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Changing Behavior to Mitigate Overtourism

Updated: Jan 12, 2022

Human decisions and actions are shaped by two main groups of factors internal (related to one’s personal characteristics, experience, state of mind), and external (related to the immediate surrounding and behavior of others around you). The same situation can trigger completely different actions by the same individual depending on whether they are on their own, with people they know or strangers around them. What physical elements are present can also have an impact on the actions they take.

Why does this matter for tourism?

This is the second in a 7-part series of articles, co-written by Milena Nikolova (BehaviorSMART) and Simon Jones (NatureScapes), focused on understanding human behavior and how it impacts tourism in natural land-or-seascapes.

Overtourism is a phenomenon that was “born” by the fast growth of tourism, especially in the past decade and prior to the COVID-19 crisis. While the pandemic eased the pressures on some of the world’s most visited places and attractions, it has not dissolved the overtourism threat. In fact, the sudden appeal of being in outdoor spaces away from crowded urban centers drove many people to seek escape in nature even if nature-based activities had not been “their thing” in the past. So while cities and popular built attractions remained closed, natural areas filled up with people, often more than they could handle. Without prior experience of being in nature, many people were unaware of the do’s and don'ts of spending time in natural land-or-seascapes, causing damage and threatening their own wellbeing.

Applying a behavioral lens to overtourism enhances our ability to understand it and to address it more effectively. Many of the instances of overtourism are fueled not by the sheer volume of visitors but by their behavior; often the behavior of relatively few people. In fact a behavior-smart definition of overtourism suggests that it occurs as a result of three forms of disparity, two of which are behavior-based.

The Three Disparities Leading to Overtourism

1. Volume of tourism activity vs. the physical capacity of the place

These are instances when the sheer volume of visitors present or passing through a natural destination overwhelms it or leaves significant impacts on its ecosystems. Consider a relatively pristine natural area which is suddenly made popular by a series of Instagram photos of an interesting rock formation. Before being featured in social media, it is visited by occasional hikers who pass by on a small hiking trail. After its sudden popularity it begins to attract large numbers of visitors at a time, who do not stay on the trail and who damage the landscape simply because there is no visitor infrastructure to support them and the trail is too small for such flows.

2. Type of tourism activity vs. the physical features of a site

These are instances when the type of activities and visitor behaviors are inconsistent with the style of the destination and its physical features. Consider a river delta with rich biodiversity, which is frequented by tourists on motorboats. While the area offers favorable conditions for water-based activities such as paddle boarding or kayaking, the use of motor boats is disruptive for animal and plant life in the shallow water. In other words, the activity does not match the physical capacity of the place to accommodate such an activity.

3. Traveler behavior vs. local social norms or acceptable practices

These are instances when the behavior of visitors is in direct contrast with the local lifestyle or typical norms of behavior of local residents or that are acceptable in the natural landscape. This discrepancy may be due to local cultural specifics or social dynamics. In such cases overtourism can be triggered by just a few visitors who disregard accepted norms of behavior and impose their own. For example, a local fishing hole, popular with the community, may feel overrun if some visitors arrive on leisure boats, swimming, playing loud music or water skiing.

How can a behavioral approach help to understand and tackle overtourism? This is a question that is especially relevant in the post-COVID-19 realities, so let’s first explore it with a short story.


Understanding Behavior and Overtourism: A Psychologist, a Neuroscientist and a Tourism Professional go for a Hike

Three friends, a tourism professional, a neuroscientist and a psychologist, decided to go for a hike one day. The tourism professional was a nature lover and experienced hiker while her friends were urbanites, who would rarely find themselves out in nature. The recent pandemic and lockdowns, however, had made them interested in getting out of town and spending some time outdoors exploring the nearby mountains.

While driving out of town towards the mountains, the tourism professional asked if everyone had what they needed for their hike. The psychologist, sitting in the back of the car, picked up his big bag and said yes, he was ready to go. He had his stereo with batteries fully charged, a 6-pack of beer and ohhh… could they stop somewhere so that he could buy a couple of bottles of water and a sandwich?

The tourism professional looked around in amazement: Wait, you have what??

This is what I usually bring to the park at home, said the psychologist. I figure when we stop for lunch we can play some tunes, have a beer and relax a bit.

