If “sustainable tourism” was the jargon of yesterday, “regenerative tourism” is the industry buzzword of today. But the implications of regenerative tourism are more than just a passing fad.
The idea of regeneration — renewing or restoring something — is not new, but it’s only been in the last few years that regeneration in sectors ranging from agriculture to architecture has entered the mainstream conversation. “Regenerative tourism” is the idea that tourism leaves a place better than it was before. (“Sustainability,” in comparison, is leaving something as it is so that it exists in a constant state; in other words, not causing any additional damage.)
Anna Pollock, a long-time advocate for holistic travel and founder of Conscious Travel, has been a proponent of regenerative tourism for years. But the concept began to surface as a more mainstream conversation within the tourism industry in 2019, in large part due to Pollock’s work with Visit Flanders and the Travel to Tomorrow Summit. Over the last few pandemic-laden months, regenerative tourism has again made a splash on the industry scene, largely due to an article published in the New York Times by Elaine Glusac.
There’s a good reason for this emphasis: This moment is a golden opportunity for the tourism industry to redevelop itself in a way that doesn’t just avoid damage but actually has a positive impact on destinations and communities. It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to adopt a drastically new mindset and way of conducting business.
This New York Times article notes that aspects of regenerative tourism include measuring tourism beyond its financial benefits, focusing on local people, and considering the holistic wellbeing of people and the planet. More insight is detailed in the Future of Tourism Coalition's 13 guiding principles, which are designed to help move the tourism industry toward a more regenerative mindset. (I would argue that there is one key guiding principle missing from this list, but that’s an article for another day.)
I am completely onboard with embracing regeneration over sustainability. Our planet and humanity are sliding down a dangerously destructive slope, and we can’t afford to just hang on to what exists and call it a day. We — as people working within the tourism industry and as compassionate members of the human race — must strive for a healthier and more equitable future, and the only way to get there is through regeneration.
However, what concerns me about these conversations about regenerative tourism is that they center travel and a new, different, and “better” way of conducting business within the tourism context.
A key feature of regeneration is focusing on solutions.
There are creative solutions being developed each and every day by locals in communities all around the world. These locally focused solutions are finely tuned to local needs using local innovation. They are powered by local people who support their own communities while addressing a myriad of universal issues ranging from water scarcity to human trafficking.
Clearly tourism has generated a host of problems in need of solutions. In many cases, solutions already exist in some fashion to address the problems exacerbated by tourism.
Travel and tourism can be used as a solution to aid in resolving some of the challenges it has helped create and accelerate, but the tourism industry shouldn't necessarily need to take the driver’s seat as the solution creator. Instead, the tourism industry needs to galvanize its strengths (like global reach, diversity of sectors, financial power, and passion of professionals) to support solutions already addressing the problems.
Tourism an an Agent of Transformation
We know this much is true: For far too long, the tourism industry has existed in a silo, separate from and at the expense of local communities. Regenerative tourism recognizes this.
Yet, what we continue to emphasize in our conversation about regenerative tourism is how tourism can be developed in destinations to create experiences and conditions that are regenerative rather than seeking out and supporting those aspects of regeneration that already exist.
I like what Pollock says in this article about how “tourism has the potential to become an agent of positive transformation that can contribute to a better quality of life for all” (my emphasis). Tourism is not the tool communities need to create a healthier, more equitable, and more sustainable future for locals. It is a tool that supports communities’ goals and initiatives for sustainable development.
Instead of asking “How can tourism add value?” we need to ask “How can tourism amplify and enhance the value this community/destination already has through exposure, support, and promotion?” Instead of looking at the “big picture” of tourism in a destination, we need to look at the big picture of the destination and ask how and where tourism fits in to maximize its positive impact. Instead of molding tourism around a destination, the industry needs to think more broadly about how it can be woven into the societal fabric to strengthen it.
And instead of thinking of regenerative tourism as something that delivers a positive net benefit to communities, we need to re-center that thinking and consider how communities can best be benefited by tourism as a single industry out of many.
The good news is that we’re moving in the right direction by recognizing and validating the agency of local people and communities. And we are beginning to understand the importance in letting local people dictate the terms, conditions, and expectations under which tourism — like any industry — can and should operate on a place-to-place basis.
Global Opportunity, Local Focus
As noted in this article by Daniel Christian Wahl, “We have to engage those in business, public sector, and civil society who are becoming curious about ‘regeneration,’ how it might differ from ‘sustainability,’ and what regenerative development, business, and cultures might have to offer as transformative responses to the converging crises — and opportunities — we are faced with glocally.”
Glocally. Now that is a powerful word. It brings into focus the big picture on a truly micro level: Global problems, local solutions. Global industry, local support. Global platform, local stories.
There is a reason there are 17 pillars to the sustainable development goals. To me, glocally captures this intersection of all aspects of society that must advance together on a local scale to fully realize a healthier, more equitable, sustainable — and, yes, even regenerative — way of life for all people on a global scale.
Tourism is one powerful tool in the toolkit that can be used to reach that universal goal — but it is only one tool — and the industry must wield it wisely with regeneration in mind.