Is Regenerative Tourism Better and Smarter? Move over Sustainable Tourism.

Is Regenerative Tourism Better and Smarter?
Credit: Dr. Susanne Becken & Canopy Tours


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Last year on September 27th, we celebrated World Tourism Day – ‘Tourism and Jobs: A Better Future For All’ – to foster awareness among the global community of tourism’s social, cultural, political and economic value and the contribution the sector can make in reaching the Sustainable Development Goals. According to the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC), 2019 was another year of strong growth for the global Travel & Tourism sector, reinforcing its role as a driver of economic growth and job creation with an annual growth of 3.5%, outpacing the global economy growth of 2.5% for the ninth consecutive year.

Here at NOW, we are confused and concerned as to why many in the Travel Industry lagged behind on their commitment to rigorous sustainability which NOW defines as development and actions that takes responsibility for total economic, environmental and social impacts on communities and the planet. To be credible, it needs to be accountable and transparent; and to be trust-worthy, it needs an independent annual audit.

Regenerative Tourism is not about going ‘beyond sustainability’ as some organisations are pitching, it is a part of a rigorous sustainability commitment that can make tourism better and stronger. How can we advance sustainability towards regeneration in tourism and who is leading by example? So we asked Dr. Susanne Becken, a Professor of Sustainable Tourism at Griffith University in Australia, a VC Research Fellow at University of Surrey in the UK, and the Principal Science Investment Advisor in the New Zealand Department of Conservation. Susanne is a globally recognised expert in the field of sustainability & tourism, in particular climate change, resource management, resilience, and environmental behaviour.

Today we observe World Tourism Day during a critical moment, as the total number of Covid-19 cases confirmed across the world has reached over 30 million with over 960,000 deaths and 21 million recovered. This year’s theme is ‘Tourism and Rural Development’ and the unique role that tourism plays in providing opportunities outside of big cities and preserving cultural and natural heritage all around the world.

Credit: Szabolcs Toth

Many countries around the world look to tourism to drive recovery, but until the economy recovers, there’s likely to be less international travel and more local, slower travel by train, boat, car, bike or walking. As the trillion dollar tourism industry plans its post-vaccine recovery during an enforced pause as Covid-19 surges and declines, we must ask ourselves some difficult questions and make a life-affirming choice: to be part of the problem that extracts and exploits, or to be part of the solution towards sustainability that is better and regenerates, replenishes and restores what we have damaged, build economies and communities that thrive, while allowing the planet to thrive as well.

Here at NOW, we are confused and concerned as to why many in the travel industry lagged behind in taking responsibility for their total impacts on communities and the environment? How can we advance sustainability towards regeneration in tourism and who is leading by example? So we asked Dr. Susanne Becken, a Professor of Sustainable Tourism at Griffith University in Australia, a VC Research Fellow at University of Surrey in the UK, and the Principal Science Investment Advisor in the New Zealand Department of Conservation. Susanne is a globally recognised expert in the field of sustainability & tourism, in particular climate change, resource management, resilience, and environmental behaviour.

What is Regenerative Tourism and how is it different from Sustainable Tourism?

Regenerative tourism or leaving a place better than you found it seeks to balance the economics of tourism with the well-being of its natural resources and communities. It is better and smarter than sustainable tourism which typically aims to reduce the social and environmental impacts associated with travel, but often fails to consider to actively ‘give back’ and contribute to a destination.

Credit: Gijs Coolen

There are different approaches in tourism – eco tourism, responsible tourism, ethical tourism or sustainable tourism. Sustainable tourism has been the most widely accepted concept, and it is firmly linked to the UN Sustainable Development Goals. In practice, however, sustainable tourism initiatives have often been based on technological approaches with the aim to maximise efficiency. For example, a hotel might install a new air conditioning chiller to save energy, or a business introduces recycling measures to deliver on some environmental performance indicators. The focus is quite singular and restricted to the boundaries of one organisation. It follows the principle of minimising harm or negative impact, and most tourism certification schemes take this approach. Of course, if everyone progressed on sustainable tourism, we would improve collectively towards better outcomes.

It is now understood that the reductionist approach is not enough. The pressures of the past five years in particular have shown that tourism growth, even with some ‘sustainable management’ can result in more ‘bad than good’, at least in many of the popular destinations (e.g. community resentment, see Mood of the Nation). A more profound philosophy and guiding principles are required. The very basic underpinning of regenerative tourism is that it is understood to occur within an ecosystem of natural, social and cultural elements and interactions. Taking a holistic approach is essential in understanding positive effects (e.g. healing) as well as unintended consequences (e.g. degradation). Everything is connected, and tourism that does not respect or understand feedback loops in the system in which it operates will ultimately erode capital – and with that the wellbeing and health of the system.

Credit: Zoe Schaeffer

Regenerative tourism, in contrast, is designed in a way that builds capital and ‘gives back’ to the land and people. This can happen in multiple ways – but system health needs to be the ultimate outcome with the goal of operating in a way that does not compromise the opportunities of future generations (i.e. following the 1987 Brundtland Report).

Is Regenerative Tourism already happening?

In New Zealand, there are many operators that already go beyond simple in-house ‘sustainability fixes’. For example, and as advocated in the Tourism Industry Aotearoa Sustainability Commitment, many tourism operators have become involved in predator control programs to support the Predator Free 2050 Vision, or they engage in other forms of nature restoration and tree planting (e.g. Ziptrek Ecotours in Queenstown).