We should have prepared you better before leaving, said the tourism professional, trying to imagine hiking with a stereo and bottles of beer to the top of the mountain they were about to climb! This is not the park near your house; where we are going it is not practical to bring those things and other hikers will not appreciate you blairing your music in a place where they are all looking for some peace and quiet in nature. Let's leave the stereo and beer in the car.

Noone seems to mind at the park, said the psychologist, slightly disappointed, but I can see it’s a different context. What about my water and sandwich?

Rather than buying a plastic bottle, don’t you have a reusable water bottle in that massive bag of yours, asked the tourism professional, showing him her bottle?

No I don’t, said the psychologist, and yours is plastic too. What is the problem with me buying a couple of bottles from the gas station?

The neuroscientist jumped in: A reusable water bottle can be filled with water and when empty it remains with you for reuse in the future. The bottles you want to buy are single-use and become trash that you cannot leave in the mountains and have to carry back to the city to dispose of. The same with the packaging of the sandwiches.

What? Why carry them back, why not just throw them in the waste bins on the trail, like I do at my nearby park asked the psychologist, wondering if he had made the right choice coming on this trip? And how come you know all of this if you do not go hiking any more often than I do?

Well, said the neuroscientist, I downloaded the app with the hiking routes for the area and they had a ‘How to prepare for a hike’ guide for first-timers. It had a list of suggested clothes, accessories and food to bring. They recommended taking water in a reusable bottle and packing food and extra energy bars in a lunch box or bag without plastic wrap or packaging. If you have to take packaged food, then you can collect the wrapping in your lunch box and dispose of it properly when you return. Apparently on the mountain trails there are no garbage collection services, so people follow a principle called Leave no Trace. I found it really interesting!

The psychologist was intrigued: That is interesting….. I never thought that there would be no waste bins along the way. In that case bringing single-use packaging makes absolutely no sense! What else do you have in that backpack besides a water bottle and lunch?

I have a couple more layers of clothing in case the weather changes over the course of the day. I have a warm sweater and a rain jacket, said the neuroscientist.

Hold on, said the psychologist looking out the window to check the weather and assess his options to jump from the car and return home! The weather is perfect now. Why would you carry all that stuff? Besides, I thought we were going to that famous old tree where everybody takes funky pictures and it is just a one hour hike? Why did you plan for a full day?

The tourism professional jumped in: The weather in the mountains can change fast so usually it is best to bring several layers of clothing so you are prepared. And yes, we will be seeing the old tree but we will take a different route than the one that takes an hour. I checked the daily updates from the park, and they say today the short trail will be busy. We will take a longer, but quieter trail they recommend, which will take us to several lesser known, but stunning observation spots.

I also want us to see a small hidden waterfall that some fellow hiker just shared in our online group forum last week. We will get to the old tree on our way back, which will be in the afternoon when there are less people there. This will give us a chance to really see it and enjoy it without the crowds. The uniqueness of this tree is impossible to enjoy when there are masses of people around. When it’s busy people are climbing around everywhere trying to get the best photo that doesn’t include the crowds and that damages the fragile habitat in the area. They are inadvertently loving it to death!


How Knowledge, Awareness and Experience Contribute to Overtourism?

One of the advantages of behavior-smart thinking is that it involves understanding the root behaviors that lead to problems such as overtourism. Before we explore solutions, we seek answers to the questions:

Why do so many people come to the old tree all at the same time?
Why do they climb on it and around it?
Why do they keep leaving their trash in the area?

This is an important starting point, as it allows us to identify the exact tactics that will influence the choices and actions of people so that we achieve the desired behavior change needed to overcome overtourism in natural land-or-seascapes.

As the story with our three hiking friends reveals, the impacts of too many visitors on a place are often caused by lack of awareness and limited experience with the outdoors. People will gravitate to what they are comfortable with (and what others have already done) rather than the unknown, unless we are able to ‘demystify the unknown’ for them. We also understand that there may be different behavioral patterns that characterise different visitor groups.

Different tactics may apply, depending on whether a visitor is pre-trip planning or making a decision during the journey itself, to influence choices or actions in ways that cumulatively offset undesired outcomes. We can also determine the ideal mix between solutions that influence individual preparedness and awareness, and those that modify the setting to impact the behavior of larger groups at the same time.

