Designing regenerative, inclusive, purpose-led and transformational tourism involves much more than designing front-end tourism experiences and visitor journeys. In this article, we explore how the policy context needs to shift and why developing a nurturing policy environment can play a vital role in making the future of tourism a regenerative one. Or not. The choices we make now will define the future.
We can't know what we can't see
There is an old saying when you only have a hammer, then the solution to every problem looks like a nail. Put simply, when the problem is consistently interpreted from the same perspective, in the same way, assuming the same needs and desired outcomes, then the solution to every problem starts to look like a nail. It's an off-the-shelf solution that can solve all problems with a little tweaking. A scaled solution that can be rolled out regardless of the community, the place, the environment and the local challenges. So, when you only see the problem in a certain way, the hammer and the nail are your tools of choice.
This is the very problem that a large part of the tourism sector is experiencing at the moment. We have experienced decades upon decades of growth in visitor numbers (eight decades actually) by adopting an industrial policy approach. Systems, processes and practices are so deeply embedded that for the large majority of people working in the sector, it is impossible to see tourism as anything other than an industry.
A regenerative approach reformulates the entire challenge we are facing as a result of the cascading effects of climate change, biodiversity loss, economic restructuring and so on. Regeneration requires that we adopt a living systems approach and that we acknowledge that our actions should be devoted to servicing life itself. We take externalised roles and responsibilities articulated in plans out there, and ask from head, heart and gut, what should we do to care for others and to regenerate life. We cannot continue to extract value from places, people, and nature because sooner or later those resources will. be depleted. Disruption, collapse, and political and economic instability are the inevitable consequences. Don't just take my word, both science and indigenous wisdom are telling us this.
The industrial mindset
Since the 1980s, we have consistently identified reducing barriers to investment, opening markets, and pursuing growth as the key policy problems. We have created a system and developed tools (i.e. nails) including destination marketing plans, tourism organisations, and large events to fix these problems.
Yet it has taken just one Covid year to illustrate that this framing of the tourism policy challenge has been off course. Vulnerable local communities and workers are illustrating that tourism has failed to deliver the trickle-down benefits it promised. Have we spent decades and massive resources addressing the wrong policy problem? Had we framed our challenge as the need to build resilient, adaptable and sustainable places where tourism can co-exist with communities and nature, then, chances are, we might not be in this current situation.
Hindsight is 2020! Can we overcome this established problem-solving approach to chart a new course for tourism and imagine new systems and ways of working? Ths is the key policy challenge we face.
The tourism policy challenge
For governments currently dealing with the covid-induced tourism problem, the challenge of selecting the right policy supports is exacerbated by cross-cutting, multi-actor complexity. The Covid challenge illuminates a number of longer-term sustainability and resilience challenges that tourism is implicated within, including the following issues:
Health and safety — ensuring Covid safe environments.
Workforce — job security, working conditions, unemployment and quality jobs.
SMEs — access to financial capital, confidence, adaptive capacity, capacity building and digitalisation.
Large tourism businesses —stability and resilience of anchor attractions and their ecosystems.
Destinations — over and under-tourism tourism, geographical vulnerability, dependence on different modes of transport
Transport — accessibility, vulnerability, global and local restructuring of the sector, transport hubs and connections.
Market— keeping up the confidence to travel, availability of discretionary income to travel, shifting sentiment and motivations.
Finance-friendly environment—availability and access to funds, investor confidence.
Environmental challenges — climate, managing environmental assets, biodiversity loss, conservation, consumer education and behaviour.
Community well-being and livelihoods — managing the effects of tourism and enhancing the way that tourism services community needs and aspirations.
Deciding on the policy supports
Not only is there a question about which of the above challenges should receive primary (secondary or even tertiary) focus, is our toolkit (i.e. all those nails that we have in the cupboard) fit for purpose? It depends on a number of factors, including:
the level and target of support available (i.e. directly businesses, workers, markets)
the timeline and perceived urgency of the challenge.
the capacity to deliver support, i.e. the doing, not just delivering a capacity building program.
the perceived effectiveness of policy supports available.
the cost and impact (intended and unintended)of different policy supports.
All of the above are shaped by prevailing ideologies about the role of government, the private sector, industry associations, and other actors. This ideological context is the soil that supports and nourishes (or not) sustainable and regenerative tourism. It is often hidden from plain view but has a powerful nutritional effect on what values are allowed to flourish, and which stakeholders are able to grow (we include community and nature in our stakeholders).
