Designing regenerative, inclusive, purpose-led and transformational tourism requires a leap of faith. Or does it? In this post, I explore why we should take time to explore and identify why our values matter, what values are influencing the shift towards regenerative tourism, and what we should let regenerative values be our guide.
There are more and more destinations and businesses that are dancing with the idea of regenerative tourism. It’s no longer about why we need change, but how can we do things differently? How can we align business, local communities and destinations with regenerative values? How can we attract the kind of visitors who are consistent with our core values and what we seek to be? How can we protect and cater to the needs of nature, people, and places so they can regenerate and flourish?
Answering the question ‘How might we design and implement regenerative tourism?’ is not rocket science, nor does it require a giant leap of faith. It also doesn't have to be a costly exercise driven by drop-in consultants who deliver a glossy plan then tap off. (In fact, that is the old model that should be avoided). The big ‘how’ question is usually asked by people who are looking for a big answer. A definite answer. A roadmap. They are looking for a solution to get from A to D, where D is a little mound of earth on which to stand and declare “Done. We are a regenerative business| destination| community| attraction”. We need to get past the big question and the need for a big answer.
The journey towards regenerative forms of tourism and travel can't be summarized a blueprint, a template or a ‘how-to’ guide. It’s not achieved through metrics. It’s a bespoke learning journey — where learning, reflection, action and experimentation are repeated over and over again. It’s an incremental set of actions, co-created through deep conversations. It requires articulating a set of values that will provide the guiding North Star. It’s a shift in ethos towards inter-dependence, and an ethics of care towards all others, living and non-living.
It starts with deep conversations
The pursuit of regenerative forms of tourism starts with conversations, deep and thoughtful, about our values and what it means to be regenerative. It starts with a conversation that connects our heads, our hearts, and our core instincts about the change that is needed in tourism. It starts by showing up and holding the space to have conversations where learning and reflection take place. It starts by getting down to basics, wiping away the rhetoric that we just need government support or a big marketing campaign while we figure out how to bounce back. It starts by recognising all the old blind spots and assumptions that have propelled us towards the old ‘profit and growth’ objectives need to be re-examined, and space made for fresh perspectives.
The only leap of faith here is to trust that local constituents and stakeholders may actually have the passion, energy, creativity and ingenuity to chart the path forward.
It’s propelled by leadership
But let’s be clear, we can’t magically make the old system and its excesses disappear. We need leaders with the courage to foster new practices and to nurture spaces of conversation and creativity. We need both cultural and systems change. The discussions about regenerative tourism make this clear, but these discussions are vague on how to move forward.
The first step is to start with deep conversations, leaning in and listening intently to all stakeholders, living and non-living, about what they need to be sustainable and regenerative. It starts by being in service to those that don't have a voice — nature, indigenous communities, the ‘Invisibles’ for example. It starts by shaking off the blinkers and having a conversation about our values, what is important to us. And let’s be clear here, most destination professionals work in service of the economy, but the economy is not necessarily in service to the community! So what do we want our future to look like? Template DMPs or strategies aren’t going to get us there. Tick box community engagement is tokenistic and doesn’t provide the space for these conversations. It might start with conversations, but it's propelled by leadership.
Values are our guiding north star
Cultural and systems change require that we review and reassess our values. Values are our guiding north star. No matter what the impact of the short term turmoil, our North Star will provide focus and hope. In the past, values were not something that was discussed. These were assumed to be the pursuit of profit, growth, overnight stays, passenger numbers, financial investment, jobs (no matter how vulnerable and insecure they were) and so on.
Working with businesses and communities, engaging in their headspace, is better than presenting a contrasting alternative. Rendering the alternative position, that stakeholders need to take that leap of faith to regenerative tourism, only deepens the chasm.
Consumer shifts as a departure point
So let’s work with the shifts we see taking place to build better tourism. It starts by recognising the larger shifts that are happening, including:
Shift to value and essentials — consumers are increasingly mindful of their spending; they are seeking value for money and are searching for less expensive and sustainable products and experiences.
