Regenerative Tourism: The Natural Maturation of Sustainability
Recognition that the economic engine of tourism, as currently practiced, is unsustainable, is slowly entering mainstream awareness. In times of such rapid and radical change on every front (environment, economy, politics, society and technology), tourism is proving far more vulnerable than many want to admit.
It’s as if this sector is stuck between a rock and a hard place — more success, in terms of numbers’ growth, brings with it problems of congestion, resentment from local residents, and environmental stress, along with the start of a long decline in visitor satisfaction, the number of repeat visits and or referrals. At the same time, a host of external factors — be they climate-related, natural hazards (fires, floods) that result in infrastructure damage; or food or water shortages; economic slowdown in source markets; growing political instability; and rapid changes in public values can all cause demand to stop. Elsewhere, I have likened the current scale and scope of demand to a “tsunami” that we cannot control. It’s worth noting that, in nature, tsunamis cause as much damage on their retreat from a shoreline as they do racing up it.
In response to these increasingly wicked challenges, a small but growing number of thinkers from within and outside tourism are now applying their time, imagination and brain power to conceive of an alternative way of “seeing/framing” and delivering hospitality services at a scale and in a manner that delivers positive net benefit to all participants (commercial and non-commercial hosts and guests). In fact, we go further, believing that tourism has the potential to become an agent of positive transformation that can contribute to a better quality of life for all.
We are spurred on in our efforts by the belief that we are riding a natural wave of change, following a pattern that repeats itself in a fractal manner throughout life’s evolutionary history. There are no straight lines in nature; all hockey stick curves eventually flat-line or decline; humans eventually stop growing vertically but, in terms of their development, shift to maturing their emotional, social and spiritual intelligence.
Part of this pattern includes some form of rite of passage, awakening, crisis or disruption that nudges or, if ignored, pushes us towards a maturation. Even the sustainability movement is taking stock and realising that application of all the best practices in the world will only slow down our current passage to catastrophe. Radical, systemic change and transformation have become the order of the day, along with an awareness that, while each of us matters as an individual, no one sector can go it alone. The intensity of our inter-connectedness and interdependence demands that change agents join hands and collaborate.
The good news is that examples of an awakening are manifesting with increasing frequency and being picked up by futurists. Public opinion is shifting faster than politicians and marketers can keep up and those businesses who are sensing and responding to the emerging “zeitgeist” are gaining ground (1). This essay is a very brief and necessarily superficial assessment of the direction that those winds of change are taking, so that you might enjoy the benefits of sailing before and not into the wind.
In response to multiple existential challenges, we’re asking even deeper questions — the most relevant to this discussion include: “What’s the real purpose of an economy? Are we in danger of confusing means with ends? How might we create the conditions for life in all its forms to thrive?” Can tourism play a key role in shifting us into a healthier relationship with Mother Earth, and if so, how?
As a consequence of such questioning, a shift within the world of business and commerce is detectable as illustrated in the following chart (2). It maps a Journey of Exploration, from the self-centred extraction of value for the benefit of a few, that’s associated with organising principles of efficiency and effectiveness, to the community/life enhancing, service-oriented activity associated with regeneration that involves ever higher levels of care and interdependence.
The Maturation of Sustainability
The chart makes it clear that, in order for businesses to move from the red and green wedges (from Business As Usual and Doing Less Harm) to the yellow and teal (Becoming a Force for Good, for Regeneration), then an “ontological threshold,” meaning a mindset shift, has to occur. The latter involves a change in seeing, awareness and consciousness that Einstein said would be necessary if we were to generate any effective transformative change. Other influential authors in the regenerative community refer to this as a shift in Peter Drucker’s “action logic” (3).
“The greatest danger in times of turbulence is not the turbulence — it is to act with yesterday’s logic”. Peter Drucker, management guru
The shift is from seeing the world as a machine with a collection of scarce resources, for which individual and separate humans have the right to compete and exploit, toone thatsees Planet Earth, and all life on it, as comprising a set of inter-dependent, self-organising living systems that flourish and generate abundance by ensuring the thrivability of each other. The latter view is being informed by multiple discoveries across a variety of disciplines in contemporary science.
What will it take to move on from Sustainability to Regeneration?
It is important to acknowledge at the outset that each stage in our maturing process is a necessary part of humanity’s development. Each stage transcends and includes previous stages. It’s not about good or bad or throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. It’s certainly notabout less rather about more — it’s just that “more” is being defined differently, as in greater net benefit,greater well-being, greater value that’s expressed in a richer, more complex diverse manner that benefits more people, in a variety of ways.
