Wellbeing and Travel

By: Milena S. Nikolova, PhD

Reverse Responsibility

With the increasing sensitivity towards sustainability, we have more and more expectations towards travellers. We expect that they will enjoy visiting our places and will interact with our nature, people, and culture with utmost responsibility. Destinations and businesses employ different tactics to ensure guests tread local streets and trails with greater care. Among them is using insights from psychology to nudge tourists to behave responsibly. But could we use this same knowledge about how people think, decide, and act into a reverse responsibility model where we as an industry employ human psychology to magnify the impact that we have on human wellbeing and traveller’s lives?

All of us agree that the COVID-19 pandemic has made it impossible for a tourism company to identify as a responsible business if it does not proactively care for the wellbeing of travellers, local clients, its own staff and collaborators, as well as the residents of the destination in which it operates. Protecting the health of all players within the ecosystem has become the norm and will remain a permanent element of the non-negotiable quality in tourism.

Physical health is only one of the dimensions of human wellbeing; the second is perceived wellbeing or happiness. Since we are already recalibrating traveller experiences to handle health, could we take an extra step and embrace happiness as a targeted effect of our business that is our way of being responsible to individuals and modern society?

Targeting Perceived Wellbeing (Happiness)

Shaping travel offerings around human happiness might sound like the next daunting complexity that is placed upon the shoulders of our sector at a time when its resources are depleted from the biggest crisis it has experienced. But it is not a mission impossible. As an industry, travel already has the knowledge, expertise, and toolset to influence human happiness, so it simply needs to grab an opportunity that aligns with societal trends and use it to accelerate recovery.

Over the last couple of decades scientific research has accumulated a lot of knowledge about the ingredients of human happiness. Among them are many that are relevant to travel experiences: relationships, physical health, mindfulness, contact with nature, learning, personal growth, etc. Let’s zoom-in on one of these as an illustration for how, with small adjustments, travel experiences can contribute to human happiness.

Relationships and Connection with Close Ones

Quality time spent with our close ones is one of the best ways to secure a sense of fulfillment in our lives. The leading finding from the longest-running study on human happiness, the Harvard Study of Adult Development, is that there is a strong association between happiness and close relationships with spouses, family, friends, and social circles. They seem to be better predictors of long and happy lives than money, social class, IQ, or even genes.

What could be some of the ways in which travel experiences can contribute to the quality of the relationships in travellers’ lives? One good way is through creative framing of experiences and activities around togetherness and time with family or friends. Maybe an Evening Around the Campfire can be a Campfire for Memories with Friends or a Forest Discovery Journey can be a Forest Family Adventure? Merely changing the name for an activity can transform it into an invitation for placing togetherness at the forefront of travellers’ minds and being more active in sharing thoughts and emotions with close ones.

Another simple way of influencing relationships during travel is adapting the design of existing itineraries to incorporate targeted time slots for togetherness and mindful interaction with companions. Perhaps programs can include an Hour by the Fireplace after dinner to nudge tourists to sit together and exchange stories from their day. Or properties can provide a pre-dinner glass of champagne at a Sunset Hour to invite guests to share time with their close ones.

One more simple way of facilitating better relationships during travel is to employ soft barriers for technology use. Digital devices are an integral element of modern life and while they bring a lot of benefits, they can “steal” time from quality relationships and togetherness. A gentle way of preventing this could be to create moments or spaces for device-free interactions. Perhaps the hotel’s terrace can be a described as the place for unfiltered and technology-free enjoyment of surrounding nature or a device-free conversation space, or a forest walk can be listed in the itinerary as a Device-Free Forest Experience. Small nudges like this increase the likelihood that guests will deliberately put their phones away and enjoy mindful conversations with their close ones.

The Hidden Power of Travel

In this past decade, discussions about the need to treat human wellbeing with priority has been gaining prominence and engaging thought leaders across businesses and governments. The disruption triggered by COVID-19 gave an extra boost to the concern about human health and happiness. If society is recognizing it as a priority for the future, doesn’t this represent an opportunity for destinations and businesses with tools to power wellbeing and contribute to happier living?

Milena S. Nikolova, PhD is an Expert in Human Behaviour and Travel and will be speaking at the BC Hospitality and Tourism Conference in March.