Flight to digital — the digital economy is booming. Even grandma has learned to use the iPad. It's not just about e-commerce and reminders on your abandoned shopping cart, but building digital ecosystems that deliver not just goods and services, but other kinds of value.
Shock to loyalty — consumers are looking for value and quality and are reassessing their relationships with big brands. Is a local sustainable equivalent to be found. Opportunity knocks for local businesses because consumers want to buy local.
Health and caring —Consumers are caring for each other and for the planet more now than ever. A business’s reputation, its social and environmental mission, are increasingly centre-stage in decision-making. For-purpose businesses, those that deliver not only profit but on a higher social and environmental mission, enjoy greater trust and reputational advantages. It makes perfect sense for tourism businesses, based on the intrinsic qualities of local places to support a local purpose.
Omni-channels are here — Omni-channels have traditionally been dominated by big business squeezing every last cent or penny before you go to the checkout. SMEs are now starting to get their heads around the power of collaborating and leveraging the power of the omnichannel to support each other and provide a different value proposition based on social and environmental missions.
Homebody economy — While Covid, like a Mexican wave, is doing its rounds, the homebody economy is thriving. Consumers are anxious about the future and have focused their spending on ‘making happy’ at home. Couches, houseplants, books and kitchenware are the immediate items in demand. But this will evolve and extend beyond the home to our local communities. While travel restrictions will be with us for some time yet (experts are saying about 12–18 months potentially), domestic travel can and should be part of this homebody trend.
Does regenerative tourism require a leap of faith?
We started this post by questioning whether a great leap of faith is required to pursue regenerative tourism. Our ‘field’ conversations suggest that it’s a scary thought, even impossible in jurisdictions where destination planning is formularized and incentivised towards achieving the ‘growth and profit’ mantra dictated by upper levels of government. Many destination professionals are trained in marketing but not so much in deep, effective community engagement and co-creation. The lack of clarity about what is regenerative tourism, the absence of any clear cut-and-dried definition, or a guide book, is a source of uncertainty. Yet we need to push through these discomforts and trust ourselves and the communities we serve.
If this rings true to you, then this inner critical voice is being given far too much airtime. Perhaps it’s time reign it in? There is usually an opposite voice —but you may need to work on uncovering it. This voice is a creative, courageous voice that seeks to nurture and empower local leadership and ownership. You will come across those who will pat you on the head and say “You're about 20 years too early”. But it is they who are living in the past? Coaching, mentoring and a supportive professional community are needed more than ever for this journey.
Regenerative tourism is not a leap of faith, but rather an enormous opportunity to reconnect, build local connections and resilience. It requires stepping beyond the safety zone to lead from the edge. It is a learning journey where you don't have the answers at the beginning (unlike a template plan where the recommendations are pre-filled). It’s the opportunity to deliver a kinder and better form of tourism than you know would be the case under the old system. It’s OK to experiment and learn along the way. It’s a journey that allows us to grow, learn, experiment together, and to build understanding, empathy and shared vision along the way.
These points above provide a starting point for conversations with stakeholders, especially tourism operators and businesses, to connect and reflect. They provide a common ground and a departure point for “How might we leverage these trends in tourism to define|advance|implement regenerative forms of tourism?”
But this is only one kind of conversation with one kind of stakeholder group! Slightly different conversations need to be had in many different corners on the community — much like a 3D image- each layer of conversation rendering depth and complexity to what it means to be regenerative, inclusive and transformational.
Part 2 of the blog post series will explore the policy supports and the toolkit, and identify four key elements essential for regenerative tourism futures: a view from the innovative edge, a framework for genuine stakeholder engagement, practices that encourage innovative design and creative thinking, and improving our tourism policy literacies. Part 3 will reveal the conversational tools that we use to record, organise, and extract meaning from these conversations. Part 4 … well you will have to wait and see!