Ideology underpinning decisions about policy supports
In order to truly appreciate the breadth of policy supports available for tourism, it is necessary to understand the values and beliefs that underpin the conversation. Only then can we step outside the blinkers that keep us using the same policy supports, and think creatively about what we might be able to do differently.
Previous research has illustrated that, since the 1980s, tourism policy has been underpinned by a commitment to an approach characterised by the following position:
Business-government partnerships lead the way. Tourism policy supports should be co-produced in a partnership between governments and industry sector interests.
Tourism should be market-led. Tourism should be market-led and policy support should focus on opening up and facilitating market development and growth objectives.
Tourism policy engagement should be Industry and investment-facing. Tourism should be industry- or investment-facing, where this investment will provide trickle-down benefits to local economies and stakeholders.
There are trickle-down benefits to communities. Tourism supports should target industry development and benefits will trickle-down to communities and workers.
Tourism policy is best from the top-down. Financial and other support should be distributed from the top down using regional organisations to implement policy directions of upper levels of government.
Local actors lack maturity and know-how. SMEs are often (and erroneously) assumed to lack vision and know-how. Yet this position negates the value of tangible and bottom-up experience, the ingenuity and creativity of local communities, and the desire and capacity of communities to determine their own tourism futures.
Why we need to reinvent the tourism policy toolkit
We have been challenged by a narrow way of thinking and problem-solving in tourism for the last four decades. In other research, we concluded that tourism is a low innovation sector and that government has an important but as yet untapped role in supporting creative problem-solving and new approaches using design thinking, co-creative and other methods. The reason is becoming increasingly clear.
Prior to Covid, there was clear evidence that the public is becoming more sceptical and less trusting of governments. The policy environment is increasingly wicked and complex, yet at the same time elected representatives want to focus on new initiatives, new announcements, or new plans that will win votes. The issue cycle has become more compressed, more complex, and faster. While the electorate might be more educated, more discerning and more demanding, there is often resistance to experimenting with new tourism policy supports. This is because business-government relations have become locked into mutually beneficial funding and power relationships at the exclusion of other interests. The fear of change and the risk of upsetting comfortable power dynamics make those in power hang on even tighter to the status quo.
Gaslighting, ignoring alternative perspectives, putting up invisible barriers to participation, and at the same time scattering breadcrumbs to those willing to go along with the status quo, are among current resistance strategies to change and innovation.
But the mood is changing. Citizens are more capable and more confident. Communities are wanting a voice. Nature is demanding to be heard. Calls for tourism to serve both communities and nature are growing. For decades communities and nature have had to serve the interests of the tourism industry, yet re-investment back into their regeneration has been negligible. Our democracies need to be more democratic, and that includes placing communities and nature at the table, giving them a voice in the future of tourism.
What’s in the tourism policy toolbox?
When it comes to tourism, governments have traditionally employed four main types of policy supports or combinations of these:
Financial instruments. These are broad-based instruments that inject money right where it's needed. The early Covid response included government-issued employment support payments made directly to employers or to individuals are examples of these financial supports. The second wave of financial supports has come in the form of targeted financial supports to particular businesses or parts of the sector. The recent announcement by the Australian government of a $1.2 billion dollar ‘Ticket to Recovery’ package is an example, which is aimed at ‘assisting tourism’ although, in essence, it is nothing more than an aviation sector support package underpinned by the assumption that trickle-down economic activity will support tourism regions dependant on air access. This policy is narrow, selective in who it benefits, and the wider support to the sector is questionable.
Activation through economic development programs. Policy supports have also included grant funding through regional economic development programs. These supports provide assistance to regional areas to plan events, identify pivots towards new markets, and undertake strategic work to position destinations for a bounce-back recovery. Anecdotally, problems with this set of policy supports are emerging, including a fragmented project-based approach which is both incremental and highly political in the way funding is distributed. (Pork-barrelling is the term used to describe projects that are funded to please voters in marginal seats).
This kind of grant funding asks applicants to address existing policy directions. The small and fragmented nature of projects distributes funds widely but can be liked to throwing out breadcrumbs to achieve compliance. Small projects are not resourced nor do they have the capacity to consider the wider, systemic changes taking place in tourism. The result will be that many of these projects, especially those that are based on a bounce-back outlook, may be a poor fit for the future of tourism.
