Regenerative Travel: What It Is and How It's Outperforming Sustainable Tourism

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Regenerative travel became a ubiquitous term during the coronavirus pandemic, as destinations once overrun began to see improvements in air quality and a decline in pollution because of travel interruptions. Abandoned by all except those who inhabit them, cities—like Venice, Italy, for instance—were able to recover from overtourism in some ways and reclaim their cultural identities. Regenerative travel, therefore, entered the public domain as an aspiration—to continue nourishing these places even after the end of the pandemic.

In response, six nongovernmental organizations came together to form the Future of Tourism Coalition in 2020. The coalition, under the advisory of the Global Sustainable Tourism Council, published a list of 13 principles that seek to guide the global tourism industry into a more regenerative post-pandemic future. Among them are "demand fair income distribution," "choose quality over quantity," and "contain tourism's land use." So far, about 600 organizations—governmental, nongovernmental, businesses, academic institutions, media, and investors—have signed up.

Here's what regenerative tourism means, how it could benefit the environment and local communities, and how to incorporate its principles into your own travels.

What Is Regenerative Travel?

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Regenerative travel urges governments, tour operators, and businesses to give more to the planet and their local communities than they take. It challenges the travelers themselves to leave their destinations not just how they found them but better by treading lightly and spending with intention. "When tourism adds value to a destination, by enhancing the quality of life of residents and the health of the ecosystem, it can be considered regenerative," says Jeremy Sampson, chair of the Future of Tourism Coalition and CEO of the Travel Foundation. 

For businesses, adopting a more regenerative model could mean ensuring infrastructure meets the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED standards, that tourism dollars are being circulated within the community, that visitors are presented with green choices (such as traveling by electric car and recycling), and that success is measured not just by money but also by the well-being of the local people and nature.

Regenerative travel isn't synonymous with sustainable travel, either. The United Nations' World Tourism Organization defines the latter as "tourism that takes full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities." Gregory Miller, executive director of the Center for Responsible Travel, one of the coalition's six founders, says regenerative travel builds on a foundation of sustainable tourism, rather, ultimately "putting us on a path of achieving true sustainability."

In other words, it's an obligation to travel not just in a way that can be maintained without putting a strain on places and communities, but to do so in a way that actually benefits the destination and its people. 

Benefits of Regenerative Travel

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The benefits of regenerative tourism are twofold: When travelers support locally driven, sustainable tour operators and businesses, communities then receive the resources needed to care for and protect their natural spaces. And when tourists share meaningful experiences with the land and community members, they're perhaps more driven to respect and protect them while traveling.

"At its very best, I think tourism can be one of the most progressive ways of transferring wealth from the north to the south," says Jamie Sweeting, vice president of responsible travel and social enterprise at G Adventures, a founding signatory of the Future of Tourism's 13 Guiding Principles, "but it has to be done deliberately—and if you're not doing that, then your carbon footprint is not getting a good return on its investment." 

Over the years, tourism has earned an unfavorable reputation. Constant interference with nature has led to soil erosion, habitat loss, degradation of environmental resources, and wildlife exploitation, and aviation itself accounts for 2.4% of global carbon dioxide emissions. Moreover, tourism can lead to the commodification of culture—in which cultural traditions and artifacts are sold for profit to benefit the local economy—and acculturation—occurring when the presence of an outside, more dominant culture modifies an existing culture.

The Future of Tourism Coalition's 13 Guiding Principles for Tourism's New Future address these issues. They urge signees to redefine economic success, ensure investments positively impact communities and the environment, enhance destination identity, invest in green infrastructure, and reduce their transportation emissions.

G Adventures makes public the percentage of money spent locally for most of its tours with its Ripple Score, which it created with its nonprofit partner Planeterra and Sustainable Travel International. The average across all trips is currently 93 out of 100. Likewise, the travel company has worked with animal welfare organizations like the Jane Goodall Institute and the World Cetacean Alliance to ensure all animal encounters are humane, and was the first global travel company to be granted a ChildSafe certification from Friends-International.

"International travel can be a force for peace and good and poverty alleviation," Sweeting says. "It can be a win-win for both the traveler and the local communities."

Regenerative Practices in Action

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Leading the way to a regenerative future are destinations like New Zealand and Hawaii, whose governments measure success in the tourism sector not just by visitation numbers but also by residents' happiness. In New Zealand, that sentiment is safeguarded by the Tiaki Promise, a commitment seven governmental organizations made to residents in 2018 that their land and heritage will be preserved for future generations. It asks all visitors, of which there are almost four million annually, to drive safely, keep the country clean, and show respect for the local Kiwis. The Hawaii Tourism Authority also formulates its tourism goals around resident sentiment, measured by the Resident Sentiment Survey it's been conducting since 1999.

More recently, Venice, Italy, has vowed to combat overtourism by charging day-trippers entry fees (up to $12) starting January 1, 2022. The fabled city has historically seen as many as 30 million visitors per year, which has not only caused plastic pollution from Venice's hospitality sector to surge and its housing market to plummet, but it's also posed a threat to the local culture—so much so that UNESCO held a workshop on restoring Venetian heritage back in 2011. By requiring entry fees, the city aims to reduce the negative cultural and environmental impacts of tourism while simultaneously boosting the economy.

These changes are also happening at the company level. Take the international tour operator Intrepid Travel, for instance: The group offers a multitude of "community-based tourism"—or CBT—experiences specifically designed to benefit people and places. One, notes Natalie Kidd, Intrepid's chief people and purpose officer, is a CBT lodge in Myaing, Myanmar, a joint project between Intrepid and the Myanmar nonprofit ActionAid. It was created "to give communities living in poverty from villages near Myaing the opportunity to earn an alternative income and grow as a community, while giving travelers from around the world a genuine insight into rural living in Myanmar," Kidd says. As a bonus, the company one-upped its decade-long carbon neutral commitment in 2020—it will now offset 125% of its CO2 emissions.

How to Travel Greener

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The collective shift to a more regenerative future of travel requires participation from all levels. Kidd says individuals can do that by making sure they're staying in locally owned properties and supporting locally owned businesses. Sweeting suggests staying at an agritourism or local farm and participating in regenerative agriculture while traveling.

"Maybe you're doing some voluntourism activities," he says. "You're certainly not taking jobs away from local people when you're doing that, but you're helping with the fabric of the local economy and the local experience."

Other ways include offsetting your carbon emissions—which you can do easily through companies like Sustainable Travel International—prioritizing meaningful experiences that connect you to the locals and the landscape, participating in group cleanup events, choosing responsible tour operators, and following Leave No Trace principles.

"Tourists and travelers should adopt the same responsible behaviors they do at home, whilst also being mindful of the new sensitivities of their chosen destination," Sampson says, citing water shortages, recycling infrastructure, and fragile natural habitats as important things to research before you go. "Also, use your consumer power and choose responsible businesses, go for longer, and spend your money on locally produced or locally owned, authentic experiences. That way you’ll help to shape a better world and also have a much better time."

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