Unlocking the Power of Communities and Nature Through Tourism

Written byLaura Field

Our webinar explored our latest white paper on Climate Action Through Regeneration: Unlocking the Power of Communities and Nature Through Tourism.

We looked at how businesses and individuals can contribute to combating climate change by implementing nature-based solutions in alignment with the Glasgow Declaration and its principles. The convening happened in partnership with the University of Edinburgh and Solimar International.

This convening was hosted by Amanda Ho, CEO of Regenerative Travel and O’Shannon Burns, Senior Sustainability Consultant and Co-author of the white paper.

Chloe King was a graduate student who approached Regenerative Travel looking to collaborate on her research exploring the connection between nature-based solutions in tourism and regenerative tourism.

At the time, O’Shannon was working closely with RT member hotels and others and noticed that small businesses were interested in climate action and wanted to participate but were looking for more practical frameworks to help support and implement their climate action. She noticed there was an interest in providing a practical framework on implementing nature-based solutions in the tourism sector. 

Chloe was asking: Can tourism be an effective way to manage and facilitate nature-based solutions? What factors make a tourism-based solution regenerative?


Chloe King, Solimar International

Irshad Mobarak, The Datai Pledge 

Emsee Kooijman, Trinity College Dublin and Horizon Nua

Adam Thalhath, Six Senses Laamu

A look underwater at Six Senses Lamu, Maldives.

What actually is a nature-based solution?


The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) defines nature-based solutions as actions that are taken to sustainably manage and restore natural or modified ecosystems in ways that address societal challenges. The key aspects of this to remember are the acts of protection, conducting restoration and also helping with management and ensuring that the area is being sustainably managed.


After digging deeper into these theories, Chloe says she always tries to keep two questions top of mind: Nature-based solutions for what? And nature-based solutions and the solving of societal challenges for whom? She says that these two questions can really illuminate the power of what nature-based solutions can do. 

When we think of specific destinations and ones that are particularly affected by climate change, such as Malaysia and the Maldives as our other panelists are representing, we can start to think about what the nature-based solutions might look like and who they’re specifically for in each context. The ability of tourism to invest in living and growing sea walls to protect coastal communities from storms and enhance food security by improving fisheries management. Tourism in particular can help ignite these actions. 

Nature-based solutions have been criticized in certain sectors, saying that they’re focusing too much on the carbon element. Carbon is not the only thing that these solutions can provide so it’s not just about mitigation but also adaptation.

What are some of the criticisms of nature-based solutions we should be aware of?


The criticism I’ve mainly heard is that nature-based solutions don’t necessarily bring all the benefits that people claim they do. Sometimes the issue can lie in what we define as a nature-based solution. This can be exacerbated by greenwashing in industry where companies call their carbon offsetting programs nature-based solutions. 

In my research, I found that nature-based solutions are primarily explored in the public sphere but not enough in the private sector so I was keen to look at how private entities can contribute. We define nature-based enterprises as businesses whose core mission is to improve nature and biodiversity. Some examples of these enterprises include the creation of buildings, employing smart technologies to monitor nature and also community-building enterprises focused on nature as well as sustainable tourism companies too, of course.

What makes a nature-based solution in tourism effective?


The interest in nature-based solutions is soaring. It is being used to address other climate change challenges. We’re seeing huge growth in the private sector in nature-based solutions. After completing a questionnaire, the businesses in the white paper were then interviewed by Chloe to determine which factors they deemed the most important for nature-based solutions in tourism. “We don’t yet know what resonates with those in the tourism industry” – what could be adapted to a tourism context? We looked at how to communicate with communities and foster a way for them to provide feedback to determine if nature-based solutions are working for them or not.

Accelerating nature-based solutions with Horizon Nua.

What is the Datai Pledge? What is the Fish for the Future Pillar?


The Datai sits within a recognized UNESCO geo-park. We have incredible marine life in front of our bay. We recognize that it’s our responsibility to look after these natural assets that surround us so we came up with our pledge. 

The Datai Pledge has 4 pillars: 

  1. Pure for the Future (ensure that hotels use fewer plastics, recycle, upcycle)
  2. Youth for the Future (engagement with schools and schoolkids on the island)
  3. Wildlife for the Future (aiming to create the world’s first trans-island wildlife corridor) 
  4. Fish for the Future (we recognize there are issues with unsustainable fishing practices on the island so we engaged with local communities to determine how to tackle this)

We realized that more of the island’s fishermen are in-shore fishermen. There are off-shore fishermen who are encroaching on the in-shore fishermen’s territory and this has diminished the overall catch. We suggested creating fish aggregating devices outside the reef so that fishermen no longer need to fish on the reef itself. This helps to protect the reef. We’ve also created a coral nursery where we take pieces of broken coral and nurture them in the nursery until they’re ready to be transplanted back into the coral reef. This is something that hotel guests can actually participate in so they become part of the Datai’s coral reef restoration. 

For each pillar of the pledge, we work with a local NGO or social enterprise. This means that everything is transparent and guests see where their money is going and how we spend it. We don’t think we should reinvent the wheel when there are already expert organizations doing the work, which is why we’ve partnered with them.

What is the Maldives Underwater Initiative that Six Senses is involved with?


We created the Maldives Underwater Initiative (MUI) in partnership with NGOs to lead the tourism industry in the Maldives towards meaningful marine conservation, based on research, education and community. We study the coral reef, fauna and seagrass populations with experts and guests. We love involving guests in our marine conservation initiatives, one example of this is our resident marine biologist going out on a dolphin tour and explaining the dolphins’ way of being and their habitat in detail to guests. We just launched our Sustainability Camp too which is for teenagers to learn about waste management, marine conservation and other important initiatives to help them lead more sustainable lives. We also have quarterly meetings with all local stakeholders where we share our insights and budgets with these community members to make sure they feel included and can contribute to our decision-making.

