With COVID all but shutting down international travel for months on end and threatening over 120 million jobs globally (per the World Travel and Tourism Council), many are talking about how to rethink travel for when people are ready to venture out again. Places that have heavy tourist flows, such as Venice, and places that have been subject to severe environmental and cultural degradation—many are undergoing very public reckonings on the subject.
Why Rethink Tourism?
Here are a few of the ills that this $3T global industry brings: air travel accounts for 3% of global carbon emissions and is projected to grow. Cruise ships unload hordes of visitors who all go to the same few destinations, clogging up sites and requiring touristic infrastructure like parking lots and trinket shops that are unsightly and burdensome to locals. Airbnb rentals have cut into housing stock that formerly belonged to residents, leading to rent hikes and bidding wars. Even the quality of the jobs created is a matter for dispute—for every chef genius who attracts foodie tourists from around the world, there are many low-wage service jobs needed that often don’t include benefits and are poorly regulated by governments. Those governments are often more focused on increasing the flow of tourists than securing the well-being of local labor.
Though tour buses and cruises still ply the major sightseeing paths, a vibrant sub-economy of sustainable travel has unfolded over the past few decades. It's part of the economic shift from buying things to buying "experiences." The perfect locavore meal. The vineyard bike trail. The nighttime ghost tour. Ecotourism, a niche segment focused on bringing visitors close to nature while promoting conservation and harmonious balance, is a growing niche sector. We’ve also seen the growth of voluntourism, where visitors might go to a far-flung location and, instead of just lying on the beach, spend time cleaning up plastic litter or working on a farm or helping build a potable water system. While these movements have remained on the fringe of tourism, they have been influential to the larger industry, though some have problems of their own (volunteering can, in some cases, disrupt local economies with free labor or philanthropy instead of stimulating local economic growth).
Regenerative Tourism's Ambitions
There’s a new buzzword out there: regenerative tourism, with a whole international council of major corporations and national tourist boards backing it. Check out the website for more information. Here are some of the commitments they are pledging that up the ante of sustainable travel:
- Meaningful contribution to the physical and financial well-being of a place
- Reduction of environmental impact and use of sustainability standards to measure progress
- Fair distribution of wealth among participants, including locals
- Quality of tourist experience over quantity of tourists
Needless to say, we are long past worrying about the environmental impact of the little plastic shampoo bottles they give out at hotels.
The leap from sustainable travel to regenerative travel challenges travelers to rethink how we ‘consume’ what we see and learn and eat—what we gain from travel, why we do it at all.
It’s a pivot to thinking about what we are leaving behind when we leave, and we can’t just aim for leaving behind a light footprint, or a plastic-free footprint. We must leave behind a footprint that is intentional and leaves a place better than we found it.
Regenerative Tourism in Practice
Before I list some concerns, or nuances that regenerative tourism will need to take on to be successful, I think there are some really exciting components of this framework that would lead to outsize benefits if implemented:
- Commitment to sustainability—like with many other industries, tourism’s pace of adopting environmentally-friendly practices is frustratingly slow
- Focus on community benefits and equity—many locals in tourist destinations, e.g. Hawaii, feel like second class citizens. That’s plain unfair, but it’s also bad for business for locals to feel resentful toward visitors.
- Development of hyper-local infrastructure. This means restaurants sourcing food from local farms, and hiring talent from nearby neighborhoods. Investing in the place you’re traveling to—not the global tourism economy—leads to returns that locals will benefit from, too
- Stewardship of the land: Share the beach with locals and the animals—no more beachside resorts that keep locals off; no more bright lights at night that disrupt turtle nesting season
- Tourism for international and domestic tourists: safari with locals, lounge at the pool with islanders
How to Make Regenerative Tourism Successful
Okay, now here goes. As this theory continues to develop, here are some areas that still need to be solved:
First, quality over quantity is a not-so-subtle dig against mass tourism, the sort of hit-and-run, highlights-tour visits where thousands of people descend onto historical landmarks or shopping districts to have a look, take a photo, and then get out of town before dark—and the next day, another round of short-term visitors who hop from site to site and then split. That’s not a little bit elitist of a stance to have for an industry supported by the masses. Mass tourism has been an incredible mechanism for people of lesser means to visit places they could otherwise never, to connect with cultures and ways of life, and to potentially bring principles or aesthetics home. The local problems mass tourism causes are well documented, and they range from environmental degradation to physical changes in the landscape—a parking lot added next to an ancient site, for example. But the idea that tourism should be limited to the wealthy, those who can pay more for meaningful experiences (let’s face it, a cruise ship full of people can’t have meaningful experiences with locals if they outnumber the local population), is neither practical nor fair.
If regenerative travel is serious about widespread adoption, it needs to figure out how to make travel sustainable for all.
While everyone agrees looking at growth in visitors as the sole measure of success is no longer viable, I’d throw out looking at length of stay as a measurement of increased importance—asking mass tourism to swap a packed itinerary for longer stints at fewer places is a compromise to consider. Why? If you look at ten thousand mass tourists in a city on a single day, if all ten thousand are in town for just one day, they’re all going to be heading straight for the main attraction. If those ten thousand people are staying for three days, or five, those visits to the main attraction will be spread out. They’ll have additional days in town, time to have other experiences and get to know a place better. The longer you stay, the more you’ll be spreading your dollar to locals, not to mention having meaningful conversations and exchanges with locals.
That’s just one suggestion of compromise needed to expand the umbrella of regenerative travel to more people. But this is a multifaceted, intractable crisis, and we need to put all sorts of ideas on the table.
Another challenge I foresee for these tourism boards is how to get specific on what regenerative changes look like on the ground. What does a regenerative footprint look like? What if you already direct tourism dollars to locals? Plenty of places have financing mechanisms such as tourist taxes or entry fees that help offload the burden of tourism. Not to mention, vested interests, of which locals benefitting from the current system form a large part. How do you grapple with Airbnbs in Venice helping fund local homeowners while simultaneously raising the rents for all of the other locals?
What can't be ignored, is how to figure out the tremendous carbon emissions of air travel. Offsets are not enough. Serious commitment to clean air travel, expanded rail, micromobility (biking and scooter) options on location. These all take investment dollars. But this is an industry that has the heft to make that commitment.
Many more solutions will be needed, and most will be at the local level. Ultimately, truly changing the way tourism operates globally will require commitment from everyone, and tourism is not a monolith. Local issues vary widely: developed places are more likely to be wrestling with overtourism, while developing places may not have the necessary environmental controls or equitable distribution framework for locals to share in wealth generation. To get this off the ground, many more stakeholders must sign on to the initiative so that all of these segments of the travel industry have representation and all can share in the solution.