Regenerative tourism

We explore what is regenerative tourism and how we make tourism regenerative.

Source: Poem by Elvie Bowman, Lady Barron General Store, Flinders Island, 2021.


Over the last few weeks, as we begin the consultation process, one thing has become abundantly clear: most people understand at a deep level the idea of regeneration. Regeneration is the process of renewal, re-generating, and becoming whole and balanced once again. As we talked to the community on Flinders Island, we noticed time and time again that the word 'regenerative' is well understood. The changing views of Mt Strezleki, the dominance of weather as the organising feature of life, and the gentle hues of nature's colour palette are a constant reminder of the regenerative forces of nature. It's the word 'tourism' that gets many people tied up in a knot. So we thought what better place to start than by exploring regenerative tourism.


What is regenerative tourism?


Regenerative tourism is a term that is increasingly used to signify a big shift in thinking about how tourism should be managed. Like anything new, especially something that that involves significant change, understandings of regenerative tourism can vary. But as case studies and research come to light, further clarity will emerge. This project has enormous potential to be the lighthouse for regenerative tourism, and for the community to shape what it is, and how we might implement it.


But we should also be cautious. There is growing misuse of the term for the purposes of greenwashing, a tactic used by business and marketing organisations to appear environmentally friendly without contributing to meaningful action. In other words, talking the talk without walking the walk. That's why it is important to adopt an authentic, ground up, community-led approach to regenerative tourism.


In this introductory post, we outline the term and what it means. In subsequent posts, we will build a deeper understanding of the term as it relates to Flinders Island. We will do this by using the feedback you provide, case studies from elsewhere, workshops, and other data.


At its simplest, regenerative tourism is about visitors and the tourism sector giving back more than it takes from the environment and communities. It's about visitors leaving a place better off than it was, and by adopting an approach to tourism that is community-led, place-based, and environment-centred.


The shift in thinking


It sometimes helps to contrast regenerative tourism with the traditional approach to help sharpen understanding. The current approach to tourism relies on a number of assumptions:

  1. Tourism relies on assets and resources that it does not own, such as nature, a welcoming host community ready to serve, and infrastructure such as roads, public amenities, and airports.

  2. Tourism assumes there are unlimited natural and community resources to use, and that any degradation of resources is not the responsibility of the industry.

  3. The impacts of tourism can be solved by using public investment or technology.

  4. The aim of tourism is to generate growth in visitors and visitor expenditure and to attract investment.

  5. The community should be in service of tourism and the benefits of tourism will trickle down.

Regenerative tourism flips this thinking and reverses these assumptions:

  1. Tourism should take into account all the resources it uses, including tangible and intangible public resources, and individuals and communities that may not have given their consent but are affected.

  2. Tourism should ensure that social and environmental resources are not exploited and that it is the responsibility of the sector to protect the sustainability and long term well-being of those resources.

  3. Instead of looking for external fixes, the impacts of tourism can be addressed by looking inside ourselves, changing the expectations placed on the community and the environment, and working with them as collaborative partners, not resources to exploit.

  4. The aim of tourism does not have to be growth but on the wellbeing and flourishing of places and health and wellbeing of community and nature.

  5. Tourism should serve the needs of the community, for there can be no healthy tourism activity without a healthy community or environment.


Importantly, building a new relationship with tourism, where nature, the community and the economy can support each other, requires both a shift in both mindsets and the way the tourism system operates. Regenerative tourism also shifts business culture away from an extractive to a generative model, where the role of different kinds of capital are acknowledged and responsibility is taken for their replenishment. These include:

  • Natural capital - the natural environment and its ecosystems

  • Human capital - human capability, creative capacity

  • Cultural capital - values, sense of responsibility, stories

  • Social capital - community connectedness, cohesion, political action

  • Financial capital - economic and financial resources

  • Built capital - infrastructure, buildings, community amenities


Origins


The term 'regeneration' has been often used in the context of agriculture. Regenerative agriculture focuses on the health of soils, the very basis of life. Regenerative agriculture adopts principles and practices that seek to rehabilitate and enhance the entire ecosystem of the farm by placing emphasis on soil health, water management, carbon capture, and more. It is a method of farming that improves the resources it uses, rather than destroying or depleting them. Regenerative principles have been applied in diverse areas as architecture, ecology and economics.


