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Regenerative tourism rising… and why it can’t be unseen

Regenerative tourism can’t be unseen. It is a new, emergent, hybrid economic-social-environmental space. It’s a space where many tourism and non-tourism professionals are working to deliver new kinds of opportunities, experiences, collaborations and innovations in pursuit of a regenerative future. They are connecting new dots, spanning boundaries, making the invisible visible, and innovating by reframing old problems in new ways for a regenerative future.

Image: Binna Burra Lodge destroyed in the 2019 Australian bushfires is back with a renewed focus on creating social and environmental value

Regenerative tourism rising

Regenerative tourism is not well understood and there are many misconceptions. Our experience is similar to Loretta Bellato’s as outlined in her recent blog post. Some think of regenerative tourism as simply a rebranding of sustainable tourism — or perhaps a new word that is used by consultants who seek to differentiate themselves. Others have suggested that regenerative tourism is a new niche, like wellness or adventure tourism.

In The Tourism CoLab’s online course, Regenerative Tourism by Design, our starting point is that regenerative tourism is more than sustainable tourism. To be clear, sustainable tourism has delivered important outcomes in terms of building the momentum towards better tourism, but many issues have not been addressed and there are many silences within the SDG (Sustainable Development Goals) framework. Once you see and acknowledge these silences, it is impossible to unsee regenerative tourism as the pathway forward.

Definitions can be tricky

Regenerative tourism is, in some ways, an inadequate term but it’s the best term we currently have to denote the change that is required. Regenerative tourism is a new, emergent, hybrid economic-social-environmental space (I will resist calling it a ‘sector’ because it drags us back to the old 20th-century version of economy). It’s a space wherein many tourism and non-tourism professionals are working to deliver new kinds of opportunities, experiences and innovations. They are connecting new dots, spanning boundaries, making the invisible visible, and innovating by reframing old problems in new ways.

The fluid, dynamic and emergent concept of regenerative tourism is an exciting space where we have an opportunity to correct past mistakes, redraw the tourism system, and create new connections between people, communities and nature.

Our definition of regenerative tourism

Regenerative tourism is an aspirational goal, a journey, a commitment and a set of actions to secure all the conditions necessary to allow tourism, travel and mobile living to co-exist alongside, and in harmony with, the ability of nature and communities to sustain and continuously renew themselves.

Our definition draws from the generous works of Anna Pollock, but it is still a rather awkward definition. We like to use this definition as a talking point, a conversation icebreaker, to ask: How might we foster regenerative thinking and regenerative practices in each place we work in? We are inspired by indigenous wisdom that everything is living, dynamic and connected: people, animals, earth, rocks, water and air (Neale, 2021). It conveys that humankind and nature are inextricably linked and co-dependent. It opens up an ethical and personal connection to the challenges we face.

In defining regenerative tourism in this way, tourism is flipped to support the flourishing of people, places, communities and nature for the very survival of life itself. Tourism for tourism’s sake, for the benefit of few and at the expense of communities and nature is not only unsustainable but unethical. Regenerative tourism must address, directly and indirectly, pressing global challenges including the reduction of GHG emissions, it must seek to ameliorate the impacts of climate change, enhance the conservation of biodiversity and protect healthy ecosystems. Regenerative tourism seeks to address equality, inclusion and quality of life and work. In essence, regenerative tourism is a rights-based approach to tourism where the rights of people, communities and nature to flourish are placed on an equal footing with the traditional economic focus.

Why Regenerative Tourism can’t be unseen

Regenerative Tourism fills in the gaps and answers the frustrations of twentieth-century industrial tourism. It builds upon the foundations created by the SDGs, then raises the stakes by:

  • Building an ethical foundation for tourism based on values, hopes, dreams, and stories of what communities want to become.

  • Addressing the gaps between the SDGs by adopting a holistic approach that moves tourism from the three boxes of tourism marketing, destination management and capacity building.

  • Introducing new skills sets like mindfulness, deep listening, care ethics, empathy and meta-cognitive awareness.

