Humans have been travelling for centuries. Travel with tourism as a primary motive has only developed into one of the most important economic sectors worldwide over the past few decades. This development has not been without negative impacts. Tourism has major environmental impacts such as biodiversity loss, landscape impact, waste, and water scarcity among many others; and social impacts such as overtourism, gentrification, and social uprising to name a few. The COVID-19 pandemic has further emphasised the vulnerabilities of the tourism sector, and for some this was the window of opportunity to rethink and redefine tourism (Heslinga, 2022).
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 percent 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 (2022).
But during the pandemic, 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 now is “regenerative travel,” or “regenerative tourism” which in essence is all about “leaving a place better than you found it (Day, 2022).”
According to Jonathon Day (2022), an associate professor focused on sustainable tourism at Purdue University, “Sustainable tourism is sort of a low bar. At the end of the day, it’s just not making a mess of the place.” Sustainable tourism is oftentimes focused on sustaining current tourism activities and or limiting environmental damage and negative impacts on host communities. Avoiding the use of plastics, hiring and buying locally, using renewable energy and the like are all well-known examples. It’s not enough. If we are to resuscitate a dying economy and the natural systems that sustain all life, we have to take a completely different approach to tourism development and management. Regenerative tourism has quickly emerged as the solution, but it’s no silver bullet. It is a complete deviation from the industrial production and consumption tourism model. Embracing and fostering such change requires a shift in mindset to understand how tourism and hospitality, and the heritage, economy, and ecology of a place work together as a living system (Day, 2022).
By this point most practitioners in the tourism space understand the definition and intent of sustainable tourism, but are perhaps less familiar with the concept of “regenerative” tourism. Regenerative tourism, appearing with increasing frequency in both tourism and mainstream news feeds, refers to the attempt to solve cultural or ecological challenges at a destination, issues which have been principally generated by climate change or overtourism (Heslinga, 2022). If sustainable tourism is a more passive process – using fewer plastic water bottles or washing towels less frequently at a hotel – regenerative tourism is more vigorous, requiring stakeholders to actively improve a destination. Regenerative tourism is making a place better for future generations. Regenerative tourism and the idea of ‘building back better’ is a concept that has increasingly received attention as a new way to travel (Glusac, 200; Pollock, 2019; Postma, 2021).
To incorporate the ideas behind regenerative tourism, it is important to first find out what it actually is. So let’s start off with the definition of regenerative tourism. There is no globally accepted definition for regenerative tourism. The term has received quite some attention in the academic world and society, but what are we actually talking about? Regenerative tourism represents a sustainable way of travelling and discovering new places (Pollock, 2019).
Its main goal is for visitors to have a positive impact on their holiday destination, meaning that they leave it in a better condition than how they found it (Pollock, 2019). A concept that goes beyond “not damaging” the environment and that aims to actively revitalise and regenerate it, resulting in a positive cycle of impacts on local communities and economies: sustainable regeneration. The concept of “regenerative” travel has emerged as way for the tourism industry to rethink and redefine its role in the communities and ecosystems upon which it depends (Regenerative Travel, 2020). The term itself borrows principles from regenerative agriculture that embraces natural systems as the solution, in which it not only “does no harm” but actively regenerates and revitalizes the soil through its practices, producing positive outcomes for communities and economies. As discussed in the Future of Tourism Coalition’s recent report, Covid-19 has been devastating for the travel industry, but the one thing is has given us is time. Tourism leaders from destinations across the globe have spent a year reevaluating their assets and offerings, deciphering how to usher in a new age of travel that not only sustains, but also enhances culture, economy and the environment (Heslinga, 2022). Regenerative tourism engages governments, tourism organizations, businesses, visitors, and most importantly, local residents, in developing a new form of placemaking with an end goal of community betterment (Pollock, 2019; Regenerative Travel, 2020).
