In this episode of BOS, PhD Elizabeth Cooper takes us on a reflective journey through her research on sustainable tourism in Greenland. Drawing from Elizabeth Bishop’s “Questions of Travel”, Liz and podcast host Sarah Netter ponder over the influence of “nudges” in shaping conscious travel behaviours, the trials of conducting fieldwork amidst a pandemic, and the deeper reflections on the essence of being a sustainable tourist in our contemporary world.
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Think of the long trip home.― Elizabeth Bishop, Questions of Travel
Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?
Where should we be today?
Is it right to be watching strangers in a play in this strangest of theatres?
What childishness is it that while there’s a breath of life
in our bodies, we are determined to rush
to see the sun the other way around?
The tiniest green hummingbird in the world?
To stare at some inexplicable old stonework,
inexplicable and impenetrable,
at any view,
instantly seen and always, always delightful?
Oh, must we dream our dreams
and have them, too?
And have we room
for one more folded sunset, still quite warm?
Liz: … That’s it.
Sarah: How did you discover this poem?
Liz: I can’t remember, but it was during my PhD. I must have seen it quoted in a paper or something. I can’t remember, or something I read in connection. And it resonated with me.
Sarah: How did it resonate with you?
Liz: I interpret it as a depiction of this psychological tension that we often feel as a tourist. When you visit strange places and sometimes have this very classic host-guest interaction, where you feel like you are paying to watch people perform culture, which feels odd. So part of it is that, and part of it is trying to reconcile traveling such a long way in a very privileged way. In a way most people actually can’t, to witness, often people who are less fortunate than you. And then the writer, Eloise Bishop she’s called, switches to “oh it would have been a pity not to have seen this.” And I guess that is how you reconcile it with yourself. It would have been a pity for me not to see it, to get this opportunity in my life. But then, who benefits from you having that opportunity to see it if you don’t use it for anything good? That’s not really a justification. She repeats a few times; she asks the question whether we should have stayed at home. Is it a lack of imagination that makes us come? So it is a critique of the human psyche. Can’t you just be content knowing that these places exist without actually having to see them?
Sarah: And Liz, in light of your PhD, how do these two things interplay? I mean, the topic of your PhD and the topic of the poem, how do they play together?
Liz: Now, I am at the stage of my PhD where I am trying to figure out how all of my papers fit together. And this poem has somehow started to provide me with an answer to that. Because I think one of the things that binds them is that ongoing tension around why we travel to remote or fragile places. And how we reconcile that to ourselves. And yeah, in a way, the whole concept of sustainable tourism is just a way of reconciling that, of us being able to justify our tourism experiences. Yes, I am a tourist, but I do it in a sustainable way, so that kind of makes it okay, right? So, I think this tension, this ambiguity, this feeling of unease around traveling to remote places is the basis of my PhD actually.
Sarah: I think it’s a very beautiful and moving poem, and it fits quite well with your PhD. So, I will definitely work it in somehow. Liz, thank you so much for joining me in my mini studio at Dalgas Have to talk about your PhD. It’s quite funny because somehow I feel we are coming full circle. When I first started doing podcasts for the department, it was during lockdown, and you had just joined as a new PhD student. The first time we met was online for a conversation about your PhD. I remember then, when we finally met face-to-face in the office, I was so surprised because I thought, «Wow, she is so tall!»
Sarah: And now, you’re not only tall, but also in PhD terms, grown up. You are coming to the final stages of your PhD, and it is really wild. I am just so glad that I got the opportunity to talk to you again now. You are coming closer to finishing your PhD, so thank you so much for joining me to talk about your PhD today.
Liz: Yeah, thanks for having me.
Sarah: Before we start talking about the next steps and what’s to come with your PhD and beyond, let’s take a step back and start at the beginning.
Liz: Mhmm, if I can remember that far back.
Sarah: If you can remember that far back. Maybe let’s start at the beginning of your PhD. When did you decide that you wanted to do a PhD focusing on sustainable tourism in the context of Greenland?