Infrastructure. The final set of policy supports is designed to support mega-infrastructure and expensive long-term investments. The main effect of these policy supports is to generate employment. Generally, this kind of policy instrument supports construction workers and apprenticeships that are more likely to benefit men and do not address the disproportionate number of women who have been directly affected by job loss as a result of Covid.
Education and capacity building. A range of targeted support mechanisms includes coaching and mentoring programs aimed at identifying business pivots, introducing and building digital capacity, and identifying new market opportunities. These supports build capacity within the industry and may focus on early-stage start-ups, accelerating tourism business, or ideation of new products and experiences.
Where are we going?
While every destination and every tourism context is different, there are some generally agreed-upon strategies that are making the rounds in both research and policy documents. The World Bank summarises the steps that need to be taken to prepare for the future:
Addressing health and hygiene standards.
Understanding how demand is changing (including domestic and regional tourism).
Interpreting changing business models.
Mobilising innovation and technology solutions that impact distribution and market access.
Guiding investments in destinations to position them for a more sustainable and resilient industry post-Covid.
What is missing from the toolkit?
There are five key ingredients missing from the current toolkit which require attention:
1. Incorporate views from edge thinking
But while the pandemic is likely to leave a deep and lasting footprint on tourism, the situation is messy and highly political from global to local levels. The space of creative problem-solving is being met both with resistance from business as usual interests who want government to continue supporting old ways that are comfortable and profitable for the incumbents. But it is also being met with enormous creativity generated from new coalitions, partnerships and free-thinking entrepreneurs that exist on the edge.
Innovation does not happen at the centre. It does not happen where rules and ways of working are firmly established. Innovation happens where there is the freedom to think laterally, to explore new pathways, and where ideas are cross-fertilised at the boundaries with other sectors, organisations and cultures. According to researcher Jeff DeGraff:
“It’s easier to change 20 percent of your organization 80 percent than it is to change 80 percent of your firm 20 percent… Work your innovations from the outside in.”
In tourism, courageous leadership, innovative thinking, and the ability to speak truth to power exist on the edges. It depends on how deeply you listen, how prepared you are to step outside your comfort zone, how open you are to recognise stuck ways of thinking, and how willing you are to explore new frames of thinking about the challenges and issues.
2. A framework for genuine community engagement
Innovation also happens where need meets creativity — at the local level. On the ground, and shoulder to shoulder with SMEs, with vulnerable tourism and hospitality workers, there are those finding creativity, new pathways, inspiration and hope for a new kind of tourism. It’s a type of tourism that is:
Place-based and ground-up.
Focused on building local resilience, sustainability and adaptability.
Unleashing the unique combination of qualities, characteristics and ingenuity that local communities offer.
Connecting with nature at a truly transformative level to refocus on what really matters.
Addressing some of the existential global challenges we face by connecting climate change, circular and inclusive economies, business model innovation and education, and the need for quality, purpose-led work with tourism.
For these tourism change-makers, thought leaders and activators, working in the local community wealth building, every day they ask:
“How might we make your neighbourhood, your community, your town or your region so restorative, so transformational, and so connected, that you don’t need to jump on a plane to holiday somewhere else?”
3. Spaces of genuine engagement where innovative thinking is encouraged
Again and again in The Tourism CoLab workshops and ideation sessions, participants ask why, despite that the need for change in tourism is so evident, that stakeholders have no opinion or prefer not to take a position. This is a sign that the space for genuine engagement, for sharing and activating aspirations and future-making, has been eroded. But the mood is changing...
From the discussion above, it's clear that the tourism operating system is deeply embedded and the power structures work to maintain the status quo and reinforce existing ways of doing things. Our tourism policy environment is built upon a legacy of assumptions about what is important and not important, about the aim of the game, who should be consulted, and who the ‘experts’ are.
Questioning the status quo and established ways of thinking is often misinterpreted as being negative, difficult, or even anti-tourism. But how can innovation and change emerge if we are not open to being challenged, to recognise our blind spots, or to engage with counter-ideas? Policy innovation is stuck when fear and risk of new ideas outweighs any interest in innovative ideas or alternative thinking.