According to Bill Reed (2020), an architect and principal of Regenesis Group, “Regeneration is about restoring and then regenerating the capability to live in a new relationship in an ongoing way. It’s focused on how tourism can make destinations better for both current and future generations. It involves tourism businesses, communities, donors, and government collectively drawing upon tourism to holistically make net positive contributions to the well-being of visitors, residents, host communities, and the environment to help them flourish and create shared prosperity. There is no one size fits all approach. And, according to the regenerative tourism visionary and thought-leader, Anna Pollock (2019), it is not possible to plan or micro-manage a regenerative recovery. It is, however, possible to create the conditions that enable a living system to survive, thrive and evolve. This applies to the tourism system, and everyone involved in the value chain has a role to play (Pollock, 2020). Fortunately, a number of examples are emerging. Destinations and stakeholders around the world – from small businesses and community members working together to regenerate clear-cut rainforest and farmlands to large municipalities and countries embracing doughnut economics – are implementing regenerative recovery strategies (Heslinga, 2022; Regenerative Travel, 2020).
The idea of regeneration — renewing or restoring something — is not new, but it’s only been in the last few years that regeneration in sectors ranging from agriculture to architecture has entered the mainstream conversation (Heslinga, 2022). The concept began to surface in mainstream conversation within the tourism industry in 2019. Tourism expert Anna Pollock (2019) put regenerative tourism strongly on the agenda with Visit Flanders and the Travel to Tomorrow Summit. The COVID-19 pandemic has further emphasised the vulnerabilities of the sector and the need to rethink tourism. Over the last few months of 2021, regenerative tourism gained importance, an example is the influential article “Move Over Sustainable Travel. Regenerative Travel Has Arrived,” published by the New York Times on July 27, 2020 (Glussac, 2020).
With most travel suspended during the pandemic, regenerative travel remains at the starting gate (Heslinga, 2022). But in the post-pandemic tourism era, 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.” I will discuss later the 13 principles of regenerative tourism.
- See the whole picture: recognise that most tourism by its nature involves the destination as a whole, not only industry businesses, but also its ecosystems, natural resources, cultural assets and traditions, communities, aesthetics, and built infrastructure.
- Use sustainability standards: respect the publicly available, internationally approved minimum criteria for sustainable tourism practices maintained by the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) for both industry and destinations.
- Collaborate in destination management: seek to develop all tourism through a collaborative management structure with equal participation by government, the private sector, and civil society organisations that represent diversity in communities.
- Choose quality over quantity: manage tourism development based on quality of visitation, not quantity of visitors, so as to enhance the travel experience while sustaining the character of the destination and benefiting local communities.
- Demand fair income distribution: set policies that counter unequal tourism benefits within destination communities and that maximise retention of tourism revenues within those communities.
- Reduce tourism’s burden: account for all tourism costs in terms of local tax burdens, environmental and social impacts, and objectively verifiable disruption. Ensure investments are linked to optimising net-positive impacts for communities and the environment.
- Redefine economic success: rather than raw contribution to growth in GDP, favour metrics that specify destination benefits such as small business development, distribution of incomes, and enhancement of sustainable local supply chains.
- Mitigate climate impacts: strive to follow accepted scientific consensus on needed reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Invest in green infrastructure and a fast reduction in transport emissions involved in tourism – air, sea, and ground.
- Close the loop on resources: when post-pandemic safety allows, turn away from use of disposable plastics by tourism businesses, and transition to circular resource use.
- Contain tourism’s land use: limit high-occupancy resort tourism to concentrated areas. Discourage resort sprawl from taking over coasts, islands, and mountain areas, so as to retain geographical character, a diverse economy, local access, and critical ecosystems.
- Diversify source markets: in addition to international visitation, encourage robust domestic tourism, which may be more resilient in the face of crises and raise citizens’ perceived value of their own natural and cultural heritage.
- Protect sense of place: encourage tourism policies and business practices that protect and benefit natural, scenic, and cultural assets. Retain and enhance destination identity and distinctiveness. Diversity of place is the reason for travel.
- Operate business responsibly: incentivise and reward tourism businesses and associated enterprises that support these principles through their actions and develop strong local supply chains that allow for higher quality products and experiences.
You might be wondering how this is different from sustainable tourism. Well, if “sustainable tourism” was the jargon of yesterday, “regenerative tourism” is the industry buzzword of today (Heslinga, 2022). But the implications of regenerative tourism are more than just a temporary trend. “Regenerative tourism” is the idea that tourism should leave a place better than it was before. “Sustainability,” in comparison, is leaving something as it is so that it stays the same; in other words, not causing any extra damage. Also, in the case of sustainable tourism, this often results in what tourism expert Jasper Heslinga (2022) calls a trade-off between negative and positive impacts of tourism.
