What connects most of the recent high profile campaigns to make tourism more responsible? Stop riding elephants. Don’t swim with dolphins. Avoid handicrafts made from endangered species. No selfies with sloths. You mustn’t volunteer at orphanages. Fly less. They are all prohibitions. The primary emotion they work on is guilt.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the most effective way of persuading people to act in ways that are better for the rest of the planet and those we share it with. According to a new study by the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies called The Influence of Anticipated Pride and Guilt on Pro-Environmental Decision Making, highlighting the pride people will feel if they act in the more responsible way may be a better way to change the way they behave.
In 2014, George Marshall wrote a book called Don’t Even Think about It – Why our brains are hardwired to ignore climate change. The book explores why, despite overwhelming scientific evidence, the vast majority of us act is if climate change does not exist. According to Marshall: “Everything we see and hear about climate change triggers frames: responsibility, resistance, freedom, science, rights, pollution, consumption, waste – all our frames with their own associations.”
These frames result some rather confused situations. For example: People who vote Republicans are five times more willing to pay a two per cent climate change surcharge on an airline ticket when it is called a carbon offset than if it is called a carbon tax. Or where in an effort to reduce theft by visitors, officials at Arizona Petrified Forest National Park put up a sign stating: ‘Your heritage is being vandalized everyday by theft losses of petrified wood of 14 tons a year, mostly a small piece at a time’.
Rates of theft increased after the sign was erected, because although the sign tried to communicate the undesirability of theft, what it actually communicated far more powerfully was that stealing a small amount of wood was a perfectly normal activity.
So what should we do? How should we communicate? As is so often the case, the place to start is with the central mantra of responsible tourism, namely that is makes “better places to live and better places to visit”. That is an inspiring concept – it’s not “stop taking holidays that make the world worse”.
This is not to suggest that being all happy clappy is the way forward. We need to ground our inspiration in measurable truths. Quantify the quality we create.