Community wellbeing, care, and agency drive tourism's success in a regenerative ecosystem. | Photo by Robert Bye on Unsplash

November 20, 2023

Embracing a regenerative approach to anything requires systems thinking. That is, we need to consider ecosystems and their complex interconnectedness as a whole versus parsing everything into isolated pieces.

In tourism, this requires adopting lessons from the past and considering current conditions in addition to looking strictly toward the future. In the past, the loudest stakeholders and dominant culture took up space and made decisions, but a regenerative approach invites all shareholders into the conversation about tourism.

And, it requires acknowledging that tourism doesn’t exist in a silo; instead, those working in tourism must consider the larger community capacity and needs — related to issues like access to education and healthcare, infrastructure development, and other activities like agriculture and aquaculture — and how tourism fits into this fabric.

When I talk about tourism that supports and serves regeneration at conferences and with colleagues, many people listen, nod their heads, and generally seem to agree with what’s being said.

And then, despite any interest in adopting this approach, the conversations often revert back to occupancy rates, international arrivals, and projected revenue. Regeneration becomes just another buzzword to integrate into a business plan someday.

Spoiler alert: That is not how regeneration works.

Another spoiler alert: Completely rethinking the way we define, develop, and deliver travel experiences using a regenerative approach requires rethinking the way we measure “success” as well.

This is why I found “Beautiful KPIs & Resident Engagement” to be one of the most enlightening sessions I attended at the IMPACT Sustainability Travel & Tourism Conference in Victoria, Canada, in early 2023. While nearly a year has gone by since the conference, the issue of key performance indicators (or KPIs, something used to gauge “success”) remains highly relevant and frequently discussed in tourism, especially as it relates to regeneration.

One of the common threads coming out of any conversation about the nebulous “new” tourism model is that it should be community-led and -focused. If that’s the case, then any measurement of tourism “success” also needs to lean heavily on community wellbeing (as defined by the community) and resident engagement (as opposed to simply resident sentiment).

Instead of thinking about how tourism benefits communities, reciprocal relationships ensure that tourism is a partner in a community’s sustainable development and not simply a force barging its way in, defining what “success” looks like without adopting a holistic perspective. A strong, sustainable community is a resilient one — a people and a place that can restore and repair themselves.

In the aforementioned IMPACT session, I was especially inspired by what panelist Marco Lucero, co-founder of Cuidadores de Destinos, had to say about several KPIs co-designed and implemented throughout Chile. These include:

  • Number of children playing in public places.
  • Number of people who know their neighbors.
  • Percentage of ambient audio that belongs to bird song.
  • Percentage of food produced within a radius of less than 50 kilometers.
  • Percentage of people who use a bicycle as a means of transportation.
  • Number of women walking at night who feel safe.
  • Number of public decisions that residents are a part of.

If these don’t sound like your typical tourism KPIs, good. They shouldn’t.

This is where that systems thinking comes into play: If something is important to and relevant within the community — mobility and accessibility issues, housing availability and homelessness, cultural vibrancy, environmental health, etc., etc. — then it must be important to those working within tourism as well. Improvement of the quality of life within a place where tourism is present is paramount for all. After all, a great place for people to visit must first be a great place for people to visit.

You live somewhere. Wouldn’t you want it to prioritize your needs and desires before those of travelers?

If you need a reason to rethink those internally focused, data-driven, capitalistic, harmful KPIs tourism’s been leaning on for so long, that is your sign.

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