While we may love traveling the world, we sometimes have a funny way of showing that love for the world at large. Could regenerative tourism make a difference?
Something has to… because the status quo isn’t cutting it. From international flights and their hefty carbon emissions to the crowds and congestion that come from our love of Instagram moments… our love of seeing the world often leaves the world in worse shape.
How bad has it gotten? We’ve seen a shutting down of locations across the world – from Everest’s Base Camp to beaches in Thailand – as a result of overtourism.
Some places like Hawaii even have residents sounding off against tourism, saying “thanks but not thanks” to tourism’s return post-pandemic.
As a tourist, even a well-intentioned one, figuring out where to travel – or even if you should travel – can feel like a no-win proposition.
But what if instead of looking for the least terrible option, we could find a way that our travels didn’t result in ruining everything?
That’s the goal regenerative tourism, an idea that’s been growing in popularity. In short, it’s about moving past sustainability, which focuses on minimizing negative impact toward a style of tourism that results in a positive impact on the place and its people.
It’s like our parents always told us. Try to leave things better than you found them.
But what does better mean? Does this style of tourism stand a chance? And can regenerative travel actually be a force for good? Let’s find out.
In tourism studies, there’s a charming chart called Butler’s Tourism Area Life Cycle. It ranks a tourism destination’s development, from UNSPOILT NATURAL WONDER THAT NO ONE ON TIKTOK HAS HEARD OF to DISNEYLAND.
Well, those aren’t his exact words. But essentially, any destination can be placed on this chart that goes from exploration and involvement to development, consolidation, then stagnation.
As a destination grows in popularity and becomes more established, it heads towards stagnation.
At that point, a destination can act and head toward rejuvenation or reduced growth – maybe by limiting arrivals, raising prices to go for a different market – or just sit back and let the forces of tourism take over.
Which always goes well.
For destinations and travelers alike, the main way to avoid these disheartening talks has been sustainable travel, with 87% of travelers saying they want to “travel more sustainably.”
But what does it mean to travel sustainably?
Let’s take the UNWTO’s definition of sustainable tourism:
“Tourism that takes full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities.”UNWTO
We could reduce that to the old hiking and camping adage: Leave only footprints, take only memories. A slogan that inspired a thousand terrible quote images.
Sustainable tourism sounds great, but the evolution of this idea hasn’t resolved a world overrun with examples of overtourism.
That is to say, even though how we travel has evolved over the years, evolution continues to be a tricky little devil.
The old ways of tourism still exist, there are just some now more quote-unquote enlightened versions, too, making tourism a bit like mankind.
It’s not just a simple evolution – multiple kinds exist at the sametime. Let’s take a quick look at the evolutionary timeline.
First, we have conventional tourism. This is focused more on the person doing the traveling, than the impacts of that travel. When left to its own devices, this can lead to overtourism. After all, that’s a lot of people traveling to the same beach for the same selfie.
Green tourism. Visiting a destination with the intent of being eco-friendly. There’s slightly less of an impact on the environment. Unfortunately, this one’s a bit more of a marketing ploy with companies that call themselves environmentally friendly by asking you to reuse your towels.
Then, sustainable tourism. This is traveling centered around the idea of being eco-friendly.
From there, we’ve got restorative tourism.This prioritizes getting the environment back to its natural state and minimizing the impact of tourism in it.
And finally, regenerative tourism, where we make the switch from minimizing tourism’s negative impact to thinking about how tourism could bring positive change.
What’s Happening Now With Regenerative Tourism
So what does regenerative tourism look like in practice? It’s about finding ways to add to the place you visit.
As an example, it would be like taking a walk in a forest and instead of leaving no trace, each person planted a tree, or picked up trash, and maybe took an afternoon to share some of their professional experience in a sit-down talk with the local high school.
Regenerative tourism is built on the idea that success is measured not just by money but also by the well-being of the local people and nature.
That can mean ensuring that tourism dollars are being circulated within the community…
that visitors are presented with green choices (like electric vehicles and recycling), and …
That businesses and tour operators challenge the travelers themselves to leave their destinations not just how they found them but better.
The Benefits of Regenerative Tourism
Regenerative Tourism says all the right things. So does it walk the walk? Let’s take a look at 3 examples from around the world.
First, we’re headed to Zihuatanejo, Mexico, and Playa Viva, a small resort south of on the Pacific Coast.
Their development efforts included taking into account the bird-filled estuary and ancient ruins, as well as turtle poaching and poor schools in the area. By using the small town of Juluchuca as the gateway to the property, developing an organic agricultural system for the property and local residents; and a charging 2 percent fee added to any stay for a community development trust, they are able to preserve the natural resources, enhance the local communities, and still allow tourists to enjoy their pacific coast getaway.
Next, let’s head to Southwest Africa to Damaraland, Namibia. In the mid 90s, there was human-wildlife conflict and nearly 100% unemployment. A joint venture between travel operators Wilderness Safaris and the local community lead to the community owning and operating Damaraland Camp and the 869,000-square-acre Torra Conservancy.
