Regenerative travel is like sustainable tourism 2.0—with a focus on leaving destinations better than we found them.
rom far-flung expeditions to deep fireside chats, travel has the power to change us. When done well, it can also positively change the places we visit—a fact I learned during a recent safari in southern Tanzania.
As a wildlife enthusiast, I often plan my trips around local fauna. Sure, I follow responsible wildlife tourism guidelines, but cruising around in a safari Jeep doesn’t necessarily help the animals, or ecosystems, I’ve come to admire. Getting my hands dirty installing camera traps to assist researchers studying wildlife in an uncharted and once highly hunted stretch of southern Tanzania? That’s a bit more like it.
And this, it turns out, is part of a growing trend of the 2020s: regenerative travel. The idea is to go beyond sustainability, which focuses on minimizing negative impact, and instead have a net positive impact on the place you’re visiting.
During my trip to southern Tanzania’s new Usangu Expedition Camp by safari company Asilia, this meant installing and monitoring camera traps and snapping then uploading animal photos to citizen-science database iNaturalist to help researchers benchmark and monitor local wildlife populations; guests can also assist with collaring programs to track the movements of big cats. These experiences felt even more enriching than a traditional Jeep safari, and they contributed to Usangu’s goal: helping conservationists from partner organizations, such as the Tanzania Wildlife Research Institute, better protect this under-studied ecosystem.
Usangu is one of a growing number of experiences allowing globe-trotters to leave a positive footprint. Given community and environmental strains from the last decade of uncapped (and largely uncontrolled) tourism growth, plus a jet-setting resurgence after the pandemic, this shift couldn’t come at a better time.
“Tourism took a bad [hit] during Covid from a reputation point of view; regenerative travel is a way to rebuild the brand of tourism,” says African Leadership University’s School of Wildlife Conservation research director Sue Snyman, noting this is particularly important for engaging local residents. Years of negative tourism impacts have left some communities wondering why they’d want tourism to begin with. “If communities see travelers having a genuine positive impact, they’ll understand [what tourism can do].”
An Urgent Need
In June 2020, six responsible-travel groups, including the Center for Responsible Travel and the Global Sustainable Tourism Council, joined forces to reshape tourism for the better. The result: the Future of Tourism Coalition, which calls on industry organizations to follow 13 guiding principles.
Some of these guidelines follow a more traditional sustainability model, like reducing emissions. Others align with the regenerative ethos, such as demanding that local communities receive fair income from tourism, and creating experiences that support artists, farmers, guides, and chefs working to preserve and protect their local culture.
When The New York Times first reported on the regenerative travel trend in August 2020, around 20 travel groups had pledged to support these principles. Now, more than 600 organizations have signed on; the coalition is also co-hosting its first in-person summit this fall.
While exciting, this shift toward more equitable and responsible excursions is long overdue. According to Planeterra, a nonprofit that aids community-based initiatives around the world, the tourism industry generates some $8 trillion globally, yet local communities hardly receive a fraction, if any, of it.
The Future of Tourism Coalition principles benefit the community and the jet-setter, says Planeterra president Jamie Sweeting. “When you help empower local people to run their own enterprises, where they’re the ones hosting you in their village or community, you feel like you’re part of something bigger than just ‘I’m here having a great holiday.’”
The concept makes sense, but let’s be clear: we have a long way to go—especially after the economic blow of the pandemic. “Most tourism businesses had to really struggle for a couple of years. They have to be judicious about how they’re spending their money,” says Sweeting. For many travel companies, regenerative experiences aren’t the top priority. “But the consumer has way more power than they’ve ever had in the travel sector. Travel businesses will do what the travelers want, so if you want to make a difference, start asking for this kind of tourism.”
Regenerative Travel for Communities
All too often, travel is consumptive, or in Sweeting’s words, “parasitic.” Visitors often take from communities—be it consuming resources (water use, for example, is a major tourism issue in Hawai’i), snapping photos for social media, or worsening crowds and congestion.
Advocates of responsible tourism have long encouraged globe trotters to hire community guides or stay in locally owned hotels instead of chains. The regenerative travel trend paves the way for even more positive impact.
Planeterra, founded in 2003, aids community enterprises through mentorship, networking, grants, and education. It works with G Adventures to connect travelers directly to businesses that need their support; examples include booking community-owned culinary experiences on trips to southern Africa and touring a women’s weaving co-op in Peru before trekking the Inca Trail.
“It’s all about equity and empowerment, and enabling communities to tell their stories, their history, and share their environment in their way,” says Sweeting, noting that in recent years, this model has led to some substantial local gains: employment opportunities for women, increased education access for youth, and revenue staying within communities. (Planeterra wants community businesses to generate $1 billion from global tourism by 2030.)
Other regenerative initiatives that have sprouted up include Mountain Homestays, a network that offers accommodations from Kenya to India largely owned and operated by Indigenous female entrepreneurs. One particularly unique spin-off, Astrostays, takes the Indigenous-owned accommodation further, with experiences centered on stargazing and culture in the Indian Himalayas. Astrostays launched in summer 2019; it’s already generated enough revenue to install greenhouses and solar-powered water heaters in local villages.
According to Snyman, who’s studied community-based tourism for decades, this approach can work, but it’s not foolproof. “Tourism is one of the most complex businesses in terms of business management, and yet, you’re expecting this community to now be a partner with the private sector who’s done it for 30 years,” she says, noting true capacity building within the community is critical. “People talk about equity partnerships, but for me, there’s nothing equitable in them when the power balance is skewed. There are good examples [of community tourism], but there’s still work to be done in the space of equitably engaging communities.”
This is an excerpt from an article by Stephanie Vermillion earlier published by Outside.