Liz: I suppose the formation of the PhD topic was quite a long process, actually, because it was also intertwined with how I got the funding and the organizations that were involved. But I knew I wanted to do a PhD back when I was doing my master’s degree, and then following the master’s degree, I began looking for opportunities to get funding, and one of them was the industrial PhD. And at the time, I was working for Visit Greenland, Greenland’s national DMO. So I pitched the idea to them that they could partially fund a PhD for me, and they were on board. So then we actually developed the shell of the idea together. And then when I got connected to MSC, it developed even more based on the research that was going on in the department as well. So yeah, it was a collaborative effort. Sarah: (Laughing). Sounds lovely. But if you were to frame or present, classic elevator style, you have three seconds to frame your PhD, how would you present the topic of your PhD to someone not familiar with it?
Liz: Three seconds?
Sarah: Okay, ah you know, cinematic three seconds that take more like 3-5 minutes. Liz: Well, I supposed it’s got a very practical side, which is that I have tested behavioural interventions or nudges to encourage more sustainable tourist behaviour in Greenland. Yes, so a nudge is very simply a small incremental change to a decision-making environment, which makes the desired choice the easiest choice. And the desired choice, by definition, should be something that is good for society or the environment. So on the practical level, I have been developing and testing these nudges, but I couldn’t really do that before I had looked much more deeply into actually what is sustainable tourist behaviour in Greenland, and done some research with local stakeholders about the local debates around that, and also looked into the psychology of the people who go to Greenland, to learn how best to communicate with them, and what are the kind of psychological shortcuts that we can activate in visitors to make them make the choices we want them to make.
Sarah: And what would classic examples be of some of the nudges that you have worked with or developed for your contexts?
Liz: So one of them is that I developed a tourist pledge, which is something that is used in quite a few tourist destinations around the world already, where, usually before visiting or arriving, tourists sign something to say, “I am going to behave in this way that is beneficial to the natural and cultural environment.” However, there haven’t actually been any tests on whether these tourist pledges actually affect tourist behaviour or not. So I developed a pledge for a region in Greenland, and I tested whether it had an effect on tourist behaviour when they were hiking around a UNESCO world heritage site. So in the pledge, the tourist committed to three behaviours. One of them was that they would take all their trash with them. That they would keep to the marked paths when they were hiking around the site, and that they would not disturb the natural environment in terms of picking flowers or moving rocks. And then the behaviour I measured was how closely they stuck to the hiking trails, and I did that by asking them to wear GPS trackers. So I had a group of tourists who had signed the pledge and then I had a group who had not been exposed to the pledge at all. Both groups wore trackers, and then I could measure whether the pledge actually had an effect on how closely they stayed to the trails.
Liz: It worked. So the GPS trackers I used, the way they worked was that every five seconds they log their coordinates, so I could, as well as measuring the distance by which people left the trail, I could also look how much time they spent off the trail, so yeah. Both in terms of time spent off-trail and in terms of the proportion of their walk which they would walk off trail distance-wise, that was significantly reduced by signing the pledge.
Liz: I mean, the thing is with these field experiments that they are super hard to organize because you are actually in the real world with real tourists, and I had to have collaborations with all sorts of organizations like local tourism organizations and cruise ships, because my subjects were actually cruise tourists in that experiment. So it’s an experiment, right, so you are supposed to hold everything exactly the same except the thing that you change, which in my case was the nudge. So it is impossible to get everything exact, so that it even worked at all was a huge success. I mean, in terms of getting it organized and then that the nudge actually worked was just kind of an extra success. So that was really nice that it worked.
Sarah: Now you already said it. A field experiment is a different story than doing a lab experiment. What would you have wished someone had told you before you went into the field to do this experiment on these pledges – or this pledge?
Liz: I would wish that someone had warned me about the Covid-pandemic. (Laughs). I mean, I was unfortunate enough to start the PhD right around the time Covid started, and Greenland’s cruise season is from May to September, so the initial plan was to do these field experiments earlier, like, the year before. But Greenland didn’t have any cruise tourism for nearly three years in the end because of the pandemic. And then I had this one window of time last summer to actually carry out the field experiments, my last chance, and it was the first season back since corona. So that made it a lot more difficult to organize just because everyone I needed to collaborate with, their priority was like just getting through this cruise season without having infections breaking out on the ships or you know something going wrong on the health or hygiene level, so helping out this lonely PhD researcher was very low on their list of priorities. Thankfully, I found enough people to help me, so I was really grateful for that. But it could have been a lot easier if it weren’t for the pandemic. And then yeah, Greenland is a pretty difficult context to work in. I think if I were to do it again. The thing is, it is very rewarding to work with a context like Greenland because the tourism industry is relatively undeveloped, so there are opportunities to make a change. Also, as a destination, it is quite fragile.