As you can see in figure as conceptualized by Bill Reed regenerative tourism is going beyond sustainable tourism.
Regenerative tourism therefore has a different goal and requires a change in our economic model and the way we look at society. There is a need to move from seeking “sustainable” growth in volume to a more qualitative development that improves human health and wellbeing through ecosystems’ health. Regenerative tourism offers an important set of solutions to rethink and rebuild the tourism industry. It also improves local economies, preserves local cultures and biodiversity while offering memorable, authentic life-changing experiences to the guests and allowing destinations to improve (Heslinga, 2022).
All stakeholders in the tourism value chain, including travellers, businesses, employees and communities have a shared responsibility in preserving the local assets and enabling the destination as a whole to develop (Active Sustainability, 2020). According to United Nations tourism can contribute to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In line with these SDGs, the United Nations has also elaborated on a set of regenerative tourism principles that draw upon nature’s wisdom, which are the following:
- Holistic understanding and living-systems approach: This is the understanding that everything is connected with everything and that the interactions between every stakeholder throughout the entire tourism value chain have an impact on each other and the entire ecosystem.
- Collaborative: This is about stimulating collaboration and partnerships between a wide range of stakeholders from government, to the private sector, to the voluntary sector, and the communities. This is different from the current competitive mindset that governs our dominant economic systems.
- Diverse by nature: Diversity in various income streams helps decrease the reliance of ecosystems and communities on tourism income. Diversifying between the different segments of the market – leisure vs. business and domestic vs. international – also helps to reduce various economic and geopolitical risks and enhances resilience.
- Inclusive and equitable: Which is about the involvement of the local communities to strengthen the overall ecosystem. This can, for example, be collaboration with local suppliers; asking around who needs rooms and space; considering supporting refugees or homeless people.
- Transformational and inspirational: This principles is about creating experiences for the guests that are life changing and that bring forward the uniqueness of each place, and about offering activities that showcase the cultural heritage, folklore, gastronomy, local landmarks and wildlife responsibly.
- Environmentally responsible: This is taking good care for the environment through the management of natural resources and biodiversity and the protection of fragile landscapes and wildlife.
- Cultural stewardship: Protection of local cultural heritage and traditions and local people who happen to be the best persons to take care of biodiversity and natural ecosystems thanks to their ancient wisdom and knowledge passed on from generation to generation.
Examples of Tourism Enterprises in the Philippines that Use the concept of Regenerative Tourism
Masungi Georeserve, Rizal
The sprawling landscape of the Masungi Georeserve is a conservation area that is a sanctuary for hundreds of native wildlife species. Take a three-hour trek on the Discovery Trail through the pathways with lush vegetation and limestone formations, walk over suspended bridges to take snapshots of your adventure, and crawl onto a spider-web view deck to get a spectacular view of the nature park and the expanse of the country’s largest lake, Laguna de Bay. Take the Legacy Trail and participate in the planting and nurturing of the trees that will be part of the reforestation of the area.
Del Carmen Mangrove Forest, Siargao Islands
While Siargao draws tourists for its surfing waves, it is also home to the country’s largest contiguous mangrove stand. The Del Carmen Mangrove Forest offers a boat tour that takes travelers along the brackish waters that cover around 4,871 hectares that hosts 27 out of the 70 mangrove species in the world. This is the habitat of rare and endangered flora and fauna, most especially the endangered Crocodylus Porosus or Saltwater crocodile. While the local communities have taken to cutting these mangroves for firewood out of economic necessity, they are now finding new livelihoods from tourism, fishing, crab harvesting, and seaweed farming. They are being taught the value of protecting their mangroves so that their benefits will be enjoyed by the generations to come.
Dolphin Watching, Bohol
As tourists, we can enjoy a day out at sea to watch the marine life in the clear blue waters of Pamilacan Island in Bohol. Visitors can catch various species of dolphins and whales such as Risso’s, Spinner, Bottlenose, Spotted, Bryde’s, sperm whales, pilot whales, melon-headed whales, pygmy killer whales, and even blue whales splash around in their playground. Sustainable tourism in the area has helped keep dolphins and whales safer from commercial fishing. In the past years, the waters off the island’s shores are prime fishing waters for whale hunters who saw the activity as a source of income. Through marine preservation laws, community education and involvement, and using tourism as an alternative source of livelihood, whaling boats are now used as a comfortable ride for tourists on whale and dolphin-watching trips. The boatmen are now tour guides and champions of marine conservation and preservation.