Finally, let’s take a trip stateside to Minnesota, where the Minnesota-based nonprofit Indifly develops equitable ecotourism initiatives centered on fly fishing and conservation. These projects are 100 percent community-owned and operated,
Destinations like New Zealand and Hawaii are leading the way at a management level, with governments measuring success in the tourism sector not just by visitation numbers but also by residents’ happiness.
On an economic level, we can see it in groups working to keep tourism dollars local. Part of the challenge here is actually tracking that impact, One company working to document that change is G Adventures and their Ripple Score, a “tool to show you the percentage of money we spend locally on trip services like accommodations, restaurants, and transportation”
And how can individuals get involved? First, by thinking about your booking decisions beforehand. One way to do that is by booking through a site like Regenerative Travel.
A booking agency that vets members based on metrics such as carbon usage, employee well-being, immersive guest activities and sourcing local food
Another tool is to think about your impact while you’re traveling, which you can do easily through companies like Sustainable Travel International.
Second, think about the actions you’re doing while you’re there. Stay in locally owned properties and supporting locally owned businesses. Consider an agritourism or local farm and participate in regenerative agriculture while traveling. Volunteer in a way that doesn’t take away jobs from local people.
While regenerative tourism sounds great, can it actually turn tourism into a force for good? Let’s revisit the tree-planting example of our walk in the forest.
Tree planting is visceral. It’s physical. It feels like the right thing to do. Hell, I even did it when I was in Uganda with a coffee seedling.
What does planting a tree do, in terms of net impact on your carbon emissions while you travel?
Not… nothing, but basically nothing. Let’s take a look at Good Trip Marketplace’s report. Using the UK as a starting spot, it breaks down the number of trees needed to offset an entire trip. It ranges from 78 trees to offset that UK-NY flight to 278 trees from UK-Sydney.
This gets more into the carbon offset conversation – which we’re having in just a few weeks! – so I’ll save the rest of this point for then. Suffice it to say, planting a single tree is more symbolic than significant.
That’s exactly the threshold regenerative tourism seems to be saddling right now: symbolic vs significant.
Because a site like Regenerative Travel has become one of the leaders of the movement – and one of the most visible proponents – we can see there a microcosm of what could make regenerative travel even more impactful than it is – and what can keep it from becoming as big as it deserves.
Sites like Regenerative Travel offer big promises and talks about their Regenerative Metrics.
Though those metrics aren’t completely public, they do list standards and criteria that include difficult-to-define ideas like “Property feels completely unique.”
When we look at pages for each individual resort, there is a description of “Regenerative Impact” – a great way to increase the visibility of their work – that includes more difficult-to-define ideas like:
- “enriches the local community’s well-being”
- “regenerates the landscape”
- “pioneers in regenerative design”,
- “brings raw materials in the largest quantity feasible”
- “makes as much of its food as possible onsite”
I recognize I am being nit-picky, and as a copywriter, I have to give kudos for creating a tone of voice for this movement that is aspirational and empowering.
The problem here, though, is the reliance on qualitative descriptions instead of quantitative terms.
In fairness, numbers are not absent. It is clear there are some properties that may have a more sophisticated system, as there are mentions like:
- resort runs off a 100% off-grid solar system
- 80% of waste is currently reused or recycled
- uses no generators, noise or fossil fuels to feed its operations, resulting in minimal noise pollution and environmental impact
- 100% of wastewater is treated
- built 100% from local materials and with 100% local labor
- with a 100% local staff population
Though these numbers exist, it was far from being present in every listing. Without those numbers, there is a risk that feel-good terms aren’t backed up by data, and that regenerative travel could become the new greenwashing.
Still, there is plenty to be excited about. In the same way that Sustainable Travel International’s calculator has made it straightforward to see our impact moving from place to place, that same type of rigidity can be applied to make regenerative tourism more clearly understood.
The Overall Benefits
And if you’re wondering if travel needs to be more clearly understood, there are two numbers that should give you pause:
8% – meaning tourism is responsible for roughly 8% of the world’s carbon emissions. That includes plane flights and boat rides to souvenirs and lodging, various activities contribute to tourism’s carbon footprint.
And $5 – According to the UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme), for every $100 spent by a tourist on a holiday to a developing country, only $5 remains in that community.
Those are two numbers that help to clarify both the global impact our travel has – and the potential we have to impact a destination when we travel.
In a sense, regenerative travel is about holding those two numbers in our head while we think about traveling.
I say that because it’s not just about minimizing the negative impact of travel, like reducing our emissions or investing in technologies that help conservation efforts instead of traveling. This is about improving the impact we do have.
Consider this: Finding a way to have $10 remain in the community instead of $5 would be doubling the average impact, and certainly be something positive to the places and communities we visit.
So should we talk about scaling back our impact to the very barebones? Walking barefoot to destinations that are nearby, and only eating fruit that’s fallen to the ground?
Or can we have a conversation about steps to reduce our impact by staying longer in a place, and then making choices that bring more to that place than our presence subtracts through efforts like making sure our money goes to local owners and operators.
While regenerative tourism can sound idealistic, there are steps being taken to make it realistic.
As more and more people begin to consider it, question their own role in their travels, and make choices for transportation and accommodations based on that assessment, regenerative tourism goes from being an idea that’s purely symbolic to one that’s increasingly significant.