Brian T. Mullis, a destination management, development and marketing specialist who is passionate about community-led conservation and regenerative tourism, shares how everyone has a role to play in taking regenerative tourism to scale.
The travel and tourism sector is at a pivotal moment in its evolution. There are those who believe things will return to normal – or a new normal – once vaccines become widely available. And there are those who recognize the need for radical change. This group cites all the evidence illustrating that the pace of global change is increasing and the existing economic system is failing due to inherent flaws made evident by an obsession with continuous growth and the culture around how many define success. Tourism cannot grow ad infinitum and remain largely unaccountable for its externalities. The good news is that it doesn’t need to. We can build tourism back better through regenerative tourism. Tourism can regenerate cultural heritage, communities and degraded ecosystems, and support their recovery.
Evolving Beyond Sustainable Tourism to Regenerative Tourism
Tourism has inherent negative environmental impacts and is extractive in nature when it’s not well-managed. 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.
There is no globally accepted definition for regenerative tourism. 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, 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.
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.
Looking at Tourism as a Living System
The experience between a host and visitor is the essence of tourism. It all centers on the interconnection between people and places. Therefore, it makes sense to look at how to scale regenerative tourism at a destination level from the perspective of travelers, tourism enterprises and communities.
Starting with travelers, it doesn’t matter what research you look at from the last decade, the number of travelers who are making travel decisions based on their personal values is increasing. The latest research from Booking.com found that in the U.S. alone, 69% of travelers identify sustainable travel as important to them, and 53% are planning to make sustainable choices when looking to travel again in the future. While more are avoiding flying to reduce their own environmental footprints, those with the desire to travel via plane will increasingly be able to justify long-haul flights if they can help regenerate the places they visit.
Imagine if more of the hospitality sector committed to supporting regenerative agriculture and habitat restoration on their properties and in the communities they serve. Ecosystem Restoration Camps is working with 37 tourism enterprises around the world to restore and renew the basic natural function of degraded land, so that life can return, increasing biodiversity and ecosystem services in the process. It involves a hands-on approach and direct-action from travelers. The Via Organica Ranch in San Miguel de Allande, Mexico, is one of their partners developing working models of how farmers can regenerate rural landscapes and rural livelihoods, on every continent, in every nation.
The ranch is itself a working model for how 75 hectares of once degenerated farmland and pastureland can become a regeneration hub in the semi-arid highlands of Mexico, producing nutritious regenerative organic vegetables, herbs, fruits, seeds, and animal products for several thousand people. Visitors learn different organic and regenerative farming/land rehabilitation techniques including biointensive gardening, compost making, seed-saving, and tree-planting. Their plan is to revegetate the desertified landscapes of Mexico, the southern US, and beyond, with a polyculture of mesquite, nopal and agave plants, all native to Mexico.
Putting Communities at the Heart of Tourism
Communities have always been at the heart of tourism, but haven’t been treated that way. There is a need to move the power to the people by investing in community building and developing their capacity to use tourism to improve resident well-being. This requires a shift from centralized power to inclusion and decentralized empowerment. Guyana, which is increasingly becoming known for community-led and owned tourism, offers an inspiring example.
Throughout Guyana, several Indigenous communities own and operate their own eco-lodges. Rewa Village is one of them. Tourism economically benefits every community member and enables the community to protect the ecosystem it depends on, which has a local and global benefit. This community, which is home to more than 300 inhabitants, also manages a large conservation area of 350 square kilometers (271 square miles). This pristine rainforest ecosystem absorbs more than 70,000 tons of CO2 per year. Each traveler that visits generates about 2.8 tons of CO2 per person, including international and domestic flight emissions. With 200 travelers per year, this equates to 560 tons of CO2 per year.
This is one small example that illustrates how travel can create net positive community and environmental benefits. The model applies to large municipalities as well. Doughnut economics is a framework that supports regenerative tourism, combining the concept of planetary boundaries with the complementary concept of social boundaries that is designed to foster shared prosperity locally and globally. It, and similar models, are being embraced by an increasing number of communities from Amsterdam and Berlin to Philadelphia and Portland.
Imagine if the enabling environment for private and community protected areas improved in countries worldwide, helping to revitalize ecosystems and increase biodiversity and ecosystem services.
There are numerous examples of how tourism in Africa has been designed to support regenerative outcomes. The Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT) represents one of them. The 15-year-old NRT has a growing membership of 39 community conservancies covering 4.4 million hectares, across 10 counties in northern Kenya. 15 years ago much of the land in this region was used for unsustainable free-range livestock grazing. Local communities were not actively managing the health of their rangelands. That coupled with climate change severely degraded the rangelands and fragmented the ecosystem. NRT, through the community conservancies, is working to reverse the trend through active restoration and management of the rangelands to strengthen resilience. Local communities are now actively managing their rangelands.
NRT-member conservancies now provide vital range and landscape connectivity for critically endangered and endangered wildlife, and in some cases host a large proportion of their national or global populations. Populations of eight endangered large mammals have been stabilized and four of the eight are growing. These include hirola, black rhino, Tana River red colobus, Tana crested mangabey, African wild dog, Grevy’s zebra, reticulated giraffe and Beisa oryx and two endangered sea turtles; green and hawksbill turtles.
NRT’s success led to community conservancies being recognized under the Kenya Wildlife Conservation and Management Act 2013, which exemplifies the important role communities and private landowners are playing in protecting and conserving Kenya’s wildlife outside formal protected areas. The majority of Kenya’s wildlife now resides on local communities’ and private landowners’ lands.
Going to Scale
Now imagine destinations using Indigenous knowledge to build back better. It’s happening. Leading destinations like Hawai’i and New Zealand are embracing regenerative tourism to support a regenerative recovery from the pandemic and manage the inherent risks associated with climate change. Leadership in these destinations understand the need for a holistic and participatory process based on shared values. There’s also an increasing understanding that creating the conditions to unlock the potential unique to each individual, business and community will enable them to realize their own unique potential, so they can contribute to the health and well-being of the whole.