2.1. The Emotion of Awe
Awe is an emotional reaction when a certain aspect of an individual’s original reference frame is challenged by perceptual vast stimuli [11
]. The generation of awe impels individuals to self-regulate cognition and makes the individuals’ schema comply with the strange and unfamiliar information [3
]. As a positive emotion existing in people’s daily behavior, awe not only belongs to the basic emotion of human beings, but also is regarded as individuals’ basic experience with universal culture [12
]. The key characteristics and inducing factors of awe are illustrated in Keltner and Haidt [3
] prototype theory. The key features of awe include the perceived vastness and a need for accommodation. The perceived vastness is referred to the powerful force of an emotional stimulus, which can destroy or control people’s willpower and make individuals feel small, powerless, scary, and humble. A need for accommodation is the feeling of confusion and surprise when an individual encounters an experience beyond the previous experience or difficult to understand. The perceived vastness can arise from three kinds of elicitors: The first is the social elicitor, such as religion, immortality, and other objects related to individuals’ social and psychological exchanges. The second is the physical elicitor, such as mountains, rivers, and others which individuals can perceive intuitively through visual, auditory, tactile, and other senses. The third is the cognitive elicitor, such as the theory of relativity and other knowledge based on which the individual can develop deep cognitive processing and cognition. These three explicit elicitors can work at the same time or separately. A need for accommodation is generated from people’s implicit psychology. The most common inducing factors are powerlessness, confusion, and the sense of “small self”. Based on the appraisal theory [14
] and prototype theory [3
], the generation of awe emotion is the process when an individual makes a cognitive evaluation on the external environment. On the one hand, a sense of perceptual environment is generated by evaluating the outside world and recognizing the magnificence, strength, length, and any the strong degree beyond the individual’s existing understanding of the environment. On the other hand, the sense of perceptual environment can be generated through the internal evaluation. The individuals can generate the implicit psychology according to the environment and feel small, powerless, and confused. Changes in a psychological schema can make the individuals believe that it is necessary to self-regulate on the basis of the environment. In summary, the generation of awe emotion is the cognitive evaluation process on the three elicitors (social, physical, and cognitive factors) from two key aspects (perceived vastness and a need for accommodation).
2.2. Awe in Sustainable Tourism Experiences
The subject areas in sustainable tourism research have significantly changed in the past 20 years [16
]. At the beginning, researchers studied the ways to protect a destination that include awareness of the environmental and socio-cultural impacts that tourism activities generated [17
]. Recently, researchers studied how sustainable tourism can promote economic growth in a destination [19
]. Therefore, sustainable tourism also aims to increase tourist satisfaction [7
]. Since nature-based tourism has the strong potential to deliver awe-related experiences [5
] and these experiences may enhance tourist satisfaction, awe has been regarded as an emotion closely related with sustainable tourism experiences for a long time [20
To analyze awe in tourism experience, Coghlan, Buckley and Weaver [2
] have studied the awe experience of 55 tourists. They found that the awe experience includes three components. The first is the physiological response, e.g., shock. The second is the comparative uniqueness, e.g., unforgettable. The third is the schema-changing for the future, e.g., inspiration. In a study on tourist experience in Antarctica, Powell, Brownlee, Kellert and Ham [5
] analyzed the complexity and multiplicity of awe, including five sub-dimensions: the nature–human relationship, the spiritual connection, the transformative experience, the goal clarification, and the sense of feeling humbled.
The awe experience during travel can be generated by the vast natural scenery (e.g., majestic mountains, boundless coast, towering trees, etc.), ruins of ancient buildings (e.g., the Great Wall, the Pyramid, etc.), religious sites (e.g., the solemn halls, solemn statues, etc.) and artwork [22
]. The vast natural scenery, such as a view of high places [11
] and the majestic beauty of nature [23
], induces the individual’s sense of “small self” and makes the individual produces a sense of awe. In the religion, especially for religious believers, gods are superordinate to human beings with infinite power [24
]. The sense of awe arises from the sense of “small self” when individuals are in front of gods. There are majestic mountains, panoramic view, and a sacred religious culture in sacred mountains of China, where the tourists will feel a great power from both nature and religion, and have the sense of “small self”. According to Keltner and Haidt [3
] prototype theory, the grand view of natural and sacred religion in religious mountains can induce the awe experience for tourists from both of the physical and social aspects. Thus, the following hypothesis is proposed:
The perceived vastness of the natural environment (a); and the perceived sanctity of religious ambience (b) have positive impacts on the awe experience.
As a positive emotion with the transformative function, there are three basic functions of awe. The first is the self-depreciation when individuals find something larger than the self-schema [3
]. The second is strengthening the connection between individuals and the outside world, promoting the spiritual pursuit and generating the prosocial motivation [25
]. The third is deepening and extending the memory of the past experience [5
]. These functions of awe encourage individuals: to increase more willingness to enjoy nature and develop creative activities [11
]; to reduce concerns on the personal interests [26
], to increase the participation in collective action [26
]; to promote the prosocial tendencies by sharing, caring and supporting others [26
]; to increase friendly behavior on others [25
]; to strengthen ethics [20
]; to yearn for the tourism destination of spiritual pursuit (by comparing with the tourism destination of enjoyment) [27
]; to feel the need to have more time and be more patient; to prefer to choose the experience-oriented product (by comparing with material-oriented product); and to access life satisfaction with a higher degree [28
The tourists’ awe experience positively influences tourists’ satisfaction. In tourism research, researchers found that the positive emotions promote the satisfaction of tourists [29
]. As a positive emotion, awe makes individuals prolong, memorize, and relieve the past experience by enhancing the connection between the individuals and the outside world. Therefore, awe experience can induce the loyalty of behavioral and attitude [11
], topophilia or “a sense of place” [30
]. The awe experience inspired by the perceived vastness of the natural environment and the perceived sanctity of religious ambience during travel in the sacred mountains can also improve tourists’ satisfaction. The awe experience mediates the influence of tourists’ perceived vastness of the natural environment and the perceived sanctity of religious ambience on the satisfaction of tourists.