Kayaking at Big Lagoon and Small Lagoon, El Nido, Palawan
Palawan is a paradise for kayakers, with placid waters along El Nido’s lagoons and coves that are teeming with marine life in crystal clear water. Kayaking through the limestone formations at the Small Lagoon and the Big Lagoon on Miniloc Island is an unforgettable, surreal experience. To help protect the ecological balance of its popular destinations, the local government has introduced measures such as enforcing a carrying capacity policy for the lagoons. Motorized boats are barred from anchoring at the entrance of the Small Lagoon and from entering the Big Lagoon, except those issued with special permits for carrying persons with disabilities, senior citizens, and pregnant women.
Nay Palad Resort, Siargao
Nestled between the lush mangrove forests and soft supple sand on the island of Siargao lies a secret sanctuary, Nay Palad Hideaway. This boutique eco-luxury hotel is the embodiment of a dream that owners Herve Lampert and Bobby Dekeyser envisioned together over a decade ago. From early origins as DEDON, a furniture company, their concept of an “outdoor living room” came to life through the creation of an island resort that showcased their values and aesthetic as a brand. Brought to life in collaboration with designers Daniel Pouzet and Jean-Marie Massaud, Nay Palad Hideaway’s architecture blends ancestral traditions and local craftsmanship with world-class hospitality to create an oasis for family, friends and travelers alike. From its inception, the owner’s love for nature permeated through the build and design of the hotel, reflecting its core belief in sustainability and preservation of the environment surrounding the property. Through the support of the local government and an active mentorship from The Long Run, Nay Palad Hideaway has been able to develop partnerships with local fishermen to reduce and eventually stop dynamite fishing in the area. The property now supports a thriving marine ecosystem and biodiverse island through the protection of the mangrove forest. Regular coastal cleanups help protect endangered turtles and fish, while mangrove-planting conserves the delicate ecology that makes this enchanting island so special. In addition, the hideaway supports The Medical Mission to improve the health of thousands of children on the island as well as local schools, including Malinao Elementary School.
As the world begins to recover from the global pandemic and the resulting economic losses, the tourism industry and destinations worldwide have an unprecedented opportunity to help recover in an impactful way and the use of regenerative tourism principles will surely help. In fact, the Transformational Travel Council (TTC) recently announced a program called the Transformative Destinations Program, which aims to help destinations co-create a strategic action plan to guide the implementation of a regenerative-based recovery from COVID-19. Using a regenerative tourism process and principles, this program is designed to improve the well-being of a destination’s communities and environment and help them flourish.
A recent article on The Good Tourism Blog by Loretta Bellato, she said that regenerative tourism is not an emerging niche in the industry, in the way adventure or gastro-tourism are niches, but rather is a holistic way of thinking in which all stakeholders build reciprocal, beneficial relationships. As Bellato explains, this approach to travel seeks to actively improve social and environmental systems and align everything towards sustaining the planet so that all beings can flourish.
Regenerative tourism offers a groundbreaking set of solutions to rethink and rebuild the tourism industry in a way that builds long-lasting capabilities and strengthen resilience for its direct and indirect stakeholders during and beyond the crisis. It also revitalizes local economies, preserves local cultures and biodiversity while offering memorable, authentic transformative experiences to the guests and allowing destinations to flourish (Laurent and Martin-Rios, 2022).
The time has come for all of us in the tourism industry to be encouraged to strengthen our agility and resilience that is grounded in a deeper understanding of the complex ecosystems in which we operate and a sense of the interconnectedness of all life. The successful recovery of the industry calls for new narratives and business practices that encourage a complete shift and new leadership norms (Laurent and Martin-Rios, 2022).
The challenge is, are we up for it?
This was part of the lecture I delivered at the University of Perpetual Help System Molino when they invited me to be their Resource Person during their celebration of the World Tourism Day 2022.