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What if we showed up and cared? A guide to recognising genuine regenerative tourism


A hand holding up a magnifying glass to a forrest.


The climate crisis is escalating. The current COP28 calls for high ambition and accelerated action. Yes, we have heard it all too often before. Real commitment and radical action remains distant. The world will reach 1.4 degrees of warming above pre-industrial levels in 2023. Yet tourism remains stuck, clinging to the myth of ‘green growth’. In tourism, attention to the key challenges is limited both in understanding of what is going on and arguably misguided because fundamental truths have been ignored.


So how do we recognise genuine attempts to shift towards regenerative tourism? This post explores some fundamental truths are often deemed unpalatable. It is easier to look away and ignore these truths. However, if we are to build resilience and adapt to the challenges and increasing disruption the future will bring, we have to honestly confront these truths. A genuine regenerative approach can help us understand, accept the reality of the situation we are in and guide positive action.


Confronting fundamental truths

A regenerative approach requires coming to terms with a number of fundamental truths. These are truths that are not talked about in tourism, perhaps because it is better to look away rather than to feel uncomfortable. We offer these fundamentals not to drive fear or discomfort, but as an opportunity to pause, turn to our inner knowing, to reflect, and hopefully, rise to be a better version of ourselves. In that context, consider the following six truths:

  1. We should all accept the dire consequences of the climate crisis, biodiversity loss, ecosystem decline, economic restructuring, and all the other crises. Instead of looking away and gaslighting future generations, it requires that we show courage and acknowledge what the science is telling us, but also what we know in our gut.

  2. Our relationship with the planet, with nature, with our communities, and other humans has come to be defined by competition, individualism and extractive relationships. This reductionist “what’s in it for me” approach has created winners and losers and eroded our sense of community and our capacity for collective action. At the same time, there are places and communities that are already transitioning to a collective future and showing the way.

  3. The polycrisis is a series of crises that, together, are unleashing deep, transformational change in all directions. Underpinning this, the narrative of capitalism, delivering benefits to all, is breaking. More and more people are finding themselves exiting a system that no longer works for them. As people search for connection as an antidote for isolation, extremism, cults, tribes, and silos are on the rise. Make no mistake, policymakers and corporates operate as a tribal group, just as change-making activists seek out their support networks.

  4. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are predicated on the idea that business will solve the sustainability crisis. Governments have used this idea as a means to shift responsibility to the business sector and to grow the economy at the same time. Globally, the sustainability consulting sector has grown at extraordinary rates, and is said to be valued at $38billion dollars in 2021. However, despite the growth of this sector, the UN’s mid-point analysis of the SDGs reveals that we have failed to make any significant difference to most of the SDG targets. This is largely because the the environmental consulting sector is predicated on growth, profit, and market expansion. It is motivated to sell products and services, but not necessarily deliver real solutions on the ground. However, imagine if communities were brought into the fold, with their lived experience and local knowledge, the post SDG agenda MUST give communities both a voice and resources.

  5. Communities have traditionally been locked out of these government-business partnerships. Communities are too difficult, too eclectic, and don’t understand business are frequently cited rationales to keep them separate (and under-resourced). However, communities have enormous lived experience and local knowledge and levels of self-organisation have been increasing out of necessity to address the challenges they face. Community activists and leaders are increasingly made up of intelligent, caring, and connected individuals who have opted out of the traditional system because its no longer working for their communities. They often bring with them a range of high level skills and intelligences developed in their ‘previous lives’. What is setting them apart is that they are not waiting to permission and are increasingly dismissive of central power structures (which is exacerbating the breakdown).

  6. Our education systems have stunted our capacity for innovation and creative thinking. These systems are designed to serve capitalism and corporate interests, with their focus on employability skills and industry outcomes. For example, we have decades of environmental graduates who have never heard of living systems or regeneration. We have decades of business students who have no environmental literacy and no skills in community development. The fear of not knowing, or not being the expert, keeps us swimming in our own lane, and silos continue to strengthen.

The narrative of capitalism is breaking


These fundamental truths require that we develop a meta-perspective on what is really going on. Confronting these truths honestly means that we have to move beyond defensive reactions that are driven by fear. Fight or flight reactions come from the primitive part of our brains. It is a survival instinct rather than an intelligent response. We can and must do better. The situation requires nothing less that developing a deeper integrated intelligence, and to see outside and beyond the systems we have created. Those systems keep us locked into reproducing the old system.


If we are prepared to evolve our thinking and respond with a deeper level of intelligence, there are a few big questions we should ask ourselves:

  1. Have we have been co-opted into the everyday ‘busy work’ that reinforces the current system?

  2. Are the green tools that we are selling just business as usual, and have we been co-opted?”

  3. How do living systems work and what can a living systems perspective teach us about how to cope with the change ahead?

  4. How might we find our place in something that is much bigger than all of us?

  5. How might we work in the present to build resilience, and to regenerate our social and ecological systems, so that we minimise the unfolding impacts on future generations?

It’s an uncomfortable set of questions, especially if you are embedded in the system, have a job, receive a salary, and the story of capitalism still works for you. These questions ask you to confront your own biases and comfort zones. However, for many communities the narrative of capitalism no longer works. These individuals have had to adapt, build new networks, and construct new stories that create meaning for them. The number of people now finding themselves at this edge is growing. These alternative stories are strengthening. Once considered fragile precariat and fringe dwellers, now there is a growing cohort of young people, thinkers, activists, philosophers, retirees, creatives and entrepreneurs who have opted-out. They are working on the uncomfortable questions, in the hard spaces, and they are walking towards the trouble ahead with courage.