Sarah: Why is it so fragile?
Liz: Well, on an environmental level obviously you have these spectacular landscapes, carving glaciers. You have the ice caps, the second biggest ice cap in the world, which are very spectacular, but they are also obviously kind of like dramatic pictures of climate change and what is happening to our world. But you also have these on a social and cultural level, you have these very small communities and a lot of social issues going on. A lot of underfunding of certain areas, which makes it hard for people to live their best life, I suppose. So it’s rewarding to work with Greenland in a sense that you are putting money into somewhere that, one of the places that needs it more than other places perhaps. And you are coming up, you know, you are working together with people to come up with solutions that are actually not just applicable there but all over the world. So it’s cool that Greenland can, in that sense, be a kind of global leader for some albeit very small sustainability solutions in the world of tourism. So yeah, it is rewarding to work there, but it is also just challenging because things are quite disorganized and things change all the time because the weather basically is in charge. So yeah, a lot of unpredictability, a lot of things going wrong last minute. And so you asked me what I wished somebody would have told me. Maybe it would have been simpler to do it somewhere else, but at the same time, it would not have been as rewarding or as meaningful. I don’t know. But it’s a question.
Sarah: But coming back to what you said in the beginning, saying that you have focused on the practical level on nudges to incentivize and promote more sustainable behavior or better tourist behavior, what does that then actually mean? I mean, what does it mean to be a good tourist or a sustainable tourist, what does that mean?
Liz: Yeah, that’s a good question. And I don’t have the answer – despite having worked on it for three years. But you know, we are academics, so we rarely ever give answers, do we? It depends on how you look at sustainability, I think. A lot of people see it only at the environmental level, and then of course, being a good tourist is not being a tourist, right? Unless you are traveling in a carbon-neutral way. But yeah, I have been working with sustainable tourism more holistically, also on a social and cultural and economic level, so then there are ways for tourists to contribute, by for example spending money in local communities, spending money on locally produced products. Engaging in activities that help to promote traditional cultural practices. Yeah, and engaging in activities which benefit local societies and communities, but again it is really hard to know what these activities are sometimes. Because I spoke in the beginning about this, something you are paying to watch a cultural performance that is staged or there are power relationships there which are not benefiting people. So just because you are somehow engaged with local culture, it’s not necessarily beneficial for the local people. So in that sense, basically just do your research and be open to maybe sustainability being something opposite to what it is at home. One of the examples I always like to use about Greenland is eating vegetarian. So we usually consider eating vegetarian to be sustainable, but in Greenland, it’s the opposite because they can’t really grow their own vegetables, they need to ship their own vegetables from Denmark. But then they have meat, wild meat, easily accessible, locally. So on an environmental level, it is much more sustainable to eat meat there rather than vegetables. Just say, keep an open mind, do your research, and that’s it.
Sarah: Yeah, I mean that’s very good advice. I wish you the best of luck with not only finishing your PhD but also with finding the relevant paths for you for a postdoc. Thank you so much for joining me, Liz.
Liz: Thank you so much for having me.
Elizabeth Cooper is a PhD Fellow at Copenhagen Business School, within the Department of Management, Society and Communication. Her research aims to link the fields of behavioural science and tourism, by experimenting with strategies to ‘nudge’ cruise tourists into behaving in more sustainable ways, specifically in the ports of Greenland.
The Business of Society podcast is a research-based show by the CBS Sustainability Centre. Our podcast explores the relationship between business and society, with a focus on sustainable practices and developments. In each episode, podcast host and Centre Manager Sarah Netter, leads the conversations with leading researchers and expert practitioners to discuss CSR and sustainability-related issues and to inspire business practitioners, researchers, and anyone interested in the intersection of business and society, how to transition towards more sustainable practices.