At its simplest, regeneration is about creating the fertile conditions conducive for life to thrive based on the knowledge that life and living systems, unlike machines, self-organise, and are not static but, through living, are constantly adapting, changing, evolving (4). It’s inherently a revitalising activity that results in enhanced generative capacities. As a consequence, it has an inspirational dimension based on the meaning of the verb “to inspire” as to breathe life back into. The adjectives used most frequently to describe a regenerative state are flourishing or thriving. The attributes of all flourishing living systems are listed below and can be applied to cells, organs, people, forests, businesses and communities. Regeneration also has a non-material, aspirational dimension in that it focuses on the realisation (actualisation) of our individual and collective potential.
Shifting from an old, fragmented, mechanical way of seeing to a holistic, systemic, perspective is the biggest, most critical task facing humanity today and, in itself, constitutes a rite of passage from adolescence to adulthood. A successful passage might just enable tourism to become a catalyst of regeneration throughout society (5). It will require movement along the following pathways.
1. Learning to see our home (Planet Earth), our relationship with it and with each other through fresh eyes. We’re being asked to think how nature thinks and act accordingly (6) and develop much higher levels of “eco-literacy” and systems thinking than are common within the tourism sector. This stage can’t be skipped but it can be fun, inspiring, liberating and empowering. It will require more time in nature simply exercising our capacity to observe, listen, learn and experience first-hand the beauty, complexity and abundance that is, in fact, our birth right as humans.
As we shed the shackles of a reductionist, materialistic, solely rational, analytical perspective and pattern, we will begin to see connections, wholeness, relationships, interdependencies that were not evident before and, as a consequence, fresh, creative ideas will emerge from our stimulated, nourished imaginations.
2. Exploring what it means to be fully human by applying our whole selves (bodies, hearts, souls and mind) to whatever task we face. Regardless of whether we like it or not, many tasks performed by people will soon be automated, but as robots and algorithms cannot feel they may result in more efficiency but leave a gaping whole in customer satisfaction (7).
As the acclaimed technology-futurist Gerd Leonhard has observed (7), future sources of value depend on our capacity to express emotions, intuition, imagination, creativity, empathy, ethics, mystery, compassion, to which I would add enchantment, wonder and awe. Any future value that can be derived from the travel and hospitality sectors will not be associated with efficiency but with the expression of our humanity in the form of such feelings and meaning.
We should not forget that, at the heart of the travel and hospitality domain, the core source of value rests in the nature and quality of the encounter between two parties — the guest and host — that occurs in a unique setting, the place. A regenerative approach would enable that to be a rich exchange, expressing many of the qualities Leonhard identifies, involving all aspects of each person’s being and one that is symbiotic, mutually beneficial and, ideally, infused with meaning.
3. Learning and practicing the alchemical art of communing– gathering together in diverse groups, acknowledging differences and common ground while aligning around a shared purpose and set of values. A regenerative form of tourism will emerge from and be practiced in place-sourced communities whose diverse members prize trust, sharing and active collaboration over fear, hoarding and competition.
Sustainability is not an individual property but a property of an entire web of relationships. It always involves a whole community. This is a profound lesson we need to learn from nature.(8)
As Margaret Wheatley wrote many years ago (9), the leader of the future is a host who convenes conversations that matter. Doesn’t this imply that hosts in our communities can play a far more creative role in nurturing a true sense of place, in creating the conditions whereby its members can hear, articulate and express what the place is wanting to become? Michelle Holliday, who spoke so articulately about a living systems approach to community at the Bruges Summit, Travel to Tomorrow writes after the event:
Imagine if the emphasis were on helping hosts understand who they are in community, in this place, at this time in history. Imagine if they could be brought together in regular reflection about the invitation they want to extend and what flourishing might look like for everyone involved? (10)
4. Defining growth and success differently. Regenerative tourism defines success as more net benefit(after costs have been accounted for, all waste eliminated, and all damage restored), and more personal and institutional capacity to adapt, be resilient, creative, collaborative etc, while providing a greater and richer sense of meaning for guests and hosts.
Regenerative tourism is not anti-growth; it simply asks that we grow the things that matter most to us in ways that benefit the entire system and never at the expense of others. There can be no such thing as a sustainable business within an unsustainable system. That’s the situation virtually every tourism business finds itself in today. Regardless of anyone’s individual effort to shrink their footprint, the current systemic dependence on volume growth to compensate for diminishing returns, and a failure to acknowledge let alone pay for externalities has generated an operational model that is destined to crash. The only way we can operationalise an alternative measure such as flourishing is to do so on a community-by- community basis.
