Industry Update
Opinion Article22 February 2021

COVID-19’s effects on future pro-environmental traveler behavior

An empirical examination using norm activation, economic sacrifices, and risk perception theories

By Peter O’Connor, Professor of Strategy at University of South Australia Business School and Guy Assaker , Assistant Dean and Associate Professor of Hospitality and Marketing at the Adnan Kassar School of Business at Lebanese American University

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Peter  O’ConnorPeter O’Connor
Guy  Assaker Guy Assaker

Abstract: This study examines how the COVID-19 pandemic will influence people's pro-environmental travel behavior (PETB) and potentially prompt more ecological/sustainable future travel. A comprehensive model using the norm-activation model (NAM), economic sacrifices theory, and the perceived risks associated with COVID-19 is presented and tested using structural equation modeling on data collected from US travelers during April 2020. The results revealed the adequacy of the proposed model and the above-mentioned theories/constructs in explaining post-COVID-19 PETB (R2 = 72.1%). Risk perception of COVID-19 was found to influence PETB indirectly through the NAM constructs of environmental concerns (EC), environmental responsibility (ER), environmental moral obligation (EMO) and willingness to make economic sacrifices for environmental protection. These results illuminate the mechanism through which COVID-19 is likely to influence future pro-environmental travel behavior as well as provide important managerial implications for tourism.

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Introduction

Although the world has experienced several recent pandemics (e.g., SARS in 2002, H1N1 in 2008, MERS in 2012, and Ebola in 2013/2014), the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic represents an unprecedented challenge, not only to health but also to economics (Oqubay, 2020). Since February 2020, when the first death outside of China was reported, COVID-19 has spread across the globe, causing the deaths of 360,000 people and over 5.95 million cases as of 31 May 2020 (WHO, 2020). To slow the spread of the disease, most countries have imposed lockdowns and social distancing measures, including closing schools, universities and non-essential businesses, and shutting their borders. This has generated one of the most severe global socio-economic disruptions since the Great Depression (Hall et al., 2021).

While several pharmaceutical companies have recently announced COVID −19 vaccines, it is still impossible, in the tenth month of this pandemic, to predict whether they will stop the spread of the virus in coming months, or whether COVID −19 will become a seasonal 'endemic' like the annual flu viruses, thus continuing to place restraints on our daily lives and causing ongoing economic and social disruption (Chadwick, 2020). One thing, however, is certain: COVID-19 has attracted worldwide attention to the connection between environmental and health issues (Armstrong et al., 2020). It is widely accepted that environmental problems and destruction are the origin of today's new diseases and pathogens, including the COVID −19 pandemic (Shakil et al., 2020), with climate change, as well as alterations to ecosystems over the past thirty years, having brought wildlife into closer contact with humans, resulting in animal pathogens spreading to the human population (Roche et al., 2020). Consequently, prevailing environmental problems and the resulting current crisis have caused many to sound the alarm and call for people to change their consumption patterns and to act in a more environmental and ecological manner to prevent the emergence of further economically devastating pandemics in the future (Hall et al., 2020; UN News, 2020).

Travel and tourism has grown into a major social and business activity in today's globalized world (Gössling et al., 2021). Its growth has often been linked with environmental destruction in the creation of accommodation, resorts, and other tourist infrastructures; climate change and CO2 emissions caused by planes and other polluting means of transportation; as well as the destruction of habitats from sightseeing and tourist footsteps (Gössling et al., 2021; Rabbany et al., 2013). The COVID −19 crisis further confirmed this negative effect, bringing to light the negative impact that travel and tourism as a whole has on the environment. For instance, current lockdowns and travel restrictions has resulted in a decrease in CO2 emissions around the world: in Europe and China alone there was a 17% decrease in CO2 emissions as a result of the decrease in flights due to the pandemic (Rume & Islam, 2020). Additionally, the decrease in tourists around the world due to COVID −19 has also eased pressure on many protected and ecotourism areas in Africa and Asia as well as beach destinations, resulting in wildlife rebounding; better water quality; and less pollution in such places as Venice, the Maldives, and the Spanish coast (Newsome, 2020; Rume & Islam, 2020). Thus, some have concluded that travel and tourism is among the main direct causes of environmental problems, creating favorable conditions for the contracting and diffusion of new viruses and diseases as was the case with COVID −19 in the wet market in Wuhan, China (see, Bhuiyan et al., 2020; Newsome, 2020).

