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Mapping the scope of regenerative tourism

Understanding the scope of your journey towards regenerative tourism is essential. The social, economic, political and environmental complexities of tourism and visitor economies cut across a variety of sectors and agencies, policy and other government actions. This intersectionality of tourism, shaped by different sectors and agencies, creates a policy mix with implications for the short, medium and long term. Mapping policy complexities is an essential step in moving towards regenerative tourism. But how do you do it?

Complex problems can't be treated with simple solutions

Tourism is an increasingly complex activity involving multiple sectors, government agencies, industry peak bodies, and stakeholders across scales. However, the way tourism is organised, its institutional context, and who is responsible for what and when hasn't changed much since the 1980s. During the 1980s, the tourism challenge was a simple one. Tourism was framed as an economic development tool and the task was to grow tourism. Simple. The scientific formula for action was:


For simple problems, simple formulas and tools work. The problem in tourism is that we have become so good at developing quick-fix solutions and template approaches to scale, that we no longer spend time diagnosing the real issues. We don't listen to those with lived experience. We assume to know the problem (as scientifically formulated above) and we have the toolbox with all variations of "stimulate markets" and "reduce barriers" to fix the problem.

But, when you only have a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail.

Abraham Maslow 1966

Framing tourism as a simple problem ignores its complexity and policy intersectionality. As we are increasingly coming to understand as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, tourism is not a simple problem. Therefore, actions and policy measures framed in simple terms are unlikely to offer long term solutions for the disruption ahead.

Put simply, the wrong diagnosis can waste time, create more problems and require more resources in the long term. A human analogy might help make it clear: A doctor in regional Mexico once tried to treat my burst appendix with pepto-bismol, so I know first hand that poor diagnosis can lead to the wrong solution with potentially dire consequences! It's the same with policy action, except the consequences can span decades and the decline of communities or sectors unfolds much slower!

Just look at communities struggling to transition beyond manufacturing or mining. The challenges are complex. Simple solutions don't work for complex transitions.

Diagnosis is important - don't rush it

The problems and challenges we face are embedded in a context, and each context is different. Different geography, people, expertise, markets, organisational responsibilities, historical biases and so on will influence the success of the actions we take. When we diagnose too quickly, when we race from problem to solution, we fail to diagnose properly.

Covid has unleashed a set of challenges, and deep restructuring of our social, economic, environmental and political relations. The big consulting groups offer pathways to recovery, to a bounce-back economy, to business-as-usual, but they sell a dream. The truth is, no one knows how this pandemic, and now the destabilisation of our global political power structures, will play out. We are walking into a paradigm shift, where no one has the recipe or the template to scale the solution. Old scientific policy formulas to fix things will not work. Moreover, the old, unchanged institutional structures and practices from the 1980s are under increasing pressure.

Adaption might be the short-term approach, but widespread social-economic-environmental reworking is ultimately going to happen. Resistance might work as a form of short-term self-preservation, but ultimately the change ahead is bigger than any individual, organisation or government.

Sitting in the mess, understanding complexity, and evolving the way we think and approach issues and challenges makes good economic, social, environmental and political sense. Diagnosis should not be a rushed step in a scientific process. It is an ongoing emergent process requiring a very different skill set and mindset to the current scientific approaches to management.

Listening to lived experience

The post reports a mapping of the tourism landscape by asking the community what are the challenges and issues they see and/or experience. We interpret 'community' as a broad intersecting network of actors operating at all levels from national to local levels. Community includes, for example, policy communities, host communities, communities of practice such as tourism operators, allied businesses, and environmental interest groups. Community is not a bounded group nor does it exist within a set geographical boundary. Our community engagement is, therefore, ongoing as people move in and out. It reflects the ebb and flow of life and the dynamics of issue attention cycles.

Adopting a community perspective is important. Usually, policy mapping is conducted by experts as a desktop exercise. These experts often have little direct contact with the people who are affected by and live with the decisions and actions of policymakers. There is a cognitive dissonance - an understanding at distance - that often fails to capture a full understanding of what is going at the level of the place or destination.

Asking different individuals what they see as the issues, what has affected their quality of life positively and negatively, what effects have they experienced as a result of shifting policies is a lesson in life beyond our own worldview. It's an exercise that builds empathy and an opportunity to step outside our individual perspectives.

Our community engagement approach

Our mapping exercise is the result of a sustained engagement exercise where we have used different approaches, media, and instruments. It follows an embedded community case study approach which we have used and refined in various contexts and places for 25+ years.

In this process, we undertook extended interviews (1hr+) with 35+ participants. We engaged in over 120 short conversations (15-30 mins), a postcard activity with 90 returns, and drew from a community survey with 150+ responses. The community engagement is ongoing and will be reported separately.

The infographic shown above identifies the issues and challenges that were directly identified by participants in our study. The intention of this post is to identify the issues, and, in the process, scope the complexity of the tourism issues landscape. In other words, it's bottom-up and not top-down. Understanding this scope is essential if we are to move towards a regenerative tourism approach.

A policy environment to support regenerative tourism

Understanding the intersectionality of tourism requires making explicit the flow of human, natural and economic capital. This requires examining:

  • What kind of social, cultural, economic and environmental capital is invested in tourism.