  • Decentres ‘tourism’ and asks us to play with a range of other notions that open up the space of possibilities such as mobile living, recreation, leisure, wellness, home, hyper-local experiences, and so on.

  • Encouraging us to see beyond the silo and to connect and build a network of relationships that expand our own horizon of possibilities for sustainable regenerative outcomes.

  • Connecting humans and nature at a deeper level, so that we shed the old scientific-inspired distinction that has separated us from nature, and keeps us from taking full personal responsibility for future prosperity, well being and, ultimately, survival.

So, once the difference between sustainable and regenerative tourism is clarified, the difference cannot be unseen. The imperative of regenerative tourism is clear. That said, however, we remain challenged by the very word ‘tourism’ — a very industrial word — that anchors this new thinking in an old paradigm. So, if the word tourism didn't exist, what would you be in?

Getting on with it versus figuring out how

In our conversations with social enterprises as part of the Catalyst 2030 movement, communities, tourism organisations and tourism professionals we are aware that significant work is already being undertaken to advance regenerative tourism in small, ground-up and hands-on ways. Mindsets are already shifting and innovative solutions are emerging. There is a collective of inspiring, leading, cutting-edge change makers who are leaping over the barriers and the resistance put up by established systems to just do it. Look around, inspiration is everywhere. Many businesses are grabbing the opportunity to deliver social and environmental benefits while also being profitable. They add that special essence of place, the connection to local, the stories of real characters... and yet much of this is not being done under the name of tourism but because businesses see the benefit from the pivot. From where we sit, most of the resistance appears to be within the policy environment at upper levels of government, in the landscape of established interests and the way that tourism is organised, incentivised and funding flows. We see both a cognitive and physical dissonance between those trying to get on with business as usual and those that are jumping over the barriers and doing regenerative tourism.

A special mention needs to be made here of the particular tensions in the sphere of local government — many at this level are very aware of the change that needs to be made and are creatively and innovatively trying to hack traditional government systems and tender processes to be the change agents their communities need.

Our observation is that many entrepreneurs and forward-thinking businesses get the shift and are just getting on with it. They start with the problem and the passion to address it, and they harness tourism markets to build their solution and business proposition. Take for example, which are building community wealth by seeking to build a holiday rental platform in Australia where 50% of the booking fee is donated back to the community. The problem they started with was the inequitable distribution of profit made by global booking platforms which leave little to no value in local communities.

Or Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary, which is getting on with delivering extraordinary outcomes for wildlife conservation, connecting local people, enhancing understanding of indigenous cultures, and connecting local business ecosystems. The pandemic has gouged traditional markets for sure, but the delivery of the core mission remains central and has motivated management to find alternative and diversified business opportunities to deliver their mission.

Where do you sit in this challenge? Are you getting on with it, or still figuring out how?

Governments can support both by simply listening to the many tourism and non-tourism professionals already working to deliver new opportunities, experiences, and innovations. They are connecting new dots, spanning boundaries, making the invisible visible, and innovating by reframing old problems in new ways. They ARE already creating this new hybrid social-economic-environmental space called Regenerative Tourism. Ready or not! Now ask these simple questions:

  • How do we bring in from the edge those that are getting on with transitioning to the next tourism economy and learn from their thinking and experience?

  • Can we give the innovative edge more oxygen, join up their efforts and support the emergence of the next tourism?

  • What if we could let go of the barriers, the established ways of thinking about the challenges, and dare to imagine, co-design, experiment and develop the next tourism?

The Regenerative Tourism by Design course is a first step in finding out more about what regenerative tourism means in your destination, community or organisation. You can check out information about the course here.

If this post made you think, reflect or act, we’d love to hear about it. Please repost and drop us an email here.


About the Author: Dianne Dredge is the Founder/Director of The Tourism CoLab. She works to catalyse the next economy in tourism and the visitor economy in a variety of ways using educational approaches, design thinking methods and activation strategies.


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