In light of the close relationship between pandemics and travel/tourism, many have called for changes in travel behavior post- COVID −19 and for people to become more environmentally conscious in their travel behavior to curb threats posed by climate change, environmental destruction, and infectious diseases (Higgins-Desbiolles, 2020; Prideaux et al., 2020). Existing studies on the relationships between tourism and pandemics have largely approached the topic solely from the economic angle by investigating the immediate effect of pandemics on travel in general and specific destinations in particular (Neuburger & Egger, 2020; Sánchez-Cañizares et al., 2020), along with the economic impacts that the decline in tourism has on either the entire tourism industry (e.g., Abu Bakar & Rosbi, 2020; Yang et al., 2020) and/or specific areas (e.g., Karim et al., 2020; Sifolo & Sifolo, 2015). While these studies contribute to our understanding of the relationships between pandemics and tourism in terms of illustrating economic vulnerability, they largely fail to examine the long-term, non-economic implications of pandemics in terms of changes in tourist behavior (Senbeto & Hon, 2020). Given the increased environmental awareness caused by the disease, the need to examine its possible effects on tourists' future pro-environmental behavior is warranted. Hall et al. (2020) recently corroborated that "COVID-19 provides an unprecedented impetus for individuals to transform their travel behavior…and to consider biodiversity conservation and climate change…in order to meet any sustainability or climate change mitigation… and exposure to future (zoonotic) diseases" (Hall et al., 2020, pp. 8-9). Other recent papers have also echoed this call for more research into the effects that COVID-19 might have on tourists' behavior, and the need for more sustainable and eco-friendly forms of travel and tourism activities (Crossley, 2020; Higgins-Desbiolles, 2020).

Accordingly, this paper aims to address these gaps by presenting and testing a comprehensive theoretical model that illuminates how the COVID-19 pandemic will influence pro-environmental travel behavior and encourage tourists to behave more sustainably. Two theories, the 'norm-activation' model (NAM) and the 'economic sacrifices' model, will be used to develop the model. NAM stipulates that 'awareness of environmental problems', 'ascription of responsibility for environmental problems', and the 'sense of obligation toward the environment' are key determinants of individuals' pro-environmental behaviors (De Groot & Steg, 2009; Onwezen et al., 2013). Meanwhile, economic sacrifices theory asserts that 'willingness to make economic sacrifices for environmental protection' is another determining factor of individuals' pro-environmental behaviors (Hedlund, 2011), with both theories widely endorsed in the literature to predict pro-environmental behavior in both the general and tourist contexts (e.g., Han et al., 2019; Rahman & Reynolds, 2016). Risk perception of COVID-19 (see Dryhurst et al., 2020) will also be incorporated into the model. Initially, this construct was used to explain the effect of COVID-19 on people's adoption of preventive public health measures (Dryhurst et al., 2020), as well as examine COVID-19's effect on people's concerns about climate change and the state of the environment (Gong & Sun, 2020), and in the tourism context, to examine how fear perception of COVID-19 affects travelers' trust and future behavior intentions to stay at green hotels (Jian et al., 2020). This justifies the use of the latter construct (risk perception of COVID-19) alongside NAM and economic sacrifice model to examine the effect of the pandemic on future pro-environmental travel behavior (PETB), whereas it is assumed that the higher the perceived risks (to both the individual and their acquaintances and to the people/planet as a whole), the more likely travelers are to worry about environmental problems that might exacerbate future pandemics, the greater the sacrifices they will be willing to accept, and the more willing they will be to make more environmentally conscious travel choices, to prevent such outcomes.

Finally, PETB in this study will be measured in terms of pro-environmental travel intention, whereas the use of intention to predict actual behavior (i.e., PETB) is directed by the theory of reasoned action (TRA) and the theory of planned behavior (TPB), both of which contend that behavioral intention represents the degree of consciousness that a person exerts in order to perform a behavior and which subsequently lead that person to actually performing that behavior in the future (Ajzen & Fishbein, 2005). Previous studies have confirmed a strong correlation/relationship between travelers' intention and behavior, in particular in terms of responsible/environmental behavior (see Wang et al., 2018; 2019), thus supporting the use of intention as a stand-in for actual pro-environmental travel behavior (PETB) in this case.

The next sections review the aforementioned theories and concepts to develop the theoretical model and research hypotheses, which are then tested using structural equation modeling (SEM) techniques on data collected from US travelers during April 2020. In addition to enhancing our theoretical and empirical understanding of how the current pandemic is likely to affect tourists' future pro-environmental behavior, the results also offer tourism practitioners a better forecast of travelers' behavior post-COVID-19 so that they can develop recovery strategies and implement pro-environmental practices that appeal to tourists as the pandemic eases.

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