We can also apply the same principles in tourism. However, the concept of regenerative tourism has been a ‘slow burn’ in the tourism industry, which typically continues to focus on growth. However, regenerative tourism is being adopted as the way forward for a number of places across the world that are grappling with the environmental and community impacts of tourism, including Bay of Plenty (New Zealand), Flanders (Belgium), Hawai'i (USA) and the Faroe Islands.


Why regenerative tourism?


There are several reasons why regenerative tourism is gaining momentum:

  1. Regenerative tourism generates a new and different kind of value in tourism. Instead of focusing only on economic value (and specifically expenditure and profit), regenerative tourism also produces value for communities and nature. This value could be tangible or intangible, it could accrue directly to individuals, to communities or to nature. The question is, what kind of value, what kind of positive contribution do you, as the community, want visitors to make?

  2. Regenerative tourism honours the values and the special qualities of local places; it is about creating a careful balance of interests between residents, visitors and business, and the shared environment in which they live, work and recreate.

  3. Regenerative tourism puts aside the pursuit of traditional economic metrics and in its place adopts a more holistic approach. It recognises that tourism relies on the natural and social capital of places as a whole and that both tangible and intangible (and unquantifiable) changes to these elements must be taken into account so that the special qualities of place can be protected.

  4. Regenerative tourism also asks us to adopt personal responsibility for the actions we take as hosts, as members of the wider community, as businesses, and as visitors. We should leave the place in a better condition than we found it, and we should respect the right of future generations to enjoy this place.

Regenerative tourism is not about one-off initiatives, although these can sometimes be important. It is not about ticking boxes, phasing out plastics, or deciding to plant some trees. It is a holistic approach where small and sustained actions framed around regenerative tourism principles contribute to building strong, resilient communities and addressing environmental challenges.


How do we make tourism regenerative?


If you are looking here for a step by step approach to how we can implement regenerative tourism, then you will be disappointed. Regenerative tourism is based on what we call an "emergent approach". An emergent approach reveals itself as we lean into the conversations, collect evidence and data, and we listen to those who know the Island better than anyone - the community. It is a journey into the co-design of tourism for the mutual benefit of all stakeholders - human and nature-based. It requires a shift in our mindsets which involve working with hearts, heart and instinct; being comfortable with uncertainty; the ability to draw from diverse knowledge, across silos and stakeholder groups; and the trust and confidence that the 'right' people with the right mix of creative problem-solving skills are involved in the process.


(The emergent approach we are taking is very different from the strategic management practices that have created the current challenge. We will cover this in a future post).


But that said, there are three simple rules we can apply in our pursuit of regenerative principles:

  1. Design out the negative impacts and exploitative impacts of tourism

  2. Design in actions that help our natural and social capitals to regenerate

  3. Shift mindsets by disrupting traditional ways, becoming aware of blindspots and blinkers and connecting across boundaries.


What is important right now, is that regenerative tourism is defined and given meaning by the community. As stewards of this extraordinary, untamed Island, it's the community that lives with and listens to nature and is witness to both the positive and negative impacts of tourism on the community and the environment. For this reason, a regenerative approach to tourism cannot exist without the community, who are, after all, are the stewards and custodians of this extraordinary Island.


Regenerative tourism inspiration


We are weary to claim anything is 'regenerative' at this early stage, but some inspiring examples of where regenerative tourism principles have been adopted include the following:


Earth Rhythms, a Canadian company dedicated to fostering travel conversations and custom immersive experiences with creative people in out-of-the-way places.


The Tourism Colab, collaborating with the Tourism Education Futures Initiative (TEFI), and CBT Travel and Consulting (a registered social enterprise in Vietnam) ran a walking workshop combining learning and knowledge-sharing about social entrepreneurship. The goal was to build capacity in both the local community and participants.


Bay of Plenty, New Zealand, produced a plan "The Love of Tourism" based on regenerative principles. Tourism helps our region flourish. It regenerates (not extracts) helping make the region a better place over time. Visitors are welcomed, on our terms, and the experience transforms them as they respectfully and authentically share (Kristin Dunne, 2019)

 

If you would like to comment or provide a reflection on this post, please email us at contact@islanderway.co We are collecting and collating all feedback that will feed into the regenerative tourism journey.