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Student talk: the importance of sustainability in travel for millennials

The Next Tourism Generation Alliance got in touch with Melissa Tolman, a postgraduate Dutch student, as she has recently researched travel behaviour and sustainability issues among millennials. Melissa, the graduate of the master of International Leisure, Tourism and Events Management of NHL Stenden, won the second prize of the TUI-CELTH Sustainable Tourism Award on Friday 8 November 2019. We interviewed her to gain insights into this important topic.

“My research found that the reasons why people are failing to translate their beliefs into sustainable actions are because of convenience, habit, denial of the consequences, denial of responsibility, denial of control, they compare themselves with others, they justify their behaviour by thinking more about beneficial impacts than costs, and they use a vacation as a reason of exception in which negative impacts are allowed.”


For her Masters thesis, Melissa aimed to understand the travel behaviour of millennials more and the socio-cultural impacts their travel has on communities and cultures. During this research, she came across the attitude-behaviour gap, which explains the phenomenon that even though people have a sustainable attitude, they still show unsustainable behaviour. She observed that this conceptual lens had not been used before in research on socio-cultural sustainability in travel and tourism. So for her thesis, Melissa investigated the extent of the attitude-behaviour gap of Dutch millennial tourists that travelled to sub-Saharan African countries. In this way, she was able to use her own travel experiences and knowledge about sustainable tourism from the Masters programme as a tool to work on finding answers that could support the tourism industry and those destinations.


What is the biggest challenge for Destination Management Organisations (DMOs) when it comes to preventing negative social impacts by tourists?


“The greatest challenge for DMOs when it comes to preventing negative social impacts by tourists is to make tangible sustainable guidelines. A lot of negative social impacts are hard to control and they are harder to see. Social impacts do not stand on their own and are affected by many other factors. Because social impacts are more difficult to notice, tourists are unaware of the consequences of negative socio-cultural impacts and don’t know how to make their behaviour more sustainable. The DMO’s role in this is to create awareness about those negative impacts and to make social sustainable options more appealing and easier accessible.”


Do you know of any ‘best practices’ i.e. are there businesses that are doing a great job in raising awareness, showing alternative solutions and being a sustainable role model? Could you describe those?


“I know that concerning environmental sustainability, a lot of travel organizations are changing their business model and making operations more sustainable. Examples are carbon offsetting and no longer selling excursions where animal welfare is poor. This is already a good trend! Unfortunately, when it comes to socio-cultural impacts there is still a lot to learn. Several travel organizations have started sustainable campaigns such as the TUI Care foundation or Koning Aap Feeling Responsible campaign and added some socio-cultural elements in their new strategy goals by stimulating local initiatives and providing local excursions. This is a good start and helps raise awareness and show alternatives, but socio-cultural impacts involve much more than simply supporting local businesses. So overall, I think we are starting in a good way by taking socio-cultural impacts into consideration. But there is still a major gap of knowledge in guidelines on how to tackle these impacts.”


How should DMO’s and their employees be trained to prevent negative social impacts by tourists?


“First of all, tourism organizations and their employees should educate tourists and raise awareness about potential negative socio-cultural impacts they may cause. With this generation and an overload of information, it is important that raising awareness is not just providing more information. Awareness raising needs to be in a new creative way, which interacts and bonds a tourist with the culture and people of that destination. This is where the concept of storytelling comes into play. It is a tool to create meaning and emotion and this is necessary in order for tourists to really understand how potential impacts can create socio-cultural problems. The narrative explanation connects the tourist with the people and local communities.

Secondly, besides raising awareness, tourism organizations and their employees should be trained in proactively offering tourists sustainable alternatives. Tourists often contribute to negative socio-cultural impacts because they are not offered any alternatives. For example, tourists book a tour and wander through places of extreme poverty. As it is a part of the tour, tourists are not aware of the negative socio-cultural impact that they are causing. If travel organizations would offer alternative tours, tourists may not participate in such activities.

Finally, when it comes to advertising sustainable alternatives, companies can show examples of people that did it in a sustainable way. People and especially millennials are focused on role models and they need guidelines from other people to follow. For example, give a travel influencer the opportunity to go on a social-cultural sustainable tour. That person thereby raises awareness, creates a bonding storyline and shows the alternative. Furthermore, it also advertises the more sustainable travel organizations. Therefore, a win-win situation.”


How can the pre-exposure of a trip be influenced and have a positive impact on the planned behavior?


“The literature states that when people have an attitude-behaviour gap they fail to translate their beliefs into actions and thereby it has a negative outcome in terms of planned behaviour. My research found that the reasons why people are failing to translate their beliefs into sustainable actions are because of convenience, habit, denial of the consequences, denial of responsibility, denial of control, they compare themselves with others, they justify their behaviour by thinking more about beneficial impacts than costs, and they use a vacation as a reason of exception in which negative impacts are allowed.

When those justifications/barriers can be taken away, tourists would be more eager to translate their sustainable beliefs into sustainable actions. Therefore, before a trip DMO’s need to implement their strategies on how to raise awareness and show sustainable alternatives, so tourists will be more eager to choose sustainable options. Then planned behaviour has a positive outcome.

Because my research is in the early stage of identifying these themes, more research is necessary in order to establish implementing strategies on how specifically tackle these barriers.”


Do you think sustainable beliefs can be taught in education? What skills (green/social/digital) do you think should have a focus?


“Yes, I think that education is an important tool to get people’s attention at an early stage. This is necessary in order to establish sustainable beliefs and to form tools to translate those beliefs into actions. A specific example is me. Through my own travel experiences, I realisedthat I wanted to be more sustainable, but I felt powerless on how to do this. Through my Masters programme, I learned about sustainable tools to consider different aspects of sustainability in the sense of technical advantages, stakeholder approaches, (urban) green spaces and the aspect of cohesion in community and society and I finally felt that I could do something about it. I think there are a lot of people that are willing to change but just don’t know how. That’s why I think that education is extremely powerful for reaching those people.

I don’t believe there should be a specific focus on either green, social or digital skills. From my perspective and my knowledge of social impacts, a combination of green, social and digital skills is necessary. Like I said before, social impacts are almost never standing alone and are influenced by many other factors. Therefore, I don’t believe that only one of those skill sets will work, but that a combination of these three sets can be a good start for making a real difference.”


About the author: “Melissa Tolman and I am 24 years old. I finished my dual Masters degree in International Leisure, Tourism & Events Management at NHL Stenden in September.”


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