5. A regenerative approach to tourism starts at home within ourselves, then our workplaces and our communities. It also means that the unique spirit of a place cannot be defined but can only be expressed; it can only be lived and shared by those for whom it is home. It too has the properties of a living system. Its capacity to affect and, ideally, to enchant, enliven and enrich the lives of visitors depends on the capacity of the welcoming hosts, who having become rooted in their place, to feel an intimate, co-creative connection with it that generates a deep abiding affection and desire to care for all life within it. A life affirming regenerative tourism that works with wholes and not parts, with permeable boundaries not hard lines of demarcation, is better able to integrate tourism with those other life support systems expressed in the place — be they hydrological, food-based, socio-cultural, political or economic.
6. By its very holistic nature, regenerative tourism is the antidote to the fragmentation that plagues the current tourism model. It pays less attention to parts and more to relationships and the integration of systems not their separation. This holistic approach starts with a view of the guest as a whole human being having a complete experience; not a segment to be targeted but a living being playing a particular role in a specific place and time.
The holistic approach, that sees all life as occupying a set of inter-dependent nested systems from Planet Earth down to the individual cell, enables us to look at tourism more inclusively and question why we have this proclivity to separate, label, categorise and various manifestations of the tourist experience (agro, cultural, adventure, social, creative tourism etc). A holistic view acknowledges and celebrates a diversity of parts while acknowledging that their inter-relationships and interdependences allow new wholes to emerge dynamically and spontaneously. For example, is it helpful for destinations to continue to separate domestic and international tourism, or commercial and social tourism, business and leisure? It may make sense at the level of service delivery but obscure their total impact and interdependence.
7. Regenerative Tourism depends on caring hosts willing to ensure their destination is healthy and full of life.A regenerative, systems-based approach integrates conventional sustainable practices and doesn’t treat them as an extra, a “bolt-on” necessity. By following Nature’s principles, each part (be it a plant, animal, ecosystem, person, business or a community) assumes its essential responsibility for ensuring the thrivability /health of the whole of which it is a part. When the prosperity of a community is synonymous with the health of all its parts and relationships, then the act of caring or stewarding — ensuring that the conditions for life to thrive do exist, is built into the system. Sustainable, restorative, regenerative practices are integral and include all the steps necessary to reduce our ecological footprint to zero (for there is no waste in nature) and respond courageously and urgency to minimize the negative effects of a warming climate.
As stated at the outset, space necessitates a relatively superficial introduction to these powerful concepts that interact with each other in synergistic ways. Fortunately, regenerative principles and concepts are now being deployed in a number of domains including business, agriculture, finance, economics, community development, planning and education. Turismo Regenerativo is enjoying support through central and south America where a more communitarian ethic and the influence of indigenous communities are stronger. As readers know, Visit Flanders has started down this path as part of its Travel to Tomorrow initiative. Pioneering companies such as Intrepid Travel are not hesitating to adopt regenerative ways of operating (11). While the way the concept is expressed will vary from one place to another, regenerative principles can be universally applied.
But there are many lifetimes of work to be done to apply its potent concepts to the complex domain of travel and hospitality. Making the shift will involve a vast educational undertaking that will benefit from the marketing/communication prowess within the sector so long as that contribution is not allowed to degenerate into another form of green washing. It will require many existing institutions to re-consider their role. As stated back in 2016 here, Destination Marketing Organisations must broaden their focus and come out of their siloes. Without a genuine change of hearts and minds and a willingness to keep learning, regeneration will fizzle and the opportunity for travel & hospitality to step up and fulfil its role as a transformative change agent will pass.
A small but expanding group of individuals is exploring this regenerative path. If you are interested and would like to join us, drop me a line (firstname.lastname@example.org) or message me on Linkedin.
References — further reading
1. J.W.Thompson: New Trend Report- The New Sustainability: Regeneration.
2. The chart in this essay was based in parton the work presented in this paper: The Arc of Interconnectedness: A theory of the Evolution of Business towards Flourishing- Ignacio Pavez (email@example.com) and Lori D. Kendall (firstname.lastname@example.org) at the 7th Annual ARCS Research Conference 2015.
3. Regenerative Leadership, Giles Hutchins and Laura Storm 2019
4. The Age of Thrivability, Michelle Holliday, 2016
5. Travel to Tomorrow 1: How we travel will affect where we travelpost by Daniel Christin Wahl, 2019
6. “The major problems in the world are the result of the difference between how nature works and the way people think” Gregory Bateson
7. Humanity Versus Technology, Gerd Leonhard,
8. The Systems View of Life, Fritjof Capra, Pier Luigi Luisi, Cambridge University Press, 2014
9. Leadership in the Age of Complexity: From Hero to Host, Margaret Wheatley
10. Travel To Tomorrow: An Emerging Vision for the Tourism IndustryMichelle Holliday, 2019
11. Intrepid Travel https://www.intrepidtravel.com/uk/regeneration-generation