The awe experience has a positive impact on the tourists’ satisfaction.
The awe experience mediates the influence of tourists’ perceived vastness of the natural environment (a) and the perceived sanctity of religious ambience (b) on the tourists’ satisfaction.
2.3. Awe in Pilgrims and Secular Tourists
Religion is a basic element of culture and is closely related to people’s life [31
]. Religion influences people’s basic necessities, social and political attitudes, and travel motivations and behaviors [32
]. Rinschede [34
] found that travel behavior, including travel style, transportation selection, seasonal demand, and socialization, are influenced by people’s religious beliefs. Religious beliefs may also moderate the relationship between tourists’ sense of perceptual natural environment/religious atmosphere and awe.
In the pilgrimage and sustainable tourism literature, scholars recognized two different types of travelers based on tourists’ experience and motivation: pilgrims and secular tourists [35
]. The main difference between these two groups of travelers is their travel motivation. Pilgrims’ travel motivation is driven by sacred or spiritual desires. Secular tourists are motivated by secular interests or pleasure [37
]. Nyaupane, Timothy and Poudel [36
] found that religious tourists treat themselves as pilgrims in sacred places and have a stronger religious motivation. Secular tourists treat themselves as general tourists and have a more recreational or cultural motivation in sacred places [27
]. Sacred places arouse strong religious enthusiasm for pilgrims. At the same time, these places stimulate a sense of wonderment and cultural inspiration for secular tourists.
Due to the different tourism motivations, the awe experience of pilgrims and secular tourists may be induced by different stimuli. For traveling in sacred mountains, pilgrims generate a strong religious motivation to have more spiritual experiences. The humility before gods arouses the fear of gods. Secular tourists have a strong leisure motivation and are more likely to feel the stimulation of natural scenery. The sense of “small self” toward the grand nature makes the individual generate the sense of awe for nature. In a study on awe experience between religious believers and non-religious people, Preston and Shin [39
] found that the spiritual experiences, including the personal transcendence, connection, and wonder, can induce people’s awe experience. However, the awe of religious believers is from the spiritual experiences of explicit religious events or life/death events. The awe of non-religious people is more likely from the spiritual experience of nature, peak, science, yoga, or meditation. For traveling in sacred mountains in China, pilgrims’ awe experience is from statues, religious instruments, religious rituals, and religious events. The secular tourists’ awe experience is more likely to be generated in the steep mountains, panoramic view, towering trees, and other natural scenery. Therefore, the type of tourists (pilgrim/secular tourists) may moderate the relationships of the perceived vastness of the natural environment and the perceived sanctity of religious ambience on the awe emotion. Specifically, in the scenario of religious places, the impact of pilgrims’ perceived vastness of the natural environment on awe should be weaker by comparing with the secular tourists. However, the impact of pilgrims’ perceived sanctity of religious ambience on awe is stronger. Further, the type of tourists (pilgrim/secular tourists) also moderates the awe experience impacts on the relationships of the perceived vastness of natural environment and the perceived sanctity of religious ambience on the tourists’ satisfaction. That is, the mediation relationship of awe on tourists’ sense of perceptual environment/religious atmosphere and satisfaction depends on whether the tourists are pilgrims or secular tourists.
For pilgrims, the impact of the perceived vastness of the natural environment on awe experience is weaker (a); and the impact of the perceived sanctity of religious ambience on awe is stronger (b), in comparison to secular tourists.
The mediating effects of the perceived vastness of the natural environment (a) and the perceived sanctity of religious ambience (b) on satisfaction through the awe experience are moderated by type (pilgrims/secular tourists) of tourists.
Specifically, by comparing with the secular tourists, the mediating effect of pilgrims’ awe experience on the perceived vastness of the natural environment (a) and satisfaction should be weaker. The mediating effect of pilgrims’ awe experience on the perceived sanctity of religious ambience (b) and satisfaction should be stronger.
In summary, the following model is proposed (Figure 1
). For traveling in sacred mountains of China, the vastness of natural environment and the sanctity of religious ambience stimulate the tourists’ awe experience, and increase the satisfaction of the tourists. The type (pilgrims/secular tourists) of tourists negatively moderates the positive impact of the perceived vastness of the natural environment on awe experience, and positively moderates the positive impact of the perceived sanctity of religious ambience on awe experience. Awe experience mediates the relationship between the sense of perceptual environment and the tourists’ satisfaction. The mediating effect of awe experience on the relationship between the perceived environment and the tourists’ satisfaction depends on the type of tourists (pilgrims/secular tourists).