Habit drives sustainable tourist behaviour

Published May 2022 by Sarah Maclnnes & Professor Sara Dolnicar

Sarah Maclnnes, Bettina Grün, Sara Dolnicar (2022), “Habit drives sustainable tourist behaviour”, Annals of Tourism Research https://doi.org/10.1016/j.annals.2021.103329

A challenge for the tourism sector is in reducing tourism’s impact on the environment. While many people limit their impact on the environment at home, when on holiday, people tend to act less sustainably. Overcoming this tendency is a critical issue for tourism; however, theories and interventions that have been effective at encouraging pro-environmental behaviours in the home context are often unsuccessful at explaining and influencing pro-environmental behaviours of people on holiday. These interventions typically rely on value and belief-based messaging, which requires people to pay attention and process this information; however, these are often ineffective. To develop more effective interventions, we propose that the tourism sector leverage tourists’ habits, which may drive tourists’ behaviour more than we think.

“Habit is defined as an automatic behaviour, which is acquired through repetition via a cue, a routine and a reward.”

This study examines how often people engage in environmentally sustainable behaviours at home and on holiday, and how habitual these behaviours are in these contexts. Examining the role of psychological drivers of tourist behaviour, such as habit, is important as it can inform the creation of interventions that are more likely to trigger pro-environmental tourist behaviours.

Key findings

  • We found that people’s pro-environmental habits dropped substantially from home to holiday. Behaviours such as limiting food waste, separating waste, eating leftovers, re-using towels, and avoiding heating/cooling all decreased when respondents were on holiday, compared to when they were at home
  • Habit explained 68% of pro-environmental behaviour at home and 72% on holiday
  • When asked for reasons as to why respondents did not enact a targeted behaviour while on holiday, frequently reported reasons were that the respondent did not think about it, that the holiday was considered a special time, so they could let themselves go a bit, or that the infrastructure they required was not available

“Even people who are committed to the environment and have pro-environmental beliefs in their home context, behave less sustainably on holiday.”


The finding that habit explained 72% of pro-environmental behaviour while on holiday highlights the promising potential for leveraging people’s habits to trigger change. Tourism businesses could use cues to remind tourists to continue habits from home or provide infrastructure, such as multi-compartment waste bins, to allow tourists to continue good habits. Tourism businesses can also break bad habits by leveraging the distribution to routine, which happens when people go on holiday. For example, tourists could be encouraged to walk or use public transport to get to their destination rather than drive. Overall, this study points to the potential for leveraging habits in promoting pro-environmental tourist behaviours and the need to test the effectiveness of habit-based interventions in real tourism contexts.

“The finding that habit is a powerful driver of tourist sustainable behaviour suggests that the currently predominant approaches, such as the provision of information about environmental impact combined with a request to modify behaviour, are unlikely to permeate awareness surrounding the behaviours because they have a strong automatic component”

Contact Sarah MacInnes or Professor Sara Dolnicar to learn more about the research.

Learn more about the Business Sustainability Initiative.