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Regenerative tourism by design

Shifting tourism management to a regenerative design mindset

Why design tourism?

For many, design thinking conjures up visions of whiteboards and sticky notes, interactive discussions and workshops. For some, it’s a break from ‘real work’, and an opportunity to have a deeper conversation with team members. But it can be so much more. This course is designed to unlock some of the processes, practices and techniques of design thinking that have the potential to transform tourism.

Design thinking is not simply another fad. Design, as a way of working, is much older than you probably realise. Those of us who have been brought up in an Enlightenment-inspired western education system, where rational science has prevailed, we are only just starting to appreciate that Indigenous Australians have been designing with Nature for more than 40,000 years. Indeed, Aboriginal people across the world have known how to manage the land sustainably for millennia and have well-developed knowledge systems that transcended boundaries between humanities and science, and that incorporate knowledge of ecology, astronomy, geology, climate, arts, law and religion. They were systems thinkers and understood their interconnected relationship to Country.

Regenerative tourism design is a commitment to the intentional design of tourism that balances the needs of both Nature and humans to flourish. The goal of regenerative tourism design is to facilitate and empower transformation, and purpose-led visitor economies that are inclusive, resilient and sustainable.

Why we need to shift from management to designing tourism

For the last 50 years, we have been managing tourism using a rational scientific mindset. In this mindset, tourism has been neatly divided into parts - accommodation, transport, attractions, experiences, marketing, services - and in the process, the dynamics, complexity and interdependencies of all these parts have become reduced. The way we manage tourism has also been oversimplified. Rational scientific management uses the metaphor of machine bureaucracy, where all the different parts of the machine can be separately managed by people possessing specialised expertise. Tourism now has professionals specialised in branding, marketing, product development, industry engagement, capacity building and so on, and each is planned and managed separately.

Exacerbating this reductionist approach, tourism has been conceptualised as an economic development tool, where its value is predominantly seen in economic terms. In this view, what value is, how it is produced and who benefits, are questions that are answered using the economic metrics that serve capitalism, growth, investment, development and profit. Sustainability, resilience, climate change, ecosystem health, and biodiversity loss are all relegated to peripheral concerns to be dealt with only when negative impacts threaten economic objectives.

This approach has served to narrow stakeholder engagement to become predominantly industry and investment-facing. In the process, tourism has become alienated from the communities that provide hospitality, and from the natural resources on which it depends. Large swathes of the business community not directly involved in tourism have also been ignored.

This scientific approach has also embedded in the way destination management is organised and implemented. Scientific management has created tourism operating systems through which destination management organisations (DMOs) are responsible for, and measured by, a narrow range of responsibilities aligned with economic goals such as growth, profit and investment.

In the process, tourism has been removed from wider processes of managing places and the role it can play in the positive transformation of communities and their flourishing.

The impact of Covid-19 on the tourism sector has made it clear that the old tourism management model is full of blind spots and assumptions about tourism, how it works, how it should be 'managed' and our interconnectedness with others and with Nature. Calls for a new Tourism Operating System have been made for at least a decade, but these calls are now being heeded by forward-thinking jurisdictions. People increasingly understand why we need change, but it's the "how" that remains the stumbling block for many.

This is where regenerative tourism design comes into play.

What is regenerative tourism by design?

Regenerative design is a contemporary variation of the much older and well-established practices of Indigenous cultures to manage resources and live within environmental and social limits. As an approach, regenerative design transcends concepts like sustainability and resilience. It re-introduces, re-engages and extends historical ideas like Club of Rome's limits to growth, planetary boundaries, and limits of acceptable change. It also integrates newer contributions like doughnut economics and the regenesis movement.

Regenerative tourism design is place-based and takes a holistic systems approach to the future-making. It engages with and respects local environmental, cultural and social characteristics and conditions and does not engage with the abstract and artificial concept of 'tourism'. Accordingly, there is no recipe approach, no metrics or eco-certification standards that can fully reflect regenerative tourism design. Standards, metrics or certification for regenerative tourism would only dumb-down the aspirational dimension of regenerative tourism, which is what has happened to sustainable development.

Extending to tourism, regenerative tourism design employs design thinking methods, approaches, tools and frameworks to design places and experiences that balance the needs of humans and nature, and that deliver positive transformation, purpose, resilience and inclusive cultures.

