Regenerative Tourism For The Post-Pandemic Era
Regenerative tourism is possible. But we can’t return to the ‘old normal.’
“The global tourism industry will persist after COVID-19. But it must be reimagined as, first and foremost, a public good rather than a commercial activity.”
– Susanne Becken, Professor of Sustainable Tourism and Director, Griffith Institute for Tourism, Griffith University
This is usually the part where I describe the severity of the ecological crisis we’re in and introduce the monumental challenges we must overcome to avoid disaster.
Like this expert team of researchers say in a new report entitled: “Underestimating the Challenges of Avoiding a Ghastly Future”:
“The scale of the threats to the biosphere and all its lifeforms — including humanity — is in fact so great that it is difficult to grasp for even well-informed experts.”
It’s not just that the situation is getting worse. We’re also failing to meet the critical climate targets we already set for ourselves. As it turns out, even these ‘ambitious’ goals aren’t enough to slow the extinction rate in any significant way.
The UN Sustainable Development Goals (17 in all) are rightly pointed to as an important global framework for averting climate catastrophe. But a growing number of studies reveal that the nature-based SDGs are failing to steer us away from a planetary ecological breakdown. This is “largely because most SDGs have not adequately incorporated their interdependencies with other socio-economic factors.”
“…there’s little evidence that global tourism is looking to transform.”
The 100-year pandemic that hit in 2020 is likely a consequence of these conservation failures too. If there were ever a moment to take stock of how we got here, and what we are going to do to change things, that moment would be yesterday.
But it seems, so far at least, that’s not really happening. The global tourism industry seems more interested in ramping back up to business-as-usual as fast as possible, rather than pursuing the business of making a better world.
This is especially true in the tourism industry.
“Unfortunately, there’s little evidence that global tourism is looking to transform,” says Susanne Becken, a Professor of Sustainable Tourism and Director, Griffith Institute for Tourism, Griffith University:
“The industry’s immediate focus on recovery is understandable. But the lack of a long-term environmental vision is damaging to both the industry and the planet.”
For an industry that depends so critically on the health and well-being of nature and the global community, it’s unfortunate to see it lashing itself to a self-destructive business model, at least in the long-term. But here we are, a place where short-term gains trump future well-being, both for people and business.
I don’t want to go into how the mainstream tourism industry is largely failing to step up to the social and ecological challenges of the 21st century, as many have helped provide insight into this issue. But there’s a new keyword I see being talked about more and more in the tourism industry, and I think it has promise: ‘regenerative tourism.”
“At this moment our activities are somehow disconnected from the natural world. [Take] mass tourism for example. Traveling used to be a way of exploring, a way of adventure, a way of discovery. Now, mass tourism has lost that way of adventure, and discovery, and relationships with other worlds. It’s just become entertainment…So when you travel, it really has to be a journey of purpose, meaning, discovery, adventure, exploration, and learning!…I think after Covid-19, we have turn from being tourists on this planet, to pilgrims on this planet.”
What’s regenerative tourism?
“Move Over, Sustainable Travel. Regenerative Travel Has Arrived: Can a post-vaccine return to travel be smarter and greener than it was before March 2020?”
Or so asks an August 2020 article in the New York Times by journalist Elaine Glusac.
So what’s the difference between sustainable tourism and regenerative tourism? In her NYTimes article, Gusac suggests this opening definition of regenerative tourism:
“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.”
Or take professor Jonathon Day’s definition of regenerative travel. Day, an associate professor of sustainable tourism at Purdue University, is quoted in the article distinguishing sustainable from regenerative travel like this:
“Sustainable tourism is sort of a low bar. At the end of the day, it’s just not making a mess of the place.” In contrast, “Regenerative tourism says, let’s make it better for future generations.”
Based on his research on regenerative travel, Day has created ‘the travel care code, a set of principles for travelers to keep in mind wherever they go.
However, Day also seems skeptical. On his blog, he describes ‘regenerative tourism’ more as a potentially useful new keyword to use to address key branding problems with ‘sustainable tourism,’ rather than a totally new idea. As he puts it,
“It is exciting to see this enthusiasm for regenerative tourism. If the new term helps overcome some of the challenges we have with the term ‘sustainability,’ and energizes people to act on making tourism better — great!”
What about ecotourism?
I’ve been exploring the idea of ‘regenerative tourism’ more in my own research on ecotourism media and communication about popular nature-based tourism destinations in Hawai‘i and similar eco-destinations around the world. How are tourism companies, NGOs and governments actually using the term?
Is ‘regenerative’ replacing ‘sustainable’ simply as a trendy new ‘eco-friendly’ adjective? Or is the term having a real impact on how the tourism industry is being used to repair damaged places and communities?
The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) defines ecotourism as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education.” So I’m curious how the keyword ‘regenerative’ is being used to energize something genuinely transformative. Or, potentially more likely, being used to simply ‘sustain’ business-as-usual in the tourism industry.
‘Overtourism’: A buzzword of 2017
Alongside ‘regenerative tourism,’ is another buzzword I keep seeing: “overtourism.”
I see this keyword pop up increasingly in local newspapers here in Hawai‘i, where there is growing debate about the future overtourism after Covid-19. For example, in Hawai‘i, a recent survey revealed that 2/3 of local residents agreed with this statement: “this island is being run for tourists at the expense of local people.”
“Overtourism” seems to be a growing problem around the world too. For example, on May 22, 2019, Nirmal Purja, a Nepalese mountaineer published this viral photograph from the summit of Mt. Everest. It prompted an uproar in the media about the extremely dangerous, increasing overcrowding of the mountain over the years. The traffic jam at the peak in fact led to the death of at least five climbers.
Comedian Jon Oliver even did a segment on the dangerous trend of overtourism at Everest just after the deadly congestion happened.
The future of ‘sustainable tourism’
In addition to ‘regenerative tourism,’ there’s also a growing batch of other terms being used: ‘responsible tourism,’ ‘transformative tourism,’ ‘hopeful tourism,’ ‘conscious tourism,’ ‘mindful tourism,’ ‘proximity tourism,’ and probably many others out there (“Anthropocene tourism?”).
I’m going on a bit here, and I didn’t even say anything about airlines in all of this sustainable tourism talk. But I think a good point to end on is that we should be wary of new tourism terms that try to shift all responsibility onto individuals, and their consumption habits. As climate writer Mary Annaïse Heglar puts it, “the more we focus on individual action and neglect systemic change, the more we’re just sweeping leaves on a windy day.”
I think the keyword ‘regenerative tourism’ has potential because, similar to the environmental keyword ‘degrowth,’ it focuses us on the root causes of our ecological and social crises: an unsustainable extractive economy enamored with infinite growth on a finite planet.
At its core, As Bill Reed, an architect with Regenesis Group says about regenerative tourism in the NYTimes article mentioned above, “It’s about how to regenerate our relationship with life.”
What might this ‘regenerative relationship with life’ actually look like in practice? There are some promising examples, collaborations, and initiatives out there. But whatever form the new tourism takes, simply returning to the old normal of mass, fossil-fueled tourism would be disastrous for the planet.
“We will not go back to normal. Normal never was. Our pre-corona existence was not normal other than we normalised greed, inequity, exhaustion, depletion, extraction, disconnection, confusion, rage, hoarding, hate and lack. We should not long to return, my friends. We are being given the opportunity to stitch a new garment. One that fits all of humanity and nature”