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5 Opportunities and 5 Challenges of Regenerative Tourism

better tourism regenerative tourism sustainable tourism
5 opportunities and 5 challenges of Regenerative Tourism

‘Regenerative tourism’ became my lockdown study. What stoked this interest was discovering that a project I was deeply involved with in Ireland was being cited internationally as an example of regenerative tourism in practice (Burren & Cliffs of Moher Geopark Tourism for Conservation project, Geopark Code of Practice for Sustainable Tourism and Burren Ecotourism Network). This made me feel a certain obligation (and even entitlement) to learn more about what regenerative tourism means and to become part of the emerging global conversation on it.

This article seeks to share some of what I think I’ve learned and also my own personal observations on opportunities and challenges of regenerative tourism for the future.


What does 'regenerative' mean?

Firstly, let’s understand what ‘regenerative’ means: Regeneration is a term applied in many settings: residential, commercial and agricultural. Regenerative agriculture is relatively well known and describes farming practices that aim to restore soil biodiversity and sequester more carbon, and so reverse climate change and improve the water cycle. (Regeneration International).

Regeneration is a movement that sees people as part of nature’s living systems, not dominant over them. It sees people’s role as being that of stewards or guardians of the natural world across generations, honouring what we have inherited and taking responsibility for our legacy. Using the farming metaphor, it’s about not just tending the soil, but about improving the soil so that is can provide more good and more benefit than ever before.

Regeneration represents a shift in direction and values. It’s an alternative world view and philosophy to the growth-driven, scalable model that has defined capitalist society for the last century. It rejects the status quo and calls upon us all to be agents of change and to take responsibility for leaving this world better than we found it, for recognizing our place in the planet and the ecosystem we are part of.

“At its simplest, regeneration is about creating the fertile conditions conducive for life to thrive”

Anna Pollock, 2019.

“Regenerative culture takes a holistic approach to the wellbeing of the entire ecosystem in which humans live, creating ‘thriving’ and ‘flourishing’ communities, who as the stewards, decide what happens there.”

Earthchangers 2020.

“A more balanced approach to development that puts people, nature and economy on the same level.”

Dianne Dredge, Regenerative Tourism By Design, Tourism Collab 2021


What does 'Regenerative Tourism' mean?

I’ve learned that Regenerative Tourism is not something that can be neatly defined. In fact, it is often defined by what it is not:

“Regenerative tourism is not a tourism niche, like adventure tourism”

Loretta Bellato 2021.

“Regenerative tourism is not anti-growth; it simply asks that we grow the things that matter most to us in ways that benefit the entire system and never at the expense of others.”

Anna Pollock, 2019.

“It’s not about less. It’s about more of the things that matter.”

Earthchangers 2020.

So if that’s what regenerative tourism is not, then how do we define what it actually is?

“Regenerative tourism, at its simplest, is about ensuring the visitor economy delivers a net positive benefit for communities, the environment, and the destination.”

Dianne Dredge, Tourism Collab.

It is tourism that actively and intentionally creates the conditions for communities and places to thrive and flourish. It is tourism that gives back more than it takes, that delivers net benefit to all stakeholders. It is tourism that takes steps to ensure that the natural and human resources that make up tourism can sustain and regenerate.


What makes Regenerative Tourism different?

Regenerative Tourism tends to be framed as ‘other’ to mainstream tourism. This is a little table I created for myself as I read through articles. It helped me categorize various viewpoints and get some clarity for myself on what makes regenerative tourism different.


So, is 'Regenerative Tourism' just 'Sustainable Tourism' with a different name?

Again, there is not an easy and clear-cut answer to this. Regenerative tourism is generally understood to include sustainable tourism but to also go beyond it. This very question is the subject of an article by Loretta Belatto ‘Is Regenerative Tourism just a rebranding of Sustainable Tourism?’ In it, Loretta highlights 3 ways in which regenerative tourism goes beyond sustainable tourism:

  • Regenerative tourism serves more than tourism.
  • Regenerative tourism draws on both western and indigenous knowledge systems.
  • Regenerative tourism tailors itself to the uniqueness of each place.

Sustainable tourism has come to mean ‘doing less harm’. Regenerative tourism is in the space of ‘doing more good’ and going beyond that ‘to leaving a place better than we found it.”


What are the opportunities and challenges for 'Regenerative Tourism'?

