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Behavioural Science for Sustainable Tourism: Insights and policy considerations for greener tourism


Tourism and sustainability are two words not often seen in the same sentence. Yet, with rising climate mitigation and adaptation commitments set aside the severe impacts of the pandemic on the tourism industry, governments are working to develop new strategies that strike a balance. In many countries, tourism is an essential contributor to GDP, accounting for as much as 4.4% of GDP and 6.9% of employment in OECD countries prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet, the development of recovery plans provides a moment to rethinking the tourism sector into one that pays credence to its environmental impact, addresses the threats of climate change and support a transition to more sustainable models of tourism development.

Behavioural science for more sustainable tourism

Applying behavioural science alongside traditional policy tools can provide valuable insights to enhance sustainability in the tourism industry. Cognitive biases and barriers play a significant role in tourism-related decision-making, including decisions on the choice of destination, activities, transportation, and length of stay. To better understand and address these cognitive barriers, behavioural science offers promising avenues to encourage sustainable decision-making among individuals and drive the transition towards eco-friendly tourism practices.

The 5 key strategies

Together with the Italian Ministry of Tourism, the OECD explored the integration of behavioral insights into Italy’s 2023-2027 tourism strategic plan. By understanding travel behaviour, facilitating decision-making, and tailoring policies and services, we identified five key strategies to leverage behavioural insights to reinforce sustainable tourism. These approaches are further grounded in global case studies  to illustrate the advantages of incorporating behavioral science into tourism policies.

  1. Identify the needs, expectations, and behavioural blockers of today’s tourists: Behavioral segmentation can help identify the specific requirements of different types of tourists. This approach allows governments and tourism providers to anticipate the needs and expectations of tourists and deliver effective solutions based on evidence.
  2. Make tourism human-centred and sustainable by design: Behavioral tools such as default choice-setting, modifying choice architecture, and framing can make sustainable options more accessible and appealing. By integrating insights from human behavior, tourism services, products, and policies can be designed in a way that maximizes their effectiveness and encourages their adoption.
  3. Enhancing communication on green tourism using behavioral science: Behavioral science can enhance the impact of tourism communication and information by tailoring messages, language, and visuals to promote sustainable behaviors. The timing of delivering information is also crucial, as providing relevant information at critical moments can empower tourists, employees, and decision-makers to make sustainable choices.
  4. Leveraging behavioral science for both the demand and supply sides of the tourism ecosystem: Behavioral science can be applied to analyse the behaviors of both tourists and tourism providers. By understanding the habits and motivations of both consumers and providers, interventions can be designed to align behaviors with sustainability objectives, whether through traditional policy measures or alternative interventions targeting specific behaviors.
  5. Expanding sustainability indicators for monitoring progress: Adopting a behavioral perspective when monitoring progress enables the inclusion of cognitive and social factors. By broadening the indicators used to assess sustainability in tourism practices, governments and stakeholders can gain valuable insights into the systems that influence individuals’ choices regarding sustainable practices.

By employing and implementing these practical solutions, stakeholders working in the tourism industry can contribute to a sustainable and resilient recovery while working towards long-term sustainability goals. The integration of behavioral science can provide valuable insights and drive positive behavioral change, complementing existing strategies for sustainable tourism.

Behavioural Science for Sustainable Tourism: Insights and policy considerations for greener tourism

Published: 14 June 2023