Going beyond the concept of 'sustainable tourism' which focuses on neutralizing tourism's negative impact on the planet, 'regenerative tourism' is based on adding a positive impact to the local community and environment. Its successful implementation requires a shift in mindset about what going on holiday really means in today's changing society.
What is Sustainable Tourism?
As concerns for our environment grows, many tourism professionals are taking steps to mitigate the negative impacts of the travel industry. From closing down south-east Asian beaches to taxing tourist entries into cities like Venice, these efforts are often included in conversations around the mitigation of tourism’s negative impacts. This mitigation, all the way to the complete neutralization of these negative impacts, is the path to 'Sustainable Tourism'.
The UN Environment Program and UN World Tourism Organization describe sustainable tourism as “tourism that takes full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities.” Some popular sustainable initiatives include reducing the washing of bed linens, stopping food buffets to limit food waste and encouraging guests to limit their consumption of water, which are all valid efforts helping educate guests but are still often limited to financial decisions. Sustainable tourism therefore considers neutralizing tourism’s negative impacts completely.
What is Regenerative Tourism?
Yet, a new concept is gaining popularity among experts: Regenerative Tourism. The aim of regenerative tourism is to bring a positive impact to the local systems, social and environmental. It can take various forms, but the idea is for the traveler to receive a real local experience and go home with not only memories, but also friends, while participating in projects that bring value to the local communities or environment. Visitors can then also be perceived in a better light by the residents, truly defining a tourism loop that is constructive for all of society.
Overall, regenerative tourism is holistic and has a living systems approach. It fosters collaboration and partnerships amongst all stakeholders of the local tourism and encourages diversity in the local economic systems to avoid extreme reliance on tourism for a population’s survival. These local populations are included in decision-making processes in an inclusive and equitable space to bring value to the communities as well as responsibility towards the environment and biodiversity of the location.
As mentioned earlier, the concept of regenerative tourism aims to bring transformational experiences to guests so they can go home inspired and bring a positive outlook on one’s travel, whilst making sure that the local cultural heritage and traditions are conserved from one generation to the next. Holidays therefore become meaningful rather than egoistic, where the tourist serves a true purpose to the local populations.
Today, there are a few groundbreaking actors basing their models on regenerative tourism. Here are a few examples:
In Guyana, indigenous communities can fully partake in tourism activities such as owning and operating their own eco-lodges for example, thanks to Community Based Tourism (CBT), which has been widely encouraged by the government. For example, at Rewa Village, tourism directly benefits economically the local community of 300 members who can in turn protect a rainforest of 350 square kilometers. Thus, the carbon footprint per traveller is transformed into a net positive thanks to the direct conservation efforts.
In the Netherlands, Amsterdam more specifically, the local governmental agencies had to rethink tourism within their city after inhabitants made a formal demand to the council to limit the number of tourists. In April 2020, they formally announced that they would be basing their post-Covid-19 plan on the Doughnut Economics, aiming to bring the Amsterdam population between the green area – the sweet spot between “social foundation” and “ecological ceiling (see figure below). This includes redefining tourism and its infrastructure, which is still work in progress. Indeed, although it is still unclear which concrete steps will be taken to remain within the green limits, specifically when looking at tourism, it is an incredible first step for a city to use this framework as a guide for all decision-making processes.
Global Family Travels, an American travel agency, offers authentic tours following their mission framework: Learn, Serve and Immerse. Their aim is to unite humanity whilst “fostering cross-cultural understanding, destination stewardship and better global citizen”. One of their destinations to Canada’s Bay of Fundy, for example, the traveler will learn about water pathways and their connection to the community, the shaping of the landscape of the region, and the preservation efforts of the wild spaces. On the serve side, the traveler will choose to participate in two giving-back programs: shoreline tree planting with the Atlantic Coastal Action Program (ACAP) or a beach cleanup with the UNESCO Fundy Biosphere Region. Finally, on the immerseaspect, the traveler will receive a unique opportunity to experience the natural history of the location in a tangible way, by connecting with the locals, eating the food and discovering the natural spaces.
Rethinking tourism and the hotel offer
However, it’s always easier to create a regenerative touristic approach from the ground up than shifting an existing model. By rethinking their offers, hoteliers can bring additional value to their environments, local host communities and guests.
Here are a few examples of how the traditional hospitality industry is taking steps towards regenerative tourism:
Although considered more traditional hospitality, Six Senses Resorts are at the forefront of regenerative tourism thanks to the way the group integrates their impact in all of their day-to-day operations as well as strategies. They also offer experiences on “Sustainability and Earth Lab”, for example on their property Shaharut where guests can take a Sustainability Tour about the planning and sustainable management of the hotel from the construction stages until today’s operation. Guests can “visit the organic garden and learn, among other things, about the use of food resources, water and energy in the hotel”. This way, Six Senses uses their access to guests to raise awareness and spread a positive impact.
The Four Seasons Resort Maui at Wailea has built a guest-volunteering experience to teach about Maui’s past. Volunteers will learn about the history through measuring and transcribing artifacts and documents, followed by a session of shoreline debris monitoring and clean-up work. This activity is organized in collaboration with two local organizations, the Lahaina Restoration Foundation, and the Pacific Whale Foundation. Guests are rewarded for participating: they will receive a $250 resort credit to be applied to their current stay and a gift certificate for the future. Four Seasons Resort Cultural ambassador” "Aunty Wendy" Tuivaioge says “this program is perfect for guests that are not only interested in leaving Maui a better place than when they arrived, but also finding a deep meaningful connection to this very special place we call home”.
Changing mindsets: What does 'holiday' really mean?
With the needs of the younger generation and the growing social and environmental awareness of our society, one can only assume that initiatives like these will become more common to amplify the positive impact of tourism globally and locally, and in turn, contribute to educating and building better habits for those who do not yet share this mindset.
Overall, the old school attitudes to what going on holiday means needs to change. A holiday should be more than just switching off and zoning out: Yes, there’s still place for the big chill, but a ‘holiday’ and tourism in general should automatically imply a rich, meaningful exchange among all stakeholders.