By 2015, the island nation of Palau realized it was in danger of becoming a victim of its own popularity. Even though tourism is the primary industry on the small Micronesian archipelago, it had also become its main threat. Years of visitors leaving behind garbage, damaging coral and harming wildlife left locals worried their fragile homeland was being loved to death.
The country’s unique solution made headlines at the time. Rather than just asking hotels, restaurants and attractions to become even more sustainable, the nation changed its immigration laws. Since 2017, every incoming visitor is asked to sign a pledge promising to act in an ecologically and culturally respectful way on the island. Visitors are told of their responsibilities and also reminded what not to do—like feed the fish and sharks, or pick fruit or flowers from gardens.
“It was a first. Lots of destinations focus on the business side, but very few are asking their visitors to do anything,” says Greg Klassen, a partner at Twenty31, the consulting agency that worked with Palau to develop their tourism strategy.
The overtourism that caused ecological and cultural damage in Palau has been happening around the world. International tourism grew from a USD$979 billion industry in 2010 to USD$1.48 trillion in 2019. But, as countries focused on bringing in ever more of these tourism dollars, they often failed to take into account the cost of hosting travellers—not just on their infrastructure and natural environment, but also on the wellbeing of the local people, the resilience of traditional cultures and on the long-term sustainability of a destination.
Before the pandemic shut everything down, places like Boracay, Angkor Wat, The Galápagos, Iceland, Bali and several US and Canadian parks struggled with well-publicized tourism stress. Tourism contributed to issues like water shortages, lack of infrastructure for garbage disposal and power generation, habitat destruction, traffic congestion and trail erosion, which impacted both visitors and locals. Reduced access to housing, because of short-term rentals, has made life difficult and increased local resentment toward visitors. Even in places that have fewer overall visitors, seasonal surges in tourist numbers, or even peak days of the week, can cause local strain.
Beyond "do no harm"
This is where the idea of "regenerative tourism" comes in. Going beyond the idea that travel shