Wildlife Tourism And Greenwashing: Can Tourists Tell The Difference?
Wildlife Tourist Attractions (WTAs) provide visitors with the opportunity to interact with various species of non-domestic animals in captive or wild settings. Although many people seek to visit Wildlife Tourist Attractions, studies show that many WTAs have a negative impact on animal welfare and species conservation. As there is little regulation of these attractions, tourists can play an important role by avoiding WTAs that have negative impacts and visiting those that have known benefits—thus creating market pressure on WTAs to raise their standards.
For these “green markets” to work, however, tourists need to be able to assess the potential impacts of a WTA from available promotional materials and then choose to not visit those that have a negative impact. In order to assess what strategies may be helpful in creating such a green market, a recent study examined how tourists respond to descriptions of WTAs and whether their reactions will affect the likelihood that they will visit the attraction.
The study, published in the Journal of Global Ecology and Conservation by Tom Moorhouse, Neil D’Cruze and David Macdonald, set out to examine the following:
- If participants would be able to discern between WTAs with beneficial and negative impacts based on activities listed in promotional materials;
- If stimulating respondents, by priming, to consider the likely impacts of their choice would increase their likelihood of preferring WTAs with beneficial impacts, and;
- If “greenwashing” WTAs’ materials and the presence of positive reviews from other tourists would diminish respondents’ ability to evaluate the impact of WTAs.
In order to dive into these questions, the researchers created an online survey made up of 10 mock web pages mimicking the promotional materials of some existing WTAs. Five of these pages were designed to represent beneficial or “good” WTAs, while the other five represented detrimental or “bad” wildlife tourist attractions. The mock webpages were presented randomly to 3,224 people —1,614 respondents living in China, and 1610 English speakers in Australia, Canada, UK, and USA, who were asked to rate their preference for each web page. Before taking the survey, 1,610 participants randomly selected by country were “primed” with questions they answered about the potential impact of wildlife tourist attractions.
Results from the survey indicate that participants were typically able to distinguish between beneficial and detrimental WTAs. When primed to consider the impacts that wildlife tourist attractions may have on conservation and welfare, participants were more likely to plan a visit to beneficial WTAs (Chinese respondents 2.0 times more likely, English speaking 1.2 times more likely), and less likely to want to visit WTAs that have negative impacts (English-speaking respondents 4.1 times, Chinese respondents 1.5 times). Greenwashing, which was accomplished in the survey by modifying some of the text of the web pages for each of the detrimental WTAs, reduced the effect of priming by about 30%. It was also found that positive reviews from other sites, in the form of star ratings, didn’t have an effect on participants’ perceptions of WTAs.
It’s still uncertain whether tourists who are already on holiday would respond to priming to the extent that survey participants did for this hypothetical situation, or how long the effects of priming may last in real-world situations. However, this study does demonstrate that having access to accurate information, available in the places and websites that tourists are using to make their travel decisions, could have a significant impact on WTAs by providing a “greenmarket” effect.
If beneficial WTAs receive more tourist revenue, and detrimental ones receive less, the detrimental WTAs may have to improve their standards and practices to continue to be popular and profitable. Although some stakeholders, such as leading travel review sites, are starting to provide advice and guidance in terms of positive impacts on wildlife conservation and animal welfare, people need more exposure and access to this information from a variety of sources.