At the Tourism CoLab, we are keen to distinguish between contemporary and contemporary tribalised forms of design thinking that focus on, for instance, user experience design, service design and so on. While these approaches are successful in improving consumer satisfaction and have been used to drive innovation in tourism (just think Airbnb and Uber), they reinforce the traditional capitalist values and do not acknowledge non-human stakeholders like Nature. Our focus in regenerative tourism design is to take all stakeholders - human and non-human - into account. That means we are keen to give Nature a seat at the table and to take a wider and more inclusive approach to understand what is value, who or what creates value and how is it distributed in tourism.

Our experience tells us that design thinking, if well executed, has the power to shift the way that we think about and act in service of a regenerative future. Design methods and practices can catalyse tourism and visitor economies that address challenging issues like climate change, biodiversity loss, and environmental and social limits to tourism. Designing transformational experiences can also help to connect us with Nature, with ourselves and with others including the people we travel with, and the communities we visit.

Regenerative tourism design is more than a process - it is a journey. It involves sharing, learning mutual respect, deep listening and building empathy. It requires us to open ourselves to the blind spots that restrict creative problem solving, and to let the future emerge through building deep connections, mutual understanding and reciprocity. It involves researching, co-constructing, experimenting, facilitating and implementing a kind of tourism that is stakeholder-centred. It is respectful of the past and is responsible to the needs of present and future generations.

Can you afford not to adopt regenerative tourism design?

Regenerative tourism design requires a cultural shift. It requires that our tourism operating system be revised and updated. It requires new skills like creative thinking, empathy, reciprocity, deep listening, patience and overcoming the blind spots that we willingly accept because we fear change. Some might even fear that it is too much change for dominant industry interests and that resistance will win. But the question is whether you can afford to continue when other destinations, places and organisations are embracing regenerative tourism design principles?

Five key points we leave you to ponder:

Design thinking places stakeholders at the centre of problem-solving.

It’s a multi-facing approach that attempts to balance the interests of all stakeholders including Nature. That means you’ll get buy-in from more than the traditional stakeholders, so it becomes a collective effort to co-design and build a vibrant community that visitors will love to explore, locals will love to embrace, and in which Nature can flourish. 

Design thinking helps to break down silos.

The focus is on the journey of co-designing, experimenting and taking actions together –  business, communities, hosts, visitors, governments and tourism organisations. It’s a  journey that takes us beyond the tourism silo with the aim of creating seamless and transformational visitor experiences, memorable destinations, flourishing businesses and connected communities that will make visitors fall in love with your destination, your local business ecosystem, and they’ll want to return.

Design thinking is based on the premise that the solutions are in the room.

We love working with design thinking because it’s fun and creative, it builds teamwork, empathy and understanding. It acknowledges the importance of cognitive and cultural diversity in designing a future for all. It’s collaborative and the vision and actions that emerge are in the room (physical or virtual) and owned by everyone.

Design thinking is scalable from the micro-encounter to the destination. 

The power of design thinking can be applied from the micro-service encounter to the design of attractions, the design of destinations, the design of tourism organisations and networks, the design of meaningful tourism work, and the design of resilient global business ecosystems and purpose-led business models. It’s been described as a fractal approach to the future - a metaphor that gets away from the linear pathways of scientific management!

Design thinking is outcome-focused and low risk.

Design thinking processes build the capacity and understanding of stakeholders by ‘doing’. Their active participation in the co-creation process translates into a high level of stakeholder ownership. Think about it. Owning the future and participating in its co-design is much easier than having to sell the idea or 'buy-in'. Where prototyping and experimentation are part of the journey, results can be seen and evaluated quickly.

How will you design your regenerative future?


About the Tourism CoLab

At The Tourism CoLab, we believe that tourism and travel can be transformational, purposeful and regenerative. However, in order to deliver these benefits, we need to change our tourism operating system, adjust our mindset, and pivot our ways of working. We use an intentional design mindset to activate tourism for good, and we call this new way of working 'Regenerative Tourism by Design' and we're pioneering it at The Tourism CoLab. If you would like to know more about what we do, how we work, and how we might be able to help you, contact us.

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