For example, we have one behavioral model displayed by our neuroscientist who is inexperienced in the outdoors but has researched in advance and taken proactive steps to offset potential risks as well as allay any fears they may have about the journey. People like him are likely to invest some time and effort to prepare and learn the basic norms of engaging in outdoor experiences. A local hiking application or website could be a relevant channel that could feed him preliminary information that minimises risks for him, for others and for the environment. Exposing such visitors to content about what to bring and how to pack, and why it is important to minimise possible waste, could be an effective way to prevent undesired footprint. Additional visitor infrastructure, marking and signage in the location combined with some mobile app services can support desired behavior for this group of less experienced hikers.

The reactions of the psychologist, however, suggests that there are visitors who will follow a different pre-trip pattern and whose behavioral style is likely to make the application or website irrelevant to them. They will not do much research in advance and, if not engaged in another way, could risk their safety and that of the natural environment they enter. In general, such guests are most likely to visit the popular routes and attractions that they are comfortable with because they know others also visit them, contributing to overcrowding.

To minimise undesired footprint, we need to find creative ways to communicate with guests who follow the pattern of our psychologist in the story. One approach is to use non-traditional channels to reach and influence them during the pre-trip stage. For example, we can use supermarkets, gas stations or other frequently visited public areas leading to the natural attraction to promote simple principles of being outdoors in ways that can reach the general public and people who are not likely to seek information from the more traditional sources.

A second and complimentary approach is to recognise that there will be unprepared visitors and offer services that “fix” their pre-trip mistakes and influence their journey on the spot. Working with the same supermarkets, gas stations, etc., special ‘outdoors for beginners' kits could be developed that include foods, drinks and accessories that one might need outdoors and that would be environmentally friendly. This combination of information at points of intersection with travelers and an easy solution for them to adopt/purchase to make their trip more enjoyable, safer and less impactful, would help to mitigate some overtourism issues.

They can also carry flyers with simple maps with suggested alternative routes highlighting spots of interest that may motivate guests to visit places away from hot spots. This could be integrated with visual ‘heat maps’ that show the most crowded trails/sites and times when they are most visited, to encourage the spreading out of visitors. On-the-spot signs and smart leisure infrastructure can also modify behavior if they make it easy to do ‘the right thing.’ We will explore this more in our next article ‘Promoting Positive Behavior in Nature.’

One factor influencing overcrowding at specific sites is that they have become the iconic ‘brand image’ and must-see sites for visitors to the region; despite most people realizing that they are overcrowded and potentially even that their visit is damaging the site.

One option here is to create a ‘Vegas effect;’ in other words, rather than focusing on one bright light (the iconic site), strengthen and promote a lot of bright lights in the region (other comparable sites) that reinvent the ‘brand’ from centering around one site to becoming the overall destination. With this rebranding as well as support services that make it equally easy and appealing for people to visit different spots, a visitor can ‘check the box’ on their travel to-do list by visiting any of the sites in the region, rather than having to go to one site to achieve their travel goal.

Those that go to Vegas tell their friends they have gone to Vegas… not the MGM Grand Casino. If we can change the messaging and rebrand iconic sites into iconic destinations this may help in alleviating some of the overtourism issues, alongside other techniques, without depriving guests from the bragging rights, which we realistically know motivate them in the first place.

Behavioral Solutions to Overtourism

We shared here some simple illustrations of the benefits of understanding root behaviors that contribute to overcrowding and overtourism in natural areas. Mapping the combination of actions and decisions of different groups, brings us a step closer to identifying the tactics that can alleviate pressures or offset undesired impacts. While we most often think of travelers as the target of necessary efforts, a behavioral analysis might reveal that it is the actions of local tourism service providers that require changing or that some of the wrong norms influencing guests are encouraged by the behavior of residents. The scenarios can be many and each site is different.

While behavioral approaches sometimes lead to simple, investment-light and easy-to-execute solutions, they can support efforts on higher and more complex levels. Nature-based destinations that seek to develop visitor flow management strategies, update policies, or plan their visitor infrastructure investment can use behavioral analysis to understand where behavior change may be needed and how it can be supported with strategic actions or funds. The potential of behavioral solutions is significant and can be applied on different levels to ensure that travelers, businesses and residents follow the patterns that maximise positive impacts on natural land-&-seascapes.


We will further explore behavioral topics in additional articles in this series, including how behavioral thinking can apply to:

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