‘I’m just not that type of tourist’

Even environmental activists go on holiday – although they may feel guilty about their impact on the planet. Now research has revealed the six most common excuses they use to justify their behaviour.

Most travellers are aware of the effect of flying on climate change, however recent research suggests that the tourism industry is having a much wider environmental impact.

Activities such as walking, surfing, diving, boating and camping can all cause damage, not to mention the use of drinking water, and the problems of pollution and waste. Even what we eat on holiday is an issue as food consumption may have a greater impact than flying.

All this is enough to give the average holidaymaker a guilt complex, but what about those who are committed to a ‘green’ lifestyle? A study by PhD student Emil Juvan interviewed over 30 environmental activists in an attempt to find out about their holidays. He discovered that most enjoyed at least two vacations a year and some many more, and many felt tension about the environmental cost.

Emil says: “The environmental activists participating in the study were highly aware of the negative environmental consequences of tourism in general, but all displayed an attitude–behaviour gap which made them feel uncomfortable. Participants did not report changing their behaviour; instead, they offered a wide range of explanations justifying their tourist activities which helped them to reduce the tension.”

Emil found that the excuses used fell into six main categories:

      1. It’s not that bad
These tourists simply denied the consequences of their own actions or denied being the type of tourist who harms the environment – ‘Who, me?’ While they were well aware of the impact of tourism in general, they changed their position when it came to their own behaviour.

Some cast doubt on climate change, or engaged in ‘greenwash scepticism’.
‘Environmentally certified tourism providers are not necessarily green; and non-certified are not necessarily harmful,” said one woman. A male respondent said: “I fundamentally dispute offsetting, because it’s a marketing gimmick.”

      2.  It could be worse
Other tourists made themselves feel better by making comparisons with people who cause even more damage to the environment, or pointing out that they themselves could have done worse had they not shown such restraint.

‘I would travel all the time. I love travelling, but I don’t travel that much because I believe that this would have a negative impact on the environment,’ said one. Another criticised locals using motorbikes with poor exhaust systems while one woman tried to put her trip in perspective by speaking about the impact of the mining industry.

      3. It is not my responsibility
This group put the responsibility firmly on external factors, in some cases expressing a sense of powerlessness that their behaviour could not make a difference, and in doing so relieving them of responsibility.

“I do think how much fuel will this jet use to get me somewhere, but then again, this aircraft will take off with or without me anyway,” said one woman.

      4. I would like to, but…
This group accept that their activity clearly does have environmental consequences, but they claim it is unavoidable. Comments included ‘I have to fly, because it’s my business,” and “The fact that we live in Australia makes things difficult, I mean, if you want to travel anywhere you need to fly.”

Some blamed budget constraints for preventing them choosing a more environmentally friendly option: “The price bracket is only suitable for those with a lot of money – I would say it’s really quite elitist!”

Others blamed lack of time, whether that be time to research more options or to take the train instead of the plane, and lack of information or infrastructure – for example poor information on travel choices or lack of recycling facilities.

      5. I’m on holiday after all
Some tourists feel that holidays are an exception and the usual behavioural rules do not apply. They may behave in an environmentally friendly way at home, but holidays are different.

Vacations may be seen as a special treat, as in the case of the 52-year-old woman on a once in a lifetime trip, others stress that ‘usually I’m good’ to justify relaxing their self-discipline. One woman summed it up by saying: “It’s like a diet with the 80:20 rule – where for 80% of my diet would be healthy and 20% would be a dessert.”

      6. I’m doing more good than bad
Again, this group acknowledge the negative impact of tourism – but also stress the positive impacts, such as benefits for local communities.

“Tourism also does good things, for example, creates jobs, supports conservation, teaches about how to be environmentally friendly, so I guess we can try to compensate,” said one.

Carbon offset schemes fall into this category and were in fact the only behaviour mentioned that is clearly driven by concern about the environment.

Professor Sara Dolnicar, who is supervising Emil’s research, said:  “This is an extremely important piece of research because it makes a first step towards increasing the level of environmentally friendly behaviour of tourists, while at the same time accepting that such behaviour does not come natural to people who are investing a lot of time and money to relax and be free of typical worries they have at home. The next step will be to develop interventions to counteract these excuses.”

Emil added: “Gaining insight into these explanations helps us to understand why it is so difficult to motivate people to minimise the negative environmental impacts of their vacations. It’s also a promising starting point to find new ways to encourage people to consider the environmental impact when choosing holidays, thus helping to reduce the environmental burden of tourism.”

Last updated:
27 February 2019