The rest put their heads down and focus on the busy work.


A regenerative approach helps us show up and care


At a meta-level, regeneration is an ecological living systems approach to development. Tourism is just one thread of activity in a more intricate web of change. A living system approach sees the world through the flows, relationships, and cycles within a living system. It is a natural cycle that we all live with and through and includes a series of phases including birth, growth, decay, and death. It applies to our ecological, social, political and business organisation.


For 100 years or more, tourism has been framed as an industrial sector and is based on a scientific worldview that suggests it can grow forever based on a mechanistic form of production and an endless supply of natural and human resources. You see the problem? The tourism industry is based on false assumptions that no one wants to talk about - we live on a finite planet and we are part of a living system. As part of that living system, we pass though cycles of birth, growth, decay and death. In other words, a tourism system predicated on growth is incompatible with the reality that we are part of a living system.


Recognising genuine regenerative efforts


At the destination level, this means that regeneration requires deep systems change and a shift in mindsets. It is not as simple as “advance to go”, sprinkle the word through your marketing, or claim leadership in regenerative tourism in a post. It is not an output, a tagline, or a point of differentiation in a competitive marketplace. Regenerative tourism is a journey - the couragous acceptance of where we are at this time.


A regenerative approach requires that we work in accordance with that part of the living system cycle in which we find ourselves. The unfolding series of crises, and the truths above, suggest we are now moving into that part of the cycle characterised by decline and decay. Discussions of post-capitalism, post-growth, and the post-modern have been on the radar for decades (see David Harvey, Paul Mason and George Monbiot for example). They talk of the need to focus on what lies ahead to address the disruption. However, mainstream political and policy structures find these critiques unpalatable and tend to ignore them or offer their own ‘managed’ narrative. Not surprisingly, bullshit studies are on the rise - in the policy and scientific spaces as well as in civil society.


So by now it should be clear that there is a splintering, destructuring, and a breakdown going on. There is also a need to evolve our level of intelligence and to accept that part of the cycle we are in. If we do that, without fear or pushback, then the key question is “How might we work now to minimise the impacts of the unfolding crisis and work in a way that will honour and respect future generations?”


A regenerative approach works with this question.


Tips on recognising genuine regenerative tourism


It should also be very clear by now that “regenerative growth” is an oxymoron. To frame regeneration in this way is a red flag. It identifies the claimant’s lack of understanding of regeneration and an attempt at greenwashing. In addition to confronting the truths above (and there may be more you can add to the list), three key features are required:


First, a genuine mindset shift should be evident. This will often show up in a different language being used, evidence of a deeper integrated intelligence, and evidence of attunement and connection.


Second, there should be a clear attempt at systemic change in the way tourism is organised, the focus of the work being undertaken, the framing of tourism. It will show up in the way tourism is framed, not as an industry predicated on industry goals, but in a more holistic place-based, community-led and nature-positive way. In essence, there should be evidence of a fundamental shift in the goals of the system.


Third, and related to the above point, the goals of the system should be to deliver systems-wide positive impact for people, place, and nature. This is often the hardest feature to embrace because our systems have not allowed us to imagine alternatives to capitalism in a positive light. Such a thought generally triggers that primitive brain where fight or flight are the response.


These three core features require that we work in a different way, which is why we at the Tourism CoLab have identified ten pillars of practice so that we can show up and proactively address the future:

  1. Invest in the inner work required to build awareness of how our thinking has been shaped, how we can rewild our minds and we can unlock new, creative and innovative collaborations.

  2. Host good conversations that neutralise existing power structures, incentives, and dominant cultures.

  3. Include nature and pursue nature-positive solutions.

  4. Commit to holistic systems change by, for example, taking tourism out of its silo and engaging with its broader context.

  5. Integrate different kinds of intelligence and ways of knowing, including indigenous knowledge.

  6. Sharpen our connection to place, its unique qualities, connections in space and time.

  7. Deepen our sense of belonging, stewardship, and care for the future.

  8. Encourage diverse economies, new value co-creation, and experiment with alternative purpose-led and regenerative business models.

  9. Take a learning journey, elevate others, and share insights and experiences for we are stronger together.

  10. Embed participation and inclusion as an ongoing process in the journey, not a step to be ticked-off.

Circle diagram showing 10 pillars of practice
The Tourism Colab's Regenerative Pillars of Practice

It is a choice

In the end, the choice is about how we show up. We can continue to play charades, look away, or have the courage to show up and care - not for ourselves but for those who must walk an increasingly difficult journey after us. As Graham Lawton, (New Scientist, February 2021) suggests, as he pens a story of active hope:

If a far-off future generation writes a complete history of human civilisation, the century from 1950 to 2050 will loom large. This was the era of the Great Acceleration, a rapacious, unrestrained plundering of Earth's natural support systems. But it was also an era of the Great Restoration, when humanity learned again how to live sustainably and in harmony with nature.

How do you want to show up?

 

About the Tourism CoLab - The Tourism CoLab is dedicated to redesigning tourism for a regenerative future. We're on a mission flip tourism and visitor economies from being extractive to delivering net benefits to nature and local communities. To achieve our mission, we are courageous, unconventional, creative, and community-focused. In 2024 we will be launching our Community of Practice. Sign up if you would like to be notified of our CoP launch plans.


About the Author. Dianne Dredge has a PhD in tourism policy and regional development and has published 200+ papers and 8 books on tourism policy, governance, community development, education, and related matters. She is founder and director of the Tourism CoLab and Designing Tourism a place based regenerative living lab on

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