COVID-19 has and continues to put many strains on the tourism sector, which came to a near standstill in 2020. As professionals and international associations are preparing themselves to restart and recover, they have a exceptional opportunity to rethink the role of tourism and rebuild a better, healthier and more resilient industry.
This article sheds light on regenerative approaches to tourism. Regenerative tourism offers a framework that departs from overconsumption and leans towards sustainable tourism >that creates abundance for all stakeholders embedding conservation, communities, culture, and collaboration into recovery and crisis plans.
Impact of COVID-19 on the tourism sector
The tourism sector accounted for one in 10 jobs worldwide or 330 million jobs and 10.3% of global GDP (USD 8.9 trillion) in 2019. It has the most expansive value chain and the most profound socio-economic footprint (UNWTO, 2020).
Since the beginning of the crisis, international tourist arrivals have dropped by 65% following an unprecedented wave of closing of borders for sanitary reasons, combined with a 33% decrease in domestic travel due to official sanitary measures and self-imposed travel restrictions. If the situation does not improve shortly, those figures could reach 73% and 45% respectively.
This setback has put immense pressure on the whole tourism sector, forcing hotels and restaurants to shut down for an extended period, causing tremendous and irretrievable revenue losses for corporations, which otherwise continue to face largely unchanged fixed costs.
“The loss incurred by the tourism industry from this pandemic for the year 2020 is estimated to be as severe as USD 3.8 trillion in GDP and 142.6 million in jobs, or more than one-third of the total amount of employment generated by this industry” - UNWTO, November 2020).
Equally important are the implications of tourism on the environment and climate change as well as on the wealth and diversity of cultures and traditions globally (World Travel & Tourism Council, 2020).
Toward sustainability and innovation
The current pandemic has prompted a number of industry leaders and experts to question the status quo and demand for sustainability business practices at the forefront of new business models.
Last summer, the UNWTO Secretary-General Zurab Pololikashvili even declared a "universal determination to restart tourism and do so with an emphasis on sustainability and ensuring the benefits are shared as widely as possible." In its sector-wide recommendations to restart tourism, the World Tourism Organization set innovation and sustainability as part of its seven priorities for tourism recovery, making them officially "the new normal."
At the same time, the United Nations stated that this crisis was "an unprecedented opportunity to transform the relationship of tourism with nature, climate, and the economy" (United Nations, 2020).
A regenerative framework for tourism
Given its extensive geographic and socio-economic reach, the travel and tourism sector may serve as a robust funding and advocacy tool to protect fragile ecosystems and indigenous communities, and to support biodiversity conservation, climate action and social inclusion (Regen Hospitality, >2020>).
This regenerative approach thinks of travel and tourism as a healing force and a change agent to revitalize human and natural ecosystems (Regenerative Travel, >2020>). Achieving such an ambitious objective requires a shift in our economic model and societal paradigms to evolve from seeking "sustainable" growth in volume to pursuing a more qualitative development that fosters human health and wellbeing through ecosystems’ health.
All stakeholders in the tourism value chain, including travelers, businesses, workforce and communities have a shared responsibility in preserving the local assets and enabling the destination as a whole to flourish. According to United Nations, regenerative tourism principles that draw upon nature's wisdom are as follows:
Holistic understanding and living-systems approach: Acknowledging that everything is interconnected and interdependent, and understanding the nature and quality of the interactions between every stakeholder throughout the entire tourism value chain, as well as howing their influence each other and the entire ecosystem.
Collaborative: Fostering collaboration and partnerships between a wide range of stakeholders from governments, to the private sector, to the voluntary sector, and the communities. Challenging the current competitive mindset that governs our dominant economic systems.
Diverse by nature: Securing various revenue streams to ensure that ecosystems and communities are less reliant on tourism income and diversifying between the different segments of the market – leisure vs. business and domestic vs. international - to reduce various economic and geopolitical risks and enhance resilience.
Inclusive and equitable: Involving the local communities to strengthen the overall ecosystem through, for example, collaborating with local suppliers; asking around who needs rooms and space; considering supporting refugees or homeless people.
Transformational and inspirational: Creating authentic, immersive and meaningful experiences for the guests that bring forward the uniqueness of each place and offering activities that showcase the cultural heritage, folklore, gastronomy, local landmarks and wildlife responsibly.
Environmentally responsible: Responsible environmental stewardship through the management of natural resources and biodiversity and the protection of fragile landscape and wildlife, using an ecosystemic, circular and non-extractive approach.
Cultural stewardship: Protection of local cultural heritage and traditions and indigenous people and ethnic groups who happen to be the best guardians of biodiversity and natural ecosystems thanks to their ancient wisdom and knowledge passed on from generation to generation.
New narratives and business practices
Regenerative tourism offers an groundbreaking set of solutions to rethink and rebuild the tourism industry in a way that builds long-lasting capabilities and strengthen resilience for its direct and indirect stakeholders during and beyond the crisis. It also revitalizes local economies, preserves local cultures and biodiversity while offering memorable, authentic transformative experiences to the guests and allowing destinations to flourish.
The time has come for leaders in tourism to be encouraged to strengthen their agility and resilience capacities grounded in a deeper understanding of the complex ecosystems in which we operate and a sense of the interconnectedness of all life. The successful recovery of the industry calls for new narratives and business practices that encourage a complete shift and new leadership norms.
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