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Sustainable Tourism AND/OR Regenerative Tourism? To make tourism better, we do need to ‘get it’

by Marta Mills

Is sustainable tourism (ST) the foundation of regenerative tourism (RT)? Is RT a step up from sustainability? How are they different? Why do some authors analyse ST versus RT, as if they were some competing concepts that somehow exclude themselves? Should RT replace ST? Do we need definitions what ST and RT are, and if so, why?

We discussed it last week during the first session of RTxD course run by the Tourism CoLab. And interestingly, a thought-provoking conversation around the same topic has evolved at the same time on LinkeIn after Mikey Sadowski, GM of Intrepid Travel, asked in his post: ‘Has the focus on regenerative travel actually become counter-intuitive to the wider discussion around sustainability?’.

ST-RT Connection

I do agree that ST and RT are not mutually exclusive: focussing on one doesn’t mean retracting from or diminishing the other. They should not be seen as competing (ie: 'let's not aim for RT because it takes us away from being sustainable'). RT builds upon ST, and as ST is the foundation, it should not be replaced by RT.

But we do have to understand what these terms mean and what the differences are between them, but also what they mean for different stakeholders in different destinations; and we need to be able to clearly explain that to these stakeholders (tourism businesses, local communities, tourists). They will understand ST and RT differently based on the values they hold.

‘One can’t work without the other. I don’t see these two principles as being different in their essence, it’s perhaps the target group and implementation that can be slightly different’, said Idrissia Thestrup from Visit Greenland. In indigenous-populated Greenland, ‘sustainability’ is called ‘common sense’. Visit Greenland is trying to ‘translate’ to travellers and tourism partners what it all means for the local community.

RT – a step further

We should not forget that RT builds upon the foundations of ST, but they are not the same. I have been working as a ‘Sustainable Tourism’ consultant and researcher for a few years (currently for the Mount Everest Foundation), I have a Masters in Responsible Tourism management , and now I am supporting the Tourism CoLab in running excellent courses on Regenerative Tourism. I am not ‘just’ sustainable/responsible/regenerative, I am all of that, but I do see how they are different.

Mikey Sadowski suggested that ‘we may be better off continuing to focus on sustainable and responsible travel, with regenerative elements embedded, minimizing your negative impact while trying to leave a positive footprint....’. I see regeneration as going a step further beyond sustainability: not only trying to minimise negative impacts but adding the extra value to leave the place and local communities better than how we'd found them. Other elements that significantly differ RT from ST are the much closer, more symbiotic and more mindful connection with nature, and learning from the Indigenous wisdom and practices (with that symbiotic connection with nature at the core).

So yes, let’s continue to focus on sustainable and responsible tourism, and continue to strive to do better and be better at it. This is the minimum we should all do. But let’s also go a step further towards regeneration, to leave the place better than before as opposed to focussing on not causing any additional damage.

It is very important that Regenerative Tourism is not seen as the Next Big Thing, the new trend or the new buzzword, and above it all - should not be commercialised. But this is a topic for a different discussion.

I also believe that ST has got too focussed on certification, too commercialised, and prone to a lot of greenwashing. But this, also, is a topic for another discussion.

The battle over definitions

One of the themes in the ST-RT discussion has always been one about definitions, and how they are – or are not – understood. It looks like many of us are tired of the ongoing definition debate and want to focus on ‘just doing things better’. ‘Prioritizing the work over the word’, as Mikey said.

In a great piece ‘Sustainable tourism - a war with words’, Catherine Mack said that after Covid, many of the good tourism players will return and will succeed. ‘Not because they have nailed the right definition of what they are doing, but because they are just getting it, and getting on with doing it’.

I do agree. But I’d also argue that to do things better, we need to understand the concept and the basic principles of what we want to do (better). I am not up for reciting definitions, but if we use different terms – sustainable, responsible regenerative, transformational – we need to know what they mean, and how they differ from each other.

We should not get tangled into the definitions as we can spend years on that (and still have many people not getting it), as the never-ending debate about the definition of sustainable tourism has shown. However, as stated above, it is important to be able to explain the principles of that ‘better tourism’ to the stakeholders we are working with, so we are all on the same page and know what and how we want to improve.

Simply, we all have to ‘get it’.

Marta Mills


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