  • What or whom is making that investment (i.e. humans and nature).

  • Where is new value is created? How is it distributed? And does that value accumulate elsewhere or is it reinvested inside or outside the destination?

Put simply, it's about adopting a whole systems approach and ensuring that sufficient resources are being re-invested back into sustaining that system. Examining the points above allows us to better understand the net flow - what is taken out and what is being reinvested back into the system. Taking more out of the system than we invest back means that there will be an overall degradation of the system over time. No system can keep giving more than it receives. Regeneration not only makes sense, but it's a basic principle of all life.

So, once you see it, you cannot unsee this basic fact. To ignore it is to choose a pathway to decline. If you asked any community (and we have done this many times), they will unanimously choose the pathway to re-invest back into people, places and nature. It's about their hopes and aspirations for long term flourishing. When DMO representatives are asked, it soon becomes clear that DMOs are a policy tool designed to pursue objectives that have little to do with sustaining places and communities. The objective is to sustain and accelerate the tourism industry. Discussions often reveal a tension between the individual's love of place and community and their DMO's goals.

Choosing a regenerative pathway requires a shift in the current extractive value proposition and the traditional scientific management that governs tourism in policy and action.

Will the scientific approach translate onto votes?

The traditional scientific formula for the success of any destination, whether it is national, regional or local, depends on the provision, coordination and delivery of tourism products and experiences that meet the needs of current and future potential markets. Put as another simple scientific formula:


There is also an invisible assumption that:


Presumably the assumption that community benefits will flow is also going to result in votes at the next election. However, while profit and growth are easy to measure because we have data collection frameworks for this, community benefit has always been assumed. Pressed further, it has been our experience that no one seems to be able to explain "the community will benefit" much less show any data.

But will the electorate continue to buy this simple scientific solution for a problem that is far more complex? During Covid, when profit and growth were shorted, people started to question community benefit, especially in destinations dependent on tourism. They started to reflect on the intersectionality of tourism and how it impacts so many other areas including health, well being, sense of security, confidence and connection to place. Tourism and hospitality were propelled into another narrative about precarious labour, insecure conditions, and the lack of investment back into local communities and places.

Businesses campaigned for government support. Some received it. Many micro, and small businesses and self employed people did not. But everyone votes - business owners and the broader community. While some larger businesses were thrown a lifeline, many communities did not benefit in the same way. For some communities, the consequences of being over-dependent on tourism became painfully clear. These communities started searching for alternative bottom-up actions and started to question the above scientific approach.

Deeper still, and propelled by an evolution in our ability to empathise, the surging mindfulness movement, and a desire to reconnect with nature, questions started to emerge about purpose, the value of work, and mental health. Local communities appear to be on a different trajectory and are questioning old assumptions that tourism will benefit, and that it generates jobs and growth. Little wonder that many workers left tourism and hospitality or pivoted to pursuits that would be more secure and purpose-led.

It is too early to know how these shifts will play out, but it's time to look at a new social contract between tourism, places, communities, governments, and the business sector.

A new social contract

The above simple scientific approach has, in the past, ignored that tourism is embedded within and part of the social and economic fabric of places. It has ignored the next outflow or extraction of social, environmental and economic capital. Local governments, volunteer groups, not-for-profit and social enterprises have attempted to fill the gap with little or no support. The financial impost on local councils having to service mobile, non-rate paying visitors, and the social impost of local volunteer services like emergency services and environmental groups are adding up. These voices are becoming more vocal.

Calls that tourism should no longer be "done to" communities, but "with and for" them are becoming louder.

Whether these touristed landscapes are urban, rural areas or protected lands, there is a layering of institutional arrangements, policies and actions that shape the character and special qualities of place. Recognising the complexity of the policy landscape, both in terms of horizontal and vertical linkages is important in developing more effective long-term policy environment so that actions taken will regenerate local places, communities and economies. Regenerative tourism makes good business, political, social, and environmental sense.

Regenerative tourism starts by mapping the scope

Based on our research, we identified 50+ issues and challenges that characterise the space of tourism policy and action. These issues are currently elevated in the minds of participants right now. The issue attention cycle suggests that these will rise and fall over time. They will also depend on the social, economic, environmental and political context and the level at which the policy mapping takes place.

If we are to adopt a regenerative approach to tourism, then the simple traditional scientific equation needs to be replaced with a new social contract that tourism should be regenerative. Tourism should not only invest back more than it takes, but also the social contract should acknowledge the right of communities and nature to flourish and enjoy a net positive gain from tourism.

Tourism is a complex policy space interwoven with many other spaces of action. This approach will involve new ways of thinking about and measuring what "success" looks like in tourism. These would include humanistic and nature-oriented measures for the flourishing of places, and therefore goes well beyond current econometrics. Understanding this intersectionality is key to identifying how to reinvest back into places, communities, people and the environment.


At this stage we have not identified the case in this blog post for a variety of reasons, but will do in the passage of time. Our social contract is with the local community and destination at this stage but we are also committed to sharing our insights and work as we go.

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, working and learning in tourism. To navigate the change ahead, we need to ask tough questions, unleash courage and creativity, and re-invent our ways of working. In 2022 we will be expanding our course offerings, workshops and introduce a journey into change. If have a question just drop us an email!

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