Tourism, which grew faster than the global gross domestic product for the past nine years, has been decimated by the pandemic. Once accounting for 10 percent of employment worldwide, the sector is poised to shed 121 million jobs, with losses projected at a minimum of $3.4 trillion, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council.
But in the lull, some in the tourism industry are planning for a post-vaccine return to travel that’s better than it was before March 2020 — greener, smarter and less crowded. If sustainable tourism, which aims to counterbalance the social and environmental impacts associated with travel, was the aspirational outer limit of ecotourism before the pandemic, the new frontier is “regenerative travel,” or leaving a place better than you found it.
“Sustainable tourism is sort of a low bar. At the end of the day, it’s just not making a mess of the place,” said Jonathon Day, an associate professor focused on sustainable tourism at Purdue University. “Regenerative tourism says, let’s make it better for future generations.”
Regenerative travel has its roots in regenerative development and design, which includes buildings that meet the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design or LEED standards. The concept has applications across many fields, including regenerative agriculture, which aims to restore soils and sequester carbon.
“Generally, sustainability, as practiced today, is about slowing down the degradation,” said Bill Reed, an architect and principal of Regenesis Group, a design firm based in Massachusetts and New Mexico that has been practicing regenerative design, including tourism projects, since 1995. He described efforts like fuel efficiency and reduced energy use as “a slower way to die.”
“Regeneration is about restoring and then regenerating the capability to live in a new relationship in an ongoing way,” he added.
With most travel suspended during the pandemic, regenerative travel remains at the starting gate. But in the lull, it’s the new buzz. Six nonprofit organizations, including the Center for Responsible Travel and Sustainable Travel International, have joined together as the Future of Tourism coalition, which aims to “build a better tomorrow.”
Twenty-two travel groups, including tour operators like G Adventures, destination marketers such as the Slovenian Tourist Board, and organizations like the Adventure Travel Trade Association, have signed on to the coalition’s 13 guiding principles, including “demand fair income distribution” and “choose quality over quantity.”
Tourism New Zealand, the country’s tourism organization, is talking about measuring its success not solely in economic terms, but against the well-being of the country, considering nature, human health and community identities. And travel leaders in Hawaii are discussing repositioning the state as a cultural destination in hopes of re-engaging islanders, many of whom are fed up with overtourism, in the vitality of tourism.
To flesh out these broad strokes, Mr. Day, the associate professor, points to the concept of a circular economy, which aims to design waste out of the system, keep materials in use through reuse, repair and upcycling, and regenerate natural systems.
“Tourism is just at the beginning of this process of how we can apply circular economy ideas to the system,” he said.
Regeneration in action
Having a truly regenerative travel experience may be a unicorn, but a few operators are pointing the way.
Regenesis worked on the development of Playa Viva, a small resort south of Zihuatanejo, Mexico, on the Pacific Coast, which opened in 2009. The firm’s assessment of the more than 200-acre property took in the beaches, the bird-filled estuary and ancient ruins as well as the problems of turtle poaching and poor schools in the village. Ultimately, the small town of Juluchuca became the gateway to the property; an organic agricultural system benefited both the property and local residents; and a 2 percent fee added to any stay funds a trust that invests in community development.
“Rather than a resort helicoptering in and taking up land, they said, ‘We are the village,’” Mr. Reed said. “It’s a paradigm shift.”
Playa Viva is one of 45 resorts belonging to Regenerative Travel, a booking agency that vets members based on metrics such as carbon usage, employee well-being, immersive guest activities and sourcing local food. To date, qualifications for membership have been handled internally, but in September the company plans to launch a benchmarking system to demonstrate their regenerative progress.
OneSeed Expeditions, an adventure tour operator based in Denver, aims to couple travel with economic development. It uses 10 percent of its proceeds to provide zero-interest loans to local nongovernmental organizations where it operates in places like Nepal and Peru. The local groups then issue microloans to community entrepreneurs in businesses such as farming and retail.
“The areas of greatest need are not necessarily in areas of the greatest tourism attractions,” said Chris Baker, the founder of OneSeed Expeditions. “We want to use tourism to be able to benefit people outside of those areas.”
Regenerative tourism addresses impacts holistically, from destination and community perspectives as well as environmental. Intrepid Travel, the small-group tour company that, until the pandemic, ran more than 1,000 itineraries globally, has been carbon neutral since 2010. This year it extended its pledge to cover 125 percent of its carbon emissions.
“There’s this notion that business success means you have to do harm to the world,” said James Thornton, the chief executive of Intrepid Travel, which became a B Corporation, an entity dedicated to benefiting workers, customers, the community and environment, as well as shareholders, in 2018. “When the new normality returns, it shouldn’t come at the expense of sustainability.”
Implicit in many discussions about regenerative tourism is the threat of returning to overtourism, which accounted for excessive numbers of visitors in places like Dubrovnik that ultimately had to cap the number of cruise ships allowed to dock daily in high season.
“For so long, tourism success was defined by growing the numbers — numbers of visitors, numbers of cruise passengers,” said Gregory Miller, the executive director of the Center for Responsible Travel, a nonprofit group that advocates for sustainable travel. “Even before the pandemic, there was a need for rebalancing.”
For example, the current recession may have bought Hawaii a few years before its tourism figures return to what they were in 2019, when 10 million travelers visited the islands — and that was up from 6.5 million a decade earlier — resulting in painfully long queues to climb Diamond Head at sunrise. In a 2018 survey by the Hawaiian Tourism Authority, two-thirds of respondents agreed that “This island is being run for tourists at the expense of local people.”