There are other excellent examples where tourism businesses support social causes, including through specifically setting up social enterprises such as Kohutapu Lodge in Murupara. Kohutapu Lodge offers local employment, supports schools with food provisions and acts as a nucleus for other entrepreneurial activities in the region. The introduction of the Te Reo language pin and bilingual inflight quiz by Air New Zealand supported revival of Māori language and cultural appreciation more broadly. It can be argued that in all of the above examples, tourism is making some contribution towards a thriving environment, community and culture.

At a larger scale, the New Zealand Government has introduced an International Visitor Levy ($35 per arrival) which largely funds conservation projects. Whilst the levy is now essentially on hold due to lack of arrivals, the fundamental idea resonates well with regenerative tourism. It also aligns with the initiative of the Tiaki Promise, a code for travellers to respect and cherish the New Zealand environment and people. The Tiaki Promise could and should be extended to the hosts and, indeed, every New Zealander to take seriously the principle of kaitiakitanga that everyone in this country can contribute to.

Much of what we can see ‘on the ground’ is driven by leading businesses who are passionate about the place in which they operate. It is important that policy supports these efforts, but also ensures that the ‘lagging end’ is regulated or incentivised to increase their efforts. Mandatory carbon reporting schemes (e.g. in the United Kingdom or France) might be one policy that would lead to reduced impacts, or enforced technological change might be another. An example is Norway’s policy that fjords become zero emissions by 2026, forcing cruise ships to drastically change their practices. Ultimately, though, regenerative tourism happens at the community level and needs to go beyond such top-down regulatory interventions. Empowering communities to make decisions, providing know-how and sound information (including data on tourism), and fostering cross-industry networks might be avenues to lead to more regenerative outcomes.

As we rethink the value of tourism, where to from here?

Just like in agriculture and forestry, we need to move away from the notion of mass production and economies of scale to a focus on higher value products. Less could be more. Importantly, in the tourism context value is not necessarily just measured in dollar terms. Strengthening of social fabrics due to tourism activity in rural environments, diversification of incomes (e.g. farm stays or glamping), integration of local economies (e.g. food trails and farmer markets), restored environments, and so forth, could all be measures of success in a thriving tourism sector. Staying longer in one place (rather than ticking off ‘iconic places’) might be one strategy to reduce impacts and at the same time increase the value of experiences. Creating emotional attachment to places via memorable experiences is one important factor in driving not only return visitation but also to foster care and attachment to a particular place. More research is needed into how tourism can contribute to local and national well-being and prosperity.

Credit: Nandu Menon

Covid-19 provides a unique opportunity to reassess how much tourism we want in our countries and what form it should take. Government needs to set up a Future Tourism Taskforce to address some of the key questions and challenges. The core idea must be to move away from an extractive model to a regenerative one. How this can be achieved will be a learning process, one that New Zealand might be leading in the world as several other destinations grapple with the same issues. Drawing on Te Ao Māori philosophy and Mātauranga Māori (traditional concepts of knowledge and knowing) will provide a unique advantage to New Zealand in developing an alternative model for tourism.

This current crisis also stimulates (or imposes) new approaches that lead to different alliances and networks, shifts in supply and demand, and the way we do business. The movement of regenerative tourism would benefit from close cooperation with similar initiatives around regenerative agriculture or forestry, or indeed regenerative economies more broadly (e.g. see urban regeneration). After all, all these activities are inter-linked within the place they happen and depend on each other’s efforts to contribute to regeneration.

Connecting thinking with practice is essential. So-called shoulder-to-the-wheel actions need to be supported by a range of mechanisms. These could be Government-led incentive programs (e.g. for innovation), they could take the form of information and education campaigns, or business-to-business networks. The Government’s investment into Jobs for Nature provides an opportunity to ‘pick up learnings’ from the massive investments made, including how tourism operators involved in these programs might change their views on nature, how they might translate their restoration experiences into permanent business value propositions, and how alliances created as part of the program might outlive the three-year investment timeframe to provide permanent networks.

Given that New Zealand’s focus will be on domestic and closer markets in the near to medium-term future, now is the time to rethink ‘value’ and ‘product’. Developing new opportunities for local travellers might present long-term shifts in the type of tourism we offer. For example, local trails (heritage, food, other types of special interest activities) will slow down travel, especially as they might be offered as walking or biking activities. Investment into local, small-scale but unique experiences might have multi-dimensional benefits. Measuring success will require more research (a call to all academics in tourism) and better data, but just like precision farming, the investment is likely to pay off as tourism activity will occur with more purpose and ‘by design’ rather than as a result of churn and volume.

Credit: Kevin Benkenstein

How can companies supporting Regenerative Tourism be made more accountable and transparent?

Those committed to Regenerative Tourism are driven by making a wider difference rather than just focusing on their own operational sustainability. The key question to ask is whether the travel has resulted in greater benefits than damage. Carbon offsetting is a good start as it essentially ‘levels’ the impact in the sense of compensation. It does not actively create any good.

To be more accountable and transparent around sustainability, the number one action would be to measure and disclose. Number two would be to think beyond their own business. For example, if a hotel in Fiji is reducing their carbon emissions, but proactively marketing to attract European tourists with a huge carbon footprint then there is some inconsistency. Similarly, a hotel might pay their staff better-than-minimum wage, but do nothing to contribute to the wider local economy by choosing to import from overseas … maybe because it is cheaper or because it is products they prefer, rather than using local equivalents.

View other articles by Professor Susanne Becken:

Overtourism: The Canary in the Coal Mine


NOW Travel Diaries

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