Tourism, which grew faster than the global gross domestic product for the past nine years, has been decimated by the pandemic. Once accounting for 10% of employment worldwide, the sector is poised to shed 121 million jobs, with losses projected at a minimum of $3.4 trillion, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council.
But in the lull, some in the tourism industry are planning for a post-vaccine return to travel that’s better than it was before March 2020 — greener, smarter and less crowded. If sustainable tourism, which aims to counterbalance the social and environmental impacts associated with travel, was the aspirational outer limit of ecotourism before the pandemic, the new frontier is “regenerative travel,” or leaving a place better than you found it.
“Sustainable tourism is sort of a low bar. At the end of the day, it’s just not making a mess of the place,” said Jonathon Day, an associate professor focused on sustainable tourism at Purdue University. “Regenerative tourism says, let’s make it better for future generations.”
Regenerative travel has its roots in regenerative development and design, which includes buildings that meet the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design or LEED standards. The concept has applications across many fields, including regenerative agriculture, which aims to restore soils and sequester carbon.
“Generally, sustainability, as practiced today, is about slowing down the degradation,” said Bill Reed, an architect and principal of Regenesis Group, a design firm based in Massachusetts and New Mexico that has been practicing regenerative design, including tourism projects, since 1995. He described efforts like fuel efficiency and reduced energy use as “a slower way to die.”
“Regeneration is about restoring and then regenerating the capability to live in a new relationship in an ongoing way,” he added.
With most travel suspended during the pandemic, regenerative travel remains at the starting gate. But in the lull, it’s the new buzz. Six nonprofit organizations, including the Center for Responsible Travel and Sustainable Travel International, have joined together as the Future of Tourism coalition, which aims to “build a better tomorrow.”
Twenty-two travel groups, including tour operators like G Adventures, destination marketers such as the Slovenian Tourist Board, and organizations like the Adventure Travel Trade Association, have signed on to the coalition’s 13 guiding principles, including “demand fair income distribution” and “choose quality over quantity.”
Tourism New Zealand, the country’s tourism organization, is talking about measuring its success not solely in economic terms, but against the well-being of the country, considering nature, human health and community identities. And travel leaders in Hawaii are discussing repositioning the state as a cultural destination in hopes of reengaging islanders, many of whom are fed up with overtourism, in the vitality of tourism.
To flesh out these broad strokes, Day, the associate professor, points to the concept of a circular economy, which aims to design waste out of the system, keep materials in use through reuse, repair and upcycling, and regenerate natural systems.
“Tourism is just at the beginning of this process of how we can apply circular economy ideas to the system,” he said.
Regeneration in action
Having a truly regenerative travel experience may be a unicorn, but a few operators are pointing the way.
Regenesis worked on the development of Playa Viva, a small resort south of Zihuatanejo, Mexico, on the Pacific Coast, which opened in 2009. The firm’s assessment of the more than 200-acre property took in the beaches, the bird-filled estuary and ancient ruins as well as the problems of turtle poaching and poor schools in the village. Ultimately, the small town of Juluchuca became the gateway to the property; an organic agricultural system benefited both the property and local residents; and a 2% fee added to any stay funds a trust that invests in community development.
“Rather than a resort helicoptering in and taking up land, they said, ‘We are the village,’” Reed said. “It’s a paradigm shift.”
Playa Viva is one of 45 resorts belonging to 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. To date, qualifications for membership have been handled internally, but in September the company plans to launch a bench marking system to demonstrate their regenerative progress.
OneSeed Expeditions, an adventure tour operator based in Denver, aims to couple travel with economic development. It uses 10% of its proceeds to provide zero-interest loans to local nongovernmental organizations where it operates in places like Nepal and Peru. The local groups then issue microloans to community entrepreneurs in businesses such as farming and retail.
“The areas of greatest need are not necessarily in areas of the greatest tourism attractions,” said Chris Baker, the founder of OneSeed Expeditions. “We want to use tourism to be able to benefit people outside of those areas.”
Implicit in many discussions about regenerative tourism is the threat of returning to overtourism, which accounted for excessive numbers of visitors in places like Dubrovnik, Croatia, that ultimately had to cap the number of cruise ships allowed to dock daily in high season.
“For so long, tourism success was defined by growing the numbers — numbers of visitors, numbers of cruise passengers,” said Gregory Miller, the executive director of the Center for Responsible Travel, a nonprofit group that advocates for sustainable travel. “Even before the pandemic, there was a need for rebalancing.”
Who defines ‘better’?
Determining what makes a place better and who makes that decision requires local involvement, according to regenerative tourism proponents.
VisitFlanders, the tourism organization representing the northern Belgium region, used local input to rethink its mission, repositioning its stance from growing travel for the sake of the economy to creating an “economy of meaning,” according to its master plan. That includes, among other initiatives, linking visitors with locals who share their passions for things like history or food and making storytelling central to sites like its World War I battlefields.
“We’ve managed to shift the thinking from having their primary objective be about growing the numbers, to creating flourishing destinations, flourishing communities and having them say what kind of tourism they want,” said Anna Pollock, the founder of Conscious Travel, an education and consulting enterprise devoted to positioning travel as a force for good, who worked with VisitFlanders.
A traveler’s role
Pollock believes regenerative travel is a supply-side concept that asks operators to do more for the environment and community than they take from them. But travelers play a key role in demand.
“Become mindful of the fact that your trip is going to have a set of costs associated with it, which needs to be paid by somebody,” she said. “In the same way you think, ‘Should I buy that cheap T-shirt from the dime store down the road?,’ knowing it’s created by semi-slave labor. Now you’re thinking consciously about who do I buy it from and is it quality.”
Sustainable travel, let alone regenerative travel, will still have to find solutions to the carbon emissions produced by air travel. Until the economy recovers, there’s likely to be less travel, more local travel, or slower travel by car, train, bike or foot. This moment of reflection, say proponents, is where regeneration begins.
“It’s about how to regenerate our relationship with life,” said Reed, the architect. “That’s a continual process. Our children will need that taught to them. Regeneration is a continual cycle of rebirth. That’s how we sustain the planet. You cannot have a sustainable planet without regeneration.”