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Communicating regenerative tourism

... frame it as a learning journey

Regenerative tourism is on the rise and there is no shortage of people now talking about the regenerative shift. While this is an important achievement in the road to driving real change in tourism, it is also clear that there remains quite a lot of confusion and misinterpretation. All kinds of stakeholders are listening, but sometimes it's a little like a game of Chinese Whispers or Broken Telephone. Some have brushed off regenerative tourism as simply another attempt at branding or an emerging market niche like wellness tourism. For others, it's just another adjective to be inserted, i.e. "sustainable and regenerative tourism" as if the two were synonymous. Others have walked through a liminal door into another kind of thinking.

Once you see regenerative tourism, you cannot unsee it. There is no single pathway, and getting there can be difficult.

Confronting what we don't understand

Regenerative tourism requires learning how to un-think, open up and lean into new thinking. It requires that we move from simple to complicated understandings, and then on to thinking in complexity. Thinking in complexity requires that we jump boundaries and inhabit the spaces in between disciplines, scales and types of knowledge.

But not everyone thinks like this, and here's where challenges can start to emerge.

Conversations are where information is shared, learning takes place, and where those portals into a new way of thinking can take place. But conversations about new concepts, much less paradigm shifts, can be really challenging. The socialisation of our understanding of regenerative tourism is a complex process. It can take place in a variety of settings, in person, in social media and online. It can involve different levels of engagement and information sharing over time. It is where information is received, questions emerge, thinking takes place, and world views can shift. In an earlier post, we talked about different kinds of conversations and the conversational intelligence required to shift worldviews.

In positive conversations feelings of confidence, power and positive inspiration can be unleashed. But conversations can also trigger feelings of inadequacy, competition and negativity. The former is a space of generative engagement, creativity, and conversational intelligence, the latter is a place that closes down collaboration and sharing. In these settings, participants can often feel challenged or afraid of exposing their perceived lack of knowledge.

Truth is, we are all at different stages in our knowledge and understanding of regenerative tourism. We are ready to hear, see, lean in, and learn at different times and in different ways. The way that we enter into understanding regenerative tourism and how we understand it provides important opportunities for conversation, reflection, learning and potentially shifting mindsets.

Leaning into new thinking

Our readiness to lean into regenerative tourism is shaped by a range of factors:

  • Our formal education and the boundaries and blindspots that has created.

  • Our lived experience and the understanding that this has revealed.

  • Our willingness to step into an area that is unknown and to assume the role of the learner, not an expert (the two are not discrete categories by the way!)

  • Our psychological make-up and the way it affects our emotional and cognitive functions when we are confronted with new ideas that are foreign or difficult to grasp.

Put simply, knowledge, especially formal education, does not necessarily equal understanding when it comes to the regenerative movement. Understanding what "regenerative" really means is based on integrated intelligence -- a form of intelligence that is generated from internal and external sources, and from feeling, instinct and cognition. Put simply, if we combine knowing through our head, hearts and by using instinct, then it's clear that humans and nature are one, and the wellbeing of both is intertwined. We are not separate from, nor dominant over nature. The climate crisis is our proof.

But while a growing number of individuals know this both in their hearts and instinctively, it's our heads that discard the idea of oneness. The scientific rational way of thinking divides up knowledge into neat boxes. It has given us mechanistic organisations where tasks, roles and responsibilities are divided up and everyone swims in their own narrow lanes. Integrated intelligence in tourism rarely exists. Our organisation of tourism is not designed in this way, and yet at an individual level, there are pockets where it is surging.

What is difficult to understand about regenerative tourism

I've been living and engaging with a diverse community where many members that truly understand what "regenerative" really means. Their knowledge is expressed from the heart, it's drawn from the experience of daily life, from what they have read, and it's tempered with the wisdom of experience. Their hope, as expressed by one member of the community, is "where the impact of the vast wild nature of this place has a bigger impact on our souls, spirit, health and happiness than the impact of humans". They understand, in a deeply embodied way, the restorative role of the environment and the need for balance between humans and nature. But they also know that tourism - or at least visitors who come with the right purpose and ethos - are part of the future economy. After all, visiting, exploring and connecting to new places has always been part of the human condition, and will continue to be. Put simply, they understand the 'regenerative" but it's the word "tourism" that causes anxiety in our conversations.

Perhaps we should flip the thinking. Instead of focusing on the word "regenerative", let's focus on building an understanding of the meaning, values and practice of visiting places where oneness, connection, and the ethos of care for community and nature guide visitors.

Simply put, and putting the term "regenerative tourism" aside, the shift we are talking about involves:

  • Designing in greater balance between humans and nature by embracing the interconnectedness between them.

  • Designing out the actions and negative impacts by restoring the balance between humans and nature.

  • Changing mindsets, systems and culture. To achieve the above, the current tourism system, its organisation, approaches and practices are no longer fit-for-purpose. The tourism system needs to be redesigned.