As well as reading as much as I can on this topic, I’ve had the opportunity in the last couple of years to work with a few destinations who really want to embrace regenerative approaches – a couple working from community perspectives and a couple from a policy and DMO perspective. I’d like to share some of the opportunities and challenges that have occurred to me through this experience. They are purely my opinion and observations and so not to be mistaken as fact or views that are shared/endorsed by anybody else. 


5 Opportunities for 'Regenerative Tourism'


1. Purpose

It is an approach to tourism that helps answer the existential crisis we face. It adds great purpose to the activity of tourism and expands on the role tourism can play in today’s world.

“The planet cannot afford to resume previously unsustainable levels of tourism. These previous levels of tourism, the level of resources required to power it, and the emissions it produces are not consistent with the survival of the planet.” (Dianne Dredge, Regenerative Tourism and Design Thinking, Tourism Collab, 2021)

2. Added Value

It recognizes the immensely positive role that tourism can play in creating a thriving world. It moves beyond mitigating damage (through managing energy, waste and water) and sets the stage for deeper, more meaningful and more sustainable engagement with places and communities. In so doing, it frames how tourism can credibly bring true additional value to the world by helping to transform places and create conditions for them to flourish.

3. Community

It recognizes host communities’ right to be the primary agents in tourism. It helps communities solve their challenges through tourism. Communities can be empowered to answer the key question “What do we need to thrive and how can tourism help us achieve that?” Tourism may stop being something that happens to communities, but rather something that happens with them, by them and for them.

4. Connection

It has the potential to deepen the connection between visitors, local communities and nature. It enriches the experience of both the visitor and the host in an authentic way.

5. Measurement of Success

It provides a framework for defining new measures of success. The success of tourism as evidenced in GDP growth has held little meaning for the people and places where tourism actually occurs. A framing of tourism in regenerative terms opens the way for widening the definition to success, which would still include economic measures but also include measures such as well-being, community sentiment, landscape integrity and cultural prosperity.


5 Challenges of 'Regenerative Tourism'


1. Definition

“There are no 10 point checklists that tourism stakeholders can follow” (Bellato, 2020). While this reflects the holistic nature of regenerative tourism, it does make it more difficult for many people to get involved in the conversation. I personally have been immensely challenged over the last couple of years to fully understand the concept and elicit a definition and a set of principles that can be the basis of meaningful discussion in destinations. The challenge is to make the concept, language and conversation accessible and digestible.

2. Counter-cultural

Regenerative tourism requires a full paradigm shift away from the current model. It’s about shifting a world view and bringing about a fundamental change in values and purpose on a large scale. The challenge is to find a way to map the transition.

3. Space for the conversation

First it was Brexit (at this side of the world), then the pandemic. Now it’s climate action, biodiversity loss and the reality of a war that could escalate. Tourism and the world face multiple challenges on multiple fronts and short-term survival is a key priority at both local and government levels. It is a challenge to open space for a concept and practice that, by contrast, has a long-term view of survival. Add to that, current policy in the vast majority of countries does not allow for a regenerative approach. Many policies impose on tourism a framework built around growing value to the Exchequer (which demands an entirely different set of actions to those that return value to the communities and places where tourism occurs). A challenge is that current leaders are hamstrung by current policy.

4. Othering

If regenerative tourism is the future, what is the present? Degenerative tourism?? It is important not to make the vast majority of people currently working in tourism feel labelled as extractive, exploitative, money and growth-focused, disconnected from nature and lacking understanding of living systems. A challenge is to make the conversation fully inclusive in a way that does not diminish existing practitioners but rather supports the evolution of tourism leadership.

5. The commercial case

Focusing on economic growth is very much what regenerative tourism is not about. That said, it must give due recognition to the fact that tourism through economic growth has indeed been a force for good in many places and continues to be so. It must adequately recognise that many destinations and communities require a critical mass of numbers, inward spend and jobs if they are to revive and thrive. The challenge is to find more examples of destinations (not just individual businesses) who flourish economically as a result of regenerative tourism approaches.


Further Reading

I am very confident that the conversation on evolving better forms of tourism will continue apace. If you’re interested in reading more about regenerative tourism, here are some sources that I have found useful.


Tina O'Dwyer

Tina is a facilitator, mentor and coach and has specific areas in which she champions such as, sustainable tourism, regenerative tourism, food tourism, networks, clusters and collaboration. To avail of any of our training or coaching services you can contact us at [email protected] or sign up to our newsletter below for weekly industry insights. For those interested in connecting with other like-minded tourism and hospitality professionals, you may consider joining us in the Huddle where we have group training sessions and guest speakers every month.

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