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Changing the narrative through small practices

A key challenge that keeps coming up in our conversations about shifting towards a regenerative approach in tourism is the need for a change at two levels: a shift in mindsets and wholesale cultural change within both industry and public policy. This mindset shift involves (1) working to evolve individual worldviews and (2) working collectively to move beyond the paradigms that condition our thinking. This shift requires that, firstly, we identify and work with the wormholes of change in our own spheres of influence, and secondly, to work collectively in service of a living systems worldview.

A wormhole is a tunnel-like connection through space-time. It's a theoretical construct from physics, but it has become a metaphor denoting the connections that can be made between disparate points wherein a new way of seeing and doing is possible. Used in the context of a regenerative approach to tourism, it's all about connecting and building bridges between ideas and actions that can, in turn, help address the cascading effects of the polycrisis we face, i.e. climate change, biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse, climate-induced migration, economic disruption and so on.

To understand and address this polycrisis, it has become clear we need new thinking, new systems, and new practices, including the capacity for:

  • Complex systems thinking

  • Connecting dots, building bridges between disparate ideas and their interactions

  • Building awareness of that which we do not know or understand

  • Understanding how our minds have been previously conditioned

  • The courage to step beyond our comfort zones

  • Becoming attuned to how we react/respond to what we do not understand

  • Being comfortable with ambiguity, uncertainty and change.

In this post, we deconstruct the big narrative about regenerative approaches in tourism, and identify the shifts and changes we are already nurturing in practice and in those of others working in a similar space. In order to avoid the fear, angst, and resistance that is often triggered when talking about big systems change, we share with you what it means in small conversations and practices on the ground with the clients and communities we work with.

Overcoming the translation challenge

There are definitely shifts happening at the edges. It's at the edges where new ideas and transformations of mindsets start to take hold. In our own work, we are seeing this change:

  1. Pushing up from the innovative thinking on the ground and in communities that are actively working in lean and experimental ways to influence policy development higher up.

  2. Pushing sideways, where horizontal connections and learnings are being made across diverse and seemingly unrelated sectors such as food systems and forestry.

The challenge is how to unleash these wormholes at the edge into fully supported experiments where we can learn, collect evidence, and reflect on how these small actions can shift the system to deal with the cascading polycrisis. We need more opportunities that allow us to connect the dots, think differently, and experiment with different ways of working so that we can shift the established thinking at the slower-moving centre.

Shifting the narrative

In the table below, we have translated the bigger challenge of a regenerative approach into smaller 'bite-sized' transitions based on what we are seeing and how we are working. We are moving from the traditional narrative to a new narrative. Systems change sounds complex, expensive, disruptive, and out of reach. But when we break it down, the shifts can be seen as incremental, everyone's responsibility, and in everyone's interests.

Traditional Narrative

Emerging Narrative

Policy goals reflect industrial tourism. An industrial mindset where the aim is to generate demand by stimulating markets, product development, developing partnerships with industry, and securing access to resources. Communities and nature are public resources to be consumed by visitors and mined by the industry.

Policy goals are multi-perspective. A well-being mindset pays attention to how tourism can contribute to the health, well-being, and resilience of local places, people, nature and business ecosystems. The hosting visitors should be in service to the regeneration of places, communities, and nature.

Emphasis on competition. Competitive positioning promotes a scarcity mindset, i.e. destinations must compete for visitors which results in price becoming the determinant.

Emphasis on collaboration. The process of understanding the issues and developing actions is based on collaboration, co-learning and co-design for the benefit of all.

Growing business outcomes. Marketing is assumed to drive growth, products, services, and benefits will trickle down to communities.

Emphasis on stewardship of places. An emphasis on the generation of positive impacts for communities, places and nature generates a sense of local well-being. Vibrant local economies flourish as a result.

Sustainability. Sustainability tools help businesses do less harm and develop their ‘green’ market advantage. The focus is on the output, the scorecard, and the accreditation rather than on holistic system change.

Positive impact and regeneration. Emphasis is on how visitors and tourism businesses can contribute positively by restoring and regenerating nature, activating net zero-impact visitor experiences and activities, and contributing to the well-being of people, communities, and places.

​​Exclusive access, pay-to-play industry advocacy. Tourism businesses and operators are more knowledgeable and should therefore determine policy directions and priorities.

Inclusive and participatory. The hosting of visitors is co-designed with communities. Those entrusted to lead tourism nurture the legitimacy, credibility and trust of the community.

Top-down in a silo. The problem or challenge is assumed to be “how to grow tourism” and solutions come from the top down.

Cross-cutting. Local/lived experience is equally as valuable as expertise. Actions are adaptive and emerge from co-design.

Industrial outputs. Industrial metrics focused on measuring economic value, investment attraction, visitor expenditure, yield, competitive position, etc. Focus on outputs and fragmented metrics.

Well-being outcomes. Measuring the health, well-being, resilience and positive impacts of workers, communities, places, and nature. Focus on positive contributions of hosting visitors on people, places and nature. Focus on holistic systems change.

Responsibility is out there 👉. Unintended consequences of tourism are no one's responsibility and fall to the public sector

Responsibility is in here ❤️. Everyone takes responsibility for their actions, for we are all connected. Our health, well-being and flourishing are interdependent.

Industrial language. Tourism industry, visitor economy, destination, consumers, distribution channels, marketing, competitive advantage, commercialisation or protected areas, destination management plans, DMOs, etc.

Language of values. Stories, identity, place, home, away, hosting, guests, stewardship, responsibility, positive impact, regeneration, local value networks, natural and community assets, place activation, community wealth building, etc.

A focus on economic value. Based on prioritising economic value to business networks and the assumption that benefits will trickle down to benefit others without having to provide evidence or support of such claims.

Focus on the creation/distribution of diverse value. Travellers who have transformational experiences contribute more than economic value to a place. Locals who connect in meaningful and authentic ways can benefit. Businesses that deliver on a higher purpose add both tangible and intangible value.

External knowledge. Expertise and knowledge is top down and generated externally by those that know (i.e. colonial perspective).

​Integrated knowledge. Acknowledges local knowledge, lived and felt experience as valid and essential.

Solution. Focus on the solution and how to get there in the most cost effective, profit friendly and resource efficient manner.

Journey. Focus on the journey and building capacity and positive impacts along the way and that are left in the place.

In our upcoming Tourism CoLab Course, Introduction to Regenerative Tourism (starting February 2023) we explore regenerative tourism, what it means and what it takes to start the journey. We want to make regenerative tourism accessible regardless of where one might be located in the diversity of planetary stakeholders. We hope to sharpen your thinking, reduce fear, del with resistance, and help you feel inspired!


The Tourism CoLab is an online tourism education and change-making agency specialising in disrupting tourism through unlearning experiences and experimental journeys.


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