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Navigating Uncertainty: The Influence of Risk on Consumer Decision-Making in Ocean Cruising

PhD study on risk perception, consumer behaviour and cruising

This guest article is submitted by Jennifer Holland, a Canadian researcher currently completing her PhD at the University of Brighton in England. Her PhD is titled “Navigating Uncertainty: The Influence of Risk on Consumer Decision-Making in Ocean Cruising”. 

There is a ‘culture of fear’ in western societies that is distinct to the 21st century. Although statistically humans are living longer, safer and healthier lives, many people are more concerned about risk now than in previous generations (Nakayachi, 2013; Slovic, 2000). There have been many attempts to define, conceptualize and understand the phenomenon of risk. However, defining risk is problematic and there is no universally-agreed upon definition (Aven & Renn, 2009). This undercurrent of fear and uncertainty influences all areas of our lives, including our behaviour as consumers and tourists. Risk and uncertainty are ‘inherent’ to tourism through the act of travel and visiting new places and learning about different cultures. Therefore, understanding how a tourist perceives and understands risk is central to the decision-making process for leisure travel. The presence of risk, whether real or perceived, has the potential to change travel decisions (Williams & Balaz, 2015). 

Risk goes beyond physical harm and includes financial, psychological, social, time-loss, and performance risks (Jacoby & Kaplan, 1972). However, risk is not well understood in tourism. The lack of research points to a knowledge gap in understanding the relationship of risk and consumer decision-making in tourism, and particularly in cruise studies. The cruise industry is a dynamic and growing sector of the leisure travel industry with new ships continually being launched to meet tourist demand. While research on ocean cruising is developing; cruise research is still under-researched. This is significant as there has been increased attention recently in the media on possible risks related to ocean cruising. A cruise holiday is a good example for examining consumer risks, as the cruise is the destination, resort and mode of transport all at the same time. Additionally, a cruise holiday provides unique opportunities in which consumer risk may occur. Indeed, where else would a consumer be faced with seasickness (physical risk) or dining with the Captain (social risk). Understanding the influence of risk on the decision-making process will help marketers and the tourism industry to better understand consumers and the process around selecting a cruise holiday. 

Therefore, to address this knowledge gap, research is being conducted to examine the influence that perceptions of risk have on consumer decision-making in ocean cruising. To gather the data, the study is using an innovative technique known as image elicitation. There is a growing recognition of using photography and image elicitation in tourism research to reveal deeper thoughts and feelings as well as give the participant more of a voice in the research (Khoo-Lattimore & Prideaux, 2014; Westwood, 2007). Estimates vary, but it is thought that two-thirds of all human communication is done through images and non-verbal exchange rather than literally and through texts (Zaltman, 1996). Using focus groups and personal in-depth interviews, individuals will be asked to bring in photos representing thoughts and feelings about cruising. Using images provides a playful and interesting way to have the participants share their thoughts and feelings about cruising and how they make holiday decisions. Indeed, the visual act of browsing holiday brochures is a pleasurable act for many and evokes feelings of excitement and anticipation. Individuals will also be asked to describe images that were not available, as this may provide additional insight. Elicitation techniques have been selected as a useful qualitative method to uncover subconscious desires, thoughts and feelings surrounding a cruise holiday. 

The research is conducted through a social constructionist lens, which accepts that knowledge is socially constructed and there are multiple interpretations and realities (Schwandt, 2015). Reflexivity and positionality are woven through the research to give a voice to the researcher’s own experiences and relationship with the data. The researcher offers a very unique perspective on the research as having worked at sea for ten years for two major cruise lines, worked in retail travel sales for four years including cruises, sailed previously as a passenger and continues to sail as spouse of a senior deck officer. The project also has the potential to contribute to a greater understanding of risk in contemporary society, including how risk is defined and the deeper epistemological position.  Preliminary results are expected in the spring of 2017.


Aven, T., & Renn, O. (2009) ‘On risk defined as an event where the outcome is uncertain’, Journal of Risk Research, vol. 12, no.1, pp. 1-11.

Jacoby, J. & Kaplan, L. (1972) ‘The components of perceived risk’, In SV - Proceedings of the Third Annual Conference of the Association for Consumer Research, eds. M. Venkatesan, Chicago, IL : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 382-393.

Khoo-Lattimore, C., & Prideaux, B. (2014). ‘ZMET: A psychological approach to understanding unsustainable tourism mobility’. In S. Cohen, J. Higham, and S. Gossling (Eds.) Understanding and Governing Sustainable Tourism Mobility: Psychological and Behavioural Approaches, Vol. 43, pp. 88-103. Oxon, UK: Routledge.

Nakayachi, K. (2013) ‘The unintended effects of risk‐refuting information on anxiety’, Risk Analysis, vol. 33, no. 1, pp. 80-91. doi: 10.1111/j.1539-6924.2012.01852.x

Schwandt, T. (2015) The Sage dictionary of qualitative inquiry, 4th Edition, Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.

Slovic, P. (2000) The perception of risk, New York: Taylor & Francis.

Westwood, S. (2007). ‘What lies beneath? Using creative, projective and participatory techniques in qualitative tourism inquiry”. In I. Ateljevic, A. Pritchard, & N. Morgan (Eds.), The Critical Turn in Tourism Studies: Innovative Methodologies (pp. 293-316). Oxford, UK: Elsevier.

Williams, A. M. & Baláž, V. (2015) ‘Tourism risk and uncertainty theoretical reflections’, Journal of Travel Research, vol. 54, pp. 271-287. doi: 10.1177/0047287514523334

Article details

  • Author(s)
  • Jennifer Holland
  • Date
  • 12 September 2016
  • Subject(s)
  • Tourism