Can Destination Branding Influence Sustainable Travel Behavior?

Visitors and residents of a destination make for perfect advocates to showcase the sustainability agenda of places. If destinations want to convey their sustainable tourism initiatives, how can they use destination branding to inspire residents and visitors to act sustainably?

Below are the answers of our TPBO panel and of leading sustainable tourism specialists – the Sustainability Leaders United panel (in alphabetical order –  highlighted respondents are available for consulting or as speakers).

Our key takeaways:

  • Destination branding has the power to influence visitors to act responsibly when they travel;
  • The ability to influence visitors depends on strong and effective branding;
  • The sustainability initiatives of a destination must be visible to residents and visitors for them to demonstrate responsible behaviour;
  • Locals play an important role in encouraging visitors as their passion for caring for their surroundings can influence visitors;
  • Destinations should have a strategy to educate visitors about responsible behaviour; 
  • Communicating sustainability to visitors and residents should include conservation and social impact along with carbon emissions, and green labels.

Brian Mullis, sustainable tourism expert panel member

Brian Mullis

Speaker profile

USA | Of course, destination branding can impact sustainable behaviour, but I’m not sure that this has been quantified via research.


Fiona Jeffery, sustainable tourism expert panel member

Fiona Jeffery

Speaker profile

UK | Branding alone can’t influence more sustainable behaviour, it needs to come with education about what “sustainable behaviour” means and looks like.


Gunter Soydanbay

Günter Soydanbay

Consulting / Speaker profile

Canada | Among residents – yes. Among tourists, I am not sure.

The systemic nature of mass tourism is the tragedy of the commons. By default, tourists are programmed to act in self-interest (travel = self-reward/me-time/indulgence).

If you zoom in, each visitor’s action does not create a noticeable dent. But if you zoom out, all the visitors acting together amplifies the damage. The solution is to educate tourists, enforce laws, and if needed, privatize access to a certain site, so that each participant must pay for the direct impact of his/her actions. If one can achieve those objectives under a destination branding campaign, then more power to them!


Jonathon Day, sustainable tourism expert panel memberJonathon Day

Speaker profile

USA | Effective branding will appeal to a target audience. If the branding highlights the importance of the environment and the uniqueness of the cultural experience, it should appeal to travellers who value these attributes and who are prepared to behave in ways to support and preserve these destination attributes.


Kirsi Hyvaerinen

Kirsi Hyvaerinen

Speaker profile

Montenegro Yes, it can when sustainability is implemented properly in planning, communication, products and services. Residents mostly need also more technical information, all that affects their daily lives.


Natasha Grand

Natasha Grand

Speaker profile

UK | Yes, any place that shows self-awareness and good organization will induce respect among visitors.


Robert Govers panel

Robert Govers

Consulting / Speaker profile

BelgiumI’d suggest that influencing sustainable behaviour among tourists and residents is in the marketing domain (not branding) as it requires one to think about what exact behaviour one wants to influence among what target groups.


Tom Buncle

Tom Buncle

Speaker profile

UK | Depends on the destination. Sustainable behaviour can be influenced by the way a destination communicates its brand to visitors and encourages them to respect it.

Similarly, if residents believe in the need for sustainability, this can be communicated in the messages they convey to visitors – particularly where residents show pride in their home through good environmental management, a well-kept public realm, commitment to local producers and artisans, and discouragement of behaviour that might cause environmental damage or social inconvenience.


Vicky Smith

Vicky Smith

Speaker profile

UK | I would expect destination branding to influence more sustainable behaviour among tourists and residents. If somewhere is marketed as a ‘green’ destination, it can set the expectation of that behaviour, and so prompt it, but also such branding will attract more sustainable tourists who already have a greater propensity to behave sustainably. But have we seen evidence of it yet? It’s not necessarily direct response data.


Adam Mikołajczyk

PolandIf we understand ‘place branding’ not only as ‘communicating’ but also as ‘doing’ then by all means. Today it is very difficult to build social attitudes just by talking. It is necessary to create appropriate solutions at every level and in every field in order to save our planet.


Andrea Lucarelli

SwedenWell at first this seems tautological, so the answer would be no. But of course, there are different ways to frame how branding can influence sustainability. If that is the focus, then branding can be advocacy.


Caio Esteves

BrazilCertainly. 

If the destination brand is the result of a collaborative process between different stakeholders and positioning itself in a sustainable way, acting and promoting sustainability, it is expected that people who relate to the destination will feel influenced by the idea, and even defend it.


Cecilia Pasquinelli

Italy | Definitely, provided that strategic and technical aspects of sustainability marketing and branding are in focus. Besides, the intertwining of sustainable branding and destination management (which nowadays should be understood as sustainability management) is fundamental.


Efe Sevin

USA | Yes! Not only they can. They should.

Without sustainable practices and behaviour, destination branding will be using a depleting resource. Each rise in tourist numbers or resident numbers will spoil what a destination has to offer.


Gianna Moscardo

AustraliaFor tourists, it certainly can by establishing expectations of what can be experienced and setting up guidance for their actions.

For residents, it may be harder if they are not committed to sustainability, but it may be possible to use a sustainable destination brand to encourage them to change in order to support tourism.


Malcolm Allan

UK | Yes it can, providing that it is done through the sharing of information on the past or present negative aspects of visitors’ behaviours. For example, over-walking of delicate physical environments, the dumping of used or unwanted camping gear, and unlawful or reckless parking of vehicles on sensitive land. All behaviours that do not reflect stated and publicised brand values on caring for the environment of the place.

Values need to be reflected in restrictions on the volume of visitors and welcoming advice on desired behaviours. Desired brand behaviours need to be publicised and celebrated.


Martin Boisen

The NetherlandsNext to the fact that I take issue with the ‘destination branding’ concept as such (I prefer a holistic place branding approach to a specific destination branding approach), I do believe that it can. And that it should. This does require a tight definition and shared understanding of what constitutes ‘sustainable behaviour’ for each and every specific place. It cannot just be about ecolabels and CO2 compensation, it must also be about biodiversity and social aspects of sustainability.


Rachel Dodds

Canada | This is an important question. Climate change and the pandemic definitely affect how destinations are branded, as well as their overall marketing. Check out Las Vegas: it did a good job of pivoting during the pandemic. Norway has done a good job of acknowledging climate change and how they position themselves accordingly.


Richard Butler

UK | It should be able to, if it is done well and actually reflects reality.


Steve Noakes

AustraliaYes. Absolutely. Even if it is ‘greenwash’ which we see all over the world, it is not the facts that count in influencing behaviour it’s how the communications and distribution of information occur that influences people most. Just take a look at the Fox News/Trump alliance in the USA.


Previous questions answered by the TPBO panel here. More about the Sustainability Leaders United panel here.


Enjoyed this snapshot of expert views on how destination branding can inspire responsible travel behaviour, to support sustainable tourism? Thanks for sharing!

TPBO
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