For these initiatives you’re running at your hotels, how do you get feedback from your local communities to ensure these are benefiting them?


We invite all local stakeholders including local councils, schools, NGOs, the police and national defense forces to come together so we can share our studies and their findings with them each quarter. This creates a platform for our community to make us more responsible. 

There are 11 local islands in our community and we’re the only resort within them so it’s really important for us to be fully integrated into the local community and be held accountable by community members. It’s important for us to share our challenges and listen to the solutions that our local stakeholders suggest. 


We work closely with NGOs who work with community members. We facilitate meetings with community members so they can come and visit us and provide us with feedback. Under our Youth for the Future pillar, we work with an organization called Green Growth Asia that works with local schools and the education department to ensure they’re involved in our solutions.

The Maldives Underwater Initiative aims to lead the tourism industry in the Maldives towards meaningful marine conservation.

How can we better promote measuring and monitoring these nature-based solutions for businesses?


Social and environmental impacts are the most difficult to measure and entrepreneurs find this particularly challenging. It’s very difficult to make any claims about improving lives or nature without data to back it up. 

Best practice example: the green building sector (roofs, facades). They have found ways to add sensors to their buildings to detect improvements as well as counting species or using devices that can actually listen in to the sounds of insects and wildlife. There’s also an NBS measurement handbook which can be found here.


A positive thing is involving other organizations and institutions, perhaps not even in the tourism sector, like local governments or charities to help with the monitoring of initiatives and who might have more expertise in the measurement of things. 


We work with marine biologists, botanists and we engage with our guests. We also work with universities and our own staff members to constantly brainstorm what we can do and monitor how things are going with each of our 4 pillars at any given time.

Allegedly, there’s a lot of interest in building nature-based solutions but not enough capacity or resources to help businesses implement these. What sorts of issues have you seen in this area and what sorts of resources have you been trying to provide?


We’ve found a lack of skilled suppliers for implementing nature-based solutions. We founded a platform to connect global businesses looking to implement nature-based solutions so they can better collaborate and communicate: www.naturebasedenterprise.eu 

The biggest issues we’ve found is that the market is at a very early stage, there are no international networks and there’s also very little skills training or development on offer. We’ve split the platform into industry sectors to foster better, more streamlined collaboration. 

What are some of the barriers you’ve seen towards securing financing for nature-based solutions?


There are typically three stages to financing a nature-based solution:

  1. Planning and design phase (small amount of capital over a short span of time)
  2. Implementation phase (lots of capital over a short span of time) 
  3. Maintenance phase (lots of capital but over a long period of time) 

It’s essential to have support from your local community and local government to aid the success of a nature-based solution (NBS). It’s essential to have funding for the long term, not sure the implementation so it’s important to really analyze your business model and make sure that fits. Look at what kinds of funding streams are available for this kind of NBS.

Impact investing is probably the best private investment channel for now since other investment funds tend to look at shorter term returns rather than the long term returns often associated with NBS. 

Sometimes it can be beneficial to partner up with other NBS initiatives to get collective financing for different projects. 

Ariel view of The Datai Langkawi in Malaysia.

At the Datai and Six Senses, how did you fund your projects at the different phases?


We have a Sustainability Fund. 0.5% of the hotel’s revenue goes to this Fund. We also produce our own water in-house and 50% of these sales goes towards the Funds too. We also have a boutique where we sell things like cuddly toys and revenue generated from these also goes towards the Sustainability Fund.


Our General Manager profoundly believes in the pledge and he approached the owners to show them why this is important and that it’s in our DNA as a hotel. He convinced the owners to put in substantial funds to kickstart the pledge’s 4 pillars. To sustain the pledge, we have a fee for every night the guests stay; they participate by paying into this fund. The NGOs we work with also have merchandise available for purchase in the hotel’s boutique to help fund their work. The Datai also approached certain companies and convinced them to participate in worthwhile projects within the Data’s 4 pillars.

What is the best way to approach NGOs or non-profits to work collaboratively on projects? Many are skeptical of private companies, so is there any recommended strategy to establish trust?


We analyzed what various NGOs’ goals and missions are and then we put together an agreement to offer 6 month or 12 month engagements based on shared goals and required funding. We then ask the NGOs to share their findings and work at the end of the contract/agreement to ensure goals were achieved. 


An amazing thing that Six Senses is doing too is having the NGOs interact directly with guests so that they can learn more about the collaborative work that’s being done and its benefit.


It’s about developing a relationship and trust; NGOs, quite rightly, don’t want to be involved in any greenwashing so it’s up to you as an organization to prove your credentials and intentions and to measure the work you’re doing to ensure that funds are correctly distributed and helping guests participate in the activities.

What’s the key thing that makes for a successful nature-based solution?


Integrity and passion are both important but the community aspect is definitely key. In everything you do, consider the community and ensure it’s for the greater good of the wider community. They are the ones that have benefited and will benefit the most going forward. 


Leadership is critical; to have owners and a GM that are passionate about the environment. Our guests are also very important in supporting our initiatives. At the end of the day, it is the right thing to do. The time is now and everybody should be doing this, right now. You cannot protect the ocean by looking after your own bay; it has to trigger other hotels to jump in as well so that together we can make a difference.


Raising awareness about the benefits of NBS is the most important. 


Thinking about centering community needs first is crucial. Respond to and address societal challenges first and foremost. 


Be open to learning more about this. It’s a new and evolving space and one where there’s opportunity to take leadership and drive things forward. 


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