Regenerative tourism demands the courage to shift the anchor points that hold tourism in its current place. It demands transformational conversations where these new ideas are discussed and the challenges of the current system are acknowledged in open and courageous ways. We need conversations where fear and anxiety are set aside, and where we can lean into creating new pathways.

Getting started

The most asked question I get is "How do we do regenerative tourism?" Everyone is looking for the quick fix, the magic bullet, or the recipe. There isn't one. Each place, each destination, each community has its own unique qualities and relationships with nature. We must adopt emergent practices, exploring and building the approach as we go. This means we need a very different skill set to the one that is currently offered in formal education or by the traditional consulting model.

It all starts with conversations, and by engaging diverse stakeholders beyond the traditional players. It starts with exploring values, belonging, sense of place and the connections that give meaning. It's revolutionary in terms of how we think about tourism. Once you see it you can't unsee it. Regenerative tourism offers a portal into a new space of thinking where we see the world and the challenges we face very differently. This means it's a journey where learning, experimentation and co-design become more important, and the role of expertise (the traditional driver of tourism management) is reduced.

Suddenly the rational scientific world, which has shaped how we position ourselves as separate to and dominant over nature melts away. We see the limitations of the scientific method, of current research, and our current institutions and organisational structures. In its place, tourism sits in a complex, connected system and we start to think in scalar, fractal and interconnected ways. We also start to acknowledge that knowledge (and expertise) does not mean understanding, and there are alternative sources of information and ways of making sense.

Regenerative tourism represents a profound shift in our worldview where relationships between humans and nature are being recast. Regenerative tourism sees humans and nature as one, and our fate, wellbeing, and hope are all intertwined.

The conversations we need to have

By casting a wider net over-tourism and incorporating the kinds of stakeholders that need to be engaged in a journey towards regenerative tourism, a much more complex and diverse picture starts to emerge. Very complex relationships with tourism unfold.

Being mindful of how learning takes place, and the emotional and psychological effects it may have on participants is crucial for hosting conversations aimed at transitioning tourism towards a regenerative approach.

So, the response to "How do we do regenerative tourism?" is to start with deep, genuine, honest conversations about the change that is needed. If good conversations are important, then how might we improve the way we communicate so that all stakeholders (including ourselves) can learn, reflect and make sense of the shift?

In a recent interview with Mayor Annie Revie, of Flinders Council, Tasmania, we stumbled across a mutual passion for the connections between learning, good conversation and collaboration. Annie was kind enough to share her insights on conversations as learning experiences. In her view, conversations are opportunities to learn, build empathy and adapt our position. Conversations are also a window into the different experiences and world views that people bring to the table. The quality of conversation depends on capacity and willingness to learn, reflect and adapt.

Annie explained her understanding of how we move from hearing and engaging in a new idea, to learning, reflection and mastery:

  1. Unconscious & Unskilled - when a participant is unskilled and doesn’t have knowledge of a concept or idea. At this stage, the participant doesn’t feel negative about the lack of skill because of their lack of awareness.

  2. Conscious & Unskilled – when the participant develops conscious awareness of their lack of skill or understanding. At this stage, the participant may feel uncomfortable about a gap in their knowledge or skillset. They may think they are inferior or lesser than others because others understand and they do not. At this stage the participant may deny their lack of skill; may pretend that they are skilled; may be frustrated with their lack of skill; may articulate the lack of skill bravely with frustration or even pride. At this and at the next stage uncertainty can produce fear and anger which can be reflected back at those who are familiar with the idea or concept. Thoughts that help to rationalise their position might be along the lines of "Regenerative tourism is just another word for sustainability, so why all the fuss?" or can be directed at a personal level "Oh, she is just hard to get along with". These are coping strategies.

  3. Conscious and becoming skilled – when the participant begins to understand that they are learning but there is still a long way to go – depending on the learner’s emotional intelligence, past experience and will to learn, they will feel anything from frustration, disinterest or satisfaction.

  4. Unconscious and skilled – when the skill and knowledge is assimilated so that the person can do the task or articulate the knowledge without thinking of it much, at this stage the person is likely to feel confident.

This process is a powerful framework that helps us to understand the conversations we are having about regenerative tourism. We hope it also helps those working in tourism, and keen to adopt a change-making role, to navigate these conversations through a prism of empathy and learning. Let us know what you think!


About The Tourism CoLab At the Tourism CoLab, we believe in a future that is regenerative, purpose-led and inclusive. We believe in thought leadership, provocation and doing things differently by disrupting traditional ways of thinking. To deliver the next tourism and visitor economy, we need to change our tourism operating system, adjust our mindset, and re-invent our ways of working. This means new knowledge, new skill sets, and new approaches. We exist to expand your mindset, cross-pollinate and build collaboration! Are you interested in building your community engagement skills and discussing with a global cohort of regenerative tourism changemakers? We are launching an online course in Hosting Community Conversations starting 26th October. If you would like to know more about what we do and how we work, contact us.

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