, social impact and storytelling. A returned US Peace Corps volunteer, international election observer and intrepid traveler, JoAnna helps tourism professionals decolonize travel and support sustainability using strategic communication skills.