Regenerative Tourism vs Sustainable Tourism

Seven Points of Departure.

The wonderful thing about Regenerative Tourism is that it brings together and creates a narrative arc that threads together the shifts in thinking in tourism. It took a wonderful storyteller in Anna Pollock to thread these elements together. Some of these lines of thinking have threaded themselves, like a DNA, through my own research and consulting for over 25 years, and now they are coming together like a jigsaw puzzle.

Drawing from this sense-making, in this post, seven key points of departure for regenerative tourism are outlined. The aim of this short list is to help to distinguish regenerative tourism from sustainable tourism. If you spot and additional points of departure, don't worry, there will be a follow up post!

1. Sustainable tourism is good, but not enough.

The range of challenges we currently face at a global level, including the climate crisis, biodiversity loss, ecosystem decline, the restructuring of work, accumulation of wealth and rising inequality, inclusion, access to education, and the health crisis illustrate that the SDGs, while important, are simply not enough. The problem with the SDGs and associated metrics is the unintended consequence of mediocrity. It’s captured in Goodhart’s Law[1] “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to become a good measure’. In other words, when a target is set, and it becomes a goal, people will target that goal regardless of the consequences. They will pursue that 'tick of approval' at the risk of ignoring the flow-on effects and impacts that are experienced elsewhere in the system.

2. Instrumental ethics versus an ethic of care.

Most of us don't think about our ethical position at all. It's taken for granted and unquestioned. The scientific revolution gave us a worldview where the White European Man (and yes it was gender-specific!) was centre stage and dominant. The role of Nature was to service his needs. The responsibility to care for Nature was framed as 'resource management' where Nature's resources needed to be managed to feed economic growth. Taylor's scientific management ensured resources were carved up into components - water, soil, forests, air, fisheries, and so on - and managed in machine bureaucracies where departments rarely interacted [2}. This organisation reinforced the separation of Humans and Nature. The SDGs are an extension of this approach and are developed from a scientific mindset. They reinforce the separation of Humans and Nature. The SDGs become targets and the race to achieve these targets - an ecolabel or certificate standard - distances Humans from the real existential challenge we face.

Regenerative principles are founded on holistic management approaches, mutual respect, networked relations, and connection with Nature and all living and non-living things. Regenerative tourism is not guided by metrics but by a deeper ethical position to do no harm.

3. Scientific thinking versus knowing with Nature.

The scientific paradigm which has dominated since Enlightenment and the industrial revolution starting in the 18th century is being challenged. Not only are different worldviews are emerging, but interest in indigenous ways of knowing and working with Nature are challenging the traditional white western worldviews. Indigenous knowledge connects diverse areas of knowledge and practice, such as ecology, astronomy, climate, culture, law and spirituality, and seeks harmony and balance with Nature. Distance and domination over Nature are to be avoided.

Regenerative tourism challenges the current view of the tourism system, which is traditionally conceptualised as an industrial system made up of parts which need to be managed according to the rules of scientific management. It calls for a rebalancing and a need to place more emphasis on the intentional design of tourism and visitor economies to balance the needs to people, their communities and the planetary resources on which we, as Humans, depend.

4. Economic value versus holistic value co-creation.

For decades, the assumption underpinning tourism is that it should be industry- or investment-facing[3]. In that framing, all other stakeholders who contribute social, cultural, natural value for instance, or have to deal with the loss of value, were side-lined in this narrow worldview. Government policy and destination management have focused almost exclusively on economic value and attracting economic investment to the detriment of a wider and more holistic understanding of the value of 'investment' and 'money'.

Tourism generates positive value (benefits) and negative value (impacts or costs). This value can be tangible or intangible. We currently have no real understanding of the value created by tourism, where that value is accumulated, and what value is destroyed in the process of doing tourism. A mapping of the true value of tourism (both positive and negative) is needed. The concept of investment needs to be widened to other kinds of investment (shouldn't we also be investing in environmental value, social value, cultural value and so on). Adopting multi-stakeholder facing approaches that ensure those stakeholders who invest in tourism (including Nature) should be supported would appear to support regenerative tourism.

5. Outside experts versus local knowledge and capacity building.

For too long we have placed emphasis on outside experts coming in and telling us what to do. Template plans might simplify and scale a standard approach, but this ignores the very essence and character of the visitor economy, the unique energy and capacity of local people and business communities. These local 'assets' are your key to the future and the source of uniqueness in your business, destination and community. Harnessing the knowledge, insights, creative problem-solving and ownership of local stakeholders builds local capacity, achieves stronger ownership, and leads to more resilient and engaged communities.

6. Strategic versus regenerative leadership.

Scientific management has given us all manner of leadership theories. While we can scientific principles to leadership, our research [4] and our lived experience is that leadership depends on (a) the capacity of the individual to lead; (b) the freedom afforded by the organisation to lead; and (c) the social context, interactions and cultural milieu. Scientific styles of leadership rely on leaders and followers, metrics, command and control structures, and clear role definition. To achieve regenerative tourism, in an age of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity, we require an ethos, a mindset, and a range of intangible qualities that are difficult to formularise. Now more than ever, adaptive, resilient, inspiring, intergenerational and values-based leadership is required in tourism. The tourism operating system may need an overhaul to allow the evolution of new regenerative leadership.

7. Management versus intentional design.

Intentional design, as the term suggests, involves the intentional and inclusive design of complex dynamic systems. It listens and responds to all stakeholders and their challenges (living and non-living) , always aware of the interconnections and influences at other scales. It is, by default, the polar opposite of strategic management, which is based on hard rules and procedures. Intentional design involves deep understanding, listening and building empathy, and taking responsibility to do no harm, to respect Nature, to lean in and co-create a future that replenishes and enhances our capacity to flourish on this planet. Intentional design of our economy, or our environment and our communities is the key to resilience {6}.

Tourism is place-based yet the place-based design of our visitor economies is generally not a task for Destination Management Organisations (DMOs). Urban and environmental planners undertake this role, often with other objectives in mind. Tourism relies on the special and unique qualities of local places - environments, communities and individuals - all working together to showcase, welcome, and care for the visitors. The intentional design approach seeks to enhance the functionality, connectivity, resilience and flourishing of these places across different sectors, silos and spheres.


[1] Goodhart, C. 1975. Problems of Monetary Management: The U.K. Experience. Papers in Monetary Economics. Sydney: Reserve Bank of Australia.

[2} Dredge, D. & Jenkins, J. 2007. Tourism Policy and Planning. Brisbane, Wiley & Sons.

[3] Phi, G. & Dredge, D. 2020. Critical issues in tourism co-creation. Journal of Recreation Research, 44: 281.

[4]. Dredge, D. & Schott, C. 2012. Academic agency and leadership in tourism. Journal of Teaching in Travel and Tourism.

[5]. Höckert. E. et al., 2020. Knowing with Nature. The future of tourism education in the Anthropocene. Journal of teaching in Travel and Tourism, 20: 169

[6] Cave, J. & Dredge, D. 2020. Reworking Tourism: Diverse Economies in a changing world. Routledge.

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.


©2021 The Tourism CoLab.

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • LinkedIn