For change-makers and those that operate at the edge, comments from policy advisors like “don’t be negative” makes for curious advice. It marks a difference in the comfort levels in fear and risk between the 80% at the core and the 20% at the edge. Change agents, the 20 percenters who inhabit the innovation edge welcome the challenge of thinking differently and challenging assumptions. It's not negativity, but an opportunity to think, refine, ideate and think afresh. Their perceived level of risk in engaging in challenging conversations is much less than their desire to reset tourism towards more sustainable and regenerative futures. For the 80 percenters, the need to work within the system, and to avoid challenging it, means that they are less likely to engage in innovative thinking.
4. Policy literacy in tourism
If we want to drive change in tourism, we need greater literacy in the type of policy tools available, what kind of change they can unleash, and where they can be targeted. Contrary to dominant thinking that has seen policy being phased out of most higher education programs and very low levels of engagement in policy research at a global level, literacy in tourism policy is essential in creating sustainable and regenerative tourism futures. While many businesses inspire us to take a more active and responsible role, it should not be up to businesses to chart the pathway forward as singular icons of change. A proactive and supportive policy environment is essential in achieving widespread engagement.
So how might we improve ideation and contribute to a stronger set of policy supports available for sustainable and regenerative tourism? The following broad categories of policy action provide a starting point:
Advocacy, aspirations and visions. Blueprints, guidelines, provocation papers playbooks and strategies have a number of functions. They can set the tone for and encourage discussion, elevate the ideation process, create direction, identify values and create a sense of ownership and support. Websites, online communities, webinars and design challenges are all mechanisms to promote, encourage and articulate a regenerative vision.
Capacity building. This may include a wide variety of capacity-building measures that are intended to nurture and activate a space for regenerative tourism initiatives. Such measures could include the activation of purpose-led businesses and ecosystems, and working with businesses to deliver truly regenerative and transformative pivots or new opportunities. Establishing regenerative tourism living labs, incubators and sprints to explore emerging ideas (note: these will have a vastly different focus and delivery to current entrepreneurial investment-facing accelerators).
Financial instruments. These include incentives, taxes, credit vouchers, employment support payments, contributions, guarantees, subsidies, fines and penalties, investment zone designations, and so on. Co-investment in innovative experimental projects might also be included here.
Government action. This may include both direct and indirect action by governments or in partnership with stakeholders. Such measures include direct investment in infrastructure — and let’s include Nature’s infrastructure here — and other initiatives and initiatives designed to demonstrate and collect evidence of the power of regenerative tourism.
Networks, nodes and organisation. These can include the (re)organising of tourism, the developing of networks and nodes of good regenerative practice, the connecting with global leaders and practitioners into space where information and knowledge can be shared.
Legal Instruments. These can include a wide range of instruments including land-use zoning, health, employment, regulations, licensing, foreign investment, immunisation passports, visitor caps, travel zones and restrictions, and so on.
5. Research and Development
A commitment to research and development (R&D) is also essential to move tourism towards sustainable and regenerative futures and to address the directions the World Bank has identified above. The dominant ideologically-driven position is that businesses are responsible for R&D and that governments’ role is to help create the market conditions for growth. In practice, however, there is little chance that a sector comprising between 80–90 per cent of SMEs (depending on country and context) can effectively engage in R&D. Governments must lean into this space, and help to create and nurture both a culture and a system where innovation and creativity are encouraged and welcomed.
We need big and small actions in tourism in order to unleash sustainable and regenerative tourism. If it is to be useful, the old tourism policy toolkit needs an overhaul. The basics are there, but innovative thinking is needed to play with these tools, hold them upside down, turn them inside out, and to experiment by adapting, hybridizing and creating new systems, new organisations, new tools, approaches, and practices.
Allowing the space for innovative ideas and experimentation to emerge and flourish is the experimental mindset we need. Decades upon decades of the same market-led tourism policy tools and supports have led us to this point, where we can now see, in plain sight, vulnerability, instability, a crisis of confidence, a fear of having an opinion that is different to the status quo, and a lack of creative and innovative responses. Who has really won from decades of pursuing the same policy approaches? Isn’t it time we tried to shape our policy environment and the policy supports available so that tourism delivers what we all need? And that, my friends, is a sustainable, resilient and regenerative approach to managing special places — where tourism is part of a deeper, wider and more holistic approach to balancing the needs of community, nature, and economy.