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Frequently Asked Questions
Updated August 24, 2020
What are the symptoms of coronavirus?
- In the beginning, the coronavirus seemed like it was primarily a respiratory illness — many patients had fever and chills, were weak and tired, and coughed a lot, though some people don’t show many symptoms at all. Those who seemed sickest had pneumonia or acute respiratory distress syndrome and received supplemental oxygen. By now, doctors have identified many more symptoms and syndromes. In April, the C.D.C. added to the list of early signs sore throat, fever, chills and muscle aches. Gastrointestinal upset, such as diarrhea and nausea, has also been observed. Another telltale sign of infection may be a sudden, profound diminution of one’s sense of smell and taste. Teenagers and young adults in some cases have developed painful red and purple lesions on their fingers and toes — nicknamed “Covid toe” — but few other serious symptoms.
Why does standing six feet away from others help?
- The coronavirus spreads primarily through droplets from your mouth and nose, especially when you cough or sneeze. The C.D.C., one of the organizations using that measure, bases its recommendation of six feet on the idea that most large droplets that people expel when they cough or sneeze will fall to the ground within six feet. But six feet has never been a magic number that guarantees complete protection. Sneezes, for instance, can launch droplets a lot farther than six feet, according to a recent study. It’s a rule of thumb: You should be safest standing six feet apart outside, especially when it’s windy. But keep a mask on at all times, even when you think you’re far enough apart.
I have antibodies. Am I now immune?
- As of right now, that seems likely, for at least several months. There have been frightening accounts of people suffering what seems to be a second bout of Covid-19. But experts say these patients may have a drawn-out course of infection, with the virus taking a slow toll weeks to months after initial exposure. People infected with the coronavirus typically produce immune molecules called antibodies, which are protective proteins made in response to an infection. These antibodies may last in the body only two to three months, which may seem worrisome, but that’s perfectly normal after an acute infection subsides, said Dr. Michael Mina, an immunologist at Harvard University. It may be possible to get the coronavirus again, but it’s highly unlikely that it would be possible in a short window of time from initial infection or make people sicker the second time.
I’m a small-business owner. Can I get relief?
- The stimulus bills enacted in March offer help for the millions of American small businesses. Those eligible for aid are businesses and nonprofit organizations with fewer than 500 workers, including sole proprietorships, independent contractors and freelancers. Some larger companies in some industries are also eligible. The help being offered, which is being managed by the Small Business Administration, includes the Paycheck Protection Program and the Economic Injury Disaster Loan program. But lots of folks have not yet seen payouts. Even those who have received help are confused: The rules are draconian, and some are stuck sitting on money they don’t know how to use. Many small-business owners are getting less than they expected or not hearing anything at all.
What are my rights if I am worried about going back to work?
“We have the curse of a strong brand,” said Frank Haas, a former vice president with the Hawaiian Tourism Authority and an independent tourism consultant. “We’re so well known as a sun destination that people overlook the other aspects, the Hawaiian culture, the royal past, the interesting geological and natural attractions.”
He thinks it will require more coordinated management — currently, a variety of federal, state and local authorities regulate parks and facilities like airports — as well as creative entrepreneurs to expand cultural tourism by appealing to travelers interested in food, art, history or music.
Who defines ‘better’ tourism?
Determining what makes a place better and who makes that decision requires local involvement, according to regenerative tourism proponents.
VisitFlanders, the tourism organization representing the Northern Belgium region, used local input to rethink its mission, repositioning its stance from growing travel for the sake of the economy to creating an “economy of meaning,” according to its master plan. That includes, among other initiatives, linking visitors with locals who share their passions for things like history or food and making storytelling central to sites like its World War I battlefields.
“We’ve managed to shift the thinking from having their primary objective be about growing the numbers, to creating flourishing destinations, flourishing communities and having them say what kind of tourism they want,” said Anna Pollock, the founder of Conscious Travel, an education and consulting enterprise devoted to positioning travel as a force for good, who worked with VisitFlanders.
A traveler’s role in regeneration
Ms. Pollock believes regenerative travel is a supply-side concept that asks operators to do more for the environment and community than they take from them. But travelers play a key role in demand.
“Become mindful of the fact that your trip is going to have a set of costs associated with it, which needs to be paid by somebody,” she said. “In the same way you think, ‘Should I buy that cheap T-shirt from the dime store down the road?,’ knowing it’s created by semi-slave labor. Now you’re thinking consciously about who do I buy it from and is it quality.”
The experience of the pandemic — when many are discovering the power of their pocketbooks in supporting local businesses like bookstores and restaurants — is, perhaps, the most instructive in demonstrating sustainability, even if the travel involved is within a few blocks of home.
“Travel is an important vote of your principles,” said Mr. Baker of OneSeed. “When you decide to put your time and resources into a trip, you’re affirming that’s the type of business you want out there.”
Sustainable travel, let alone regenerative travel, will still have to find solutions to the carbon emissions produced by air travel. Until the economy recovers, there’s likely to be less travel, more local travel, or slower travel by car, train, bike or foot. This moment of reflection, say proponents, is where regeneration begins.
“It’s about how to regenerate our relationship with life,” said Mr. Reed, the architect. “That’s a continual process. Our children will need that taught to them. Regeneration is a continual cycle of rebirth. That’s how we sustain the planet. You cannot have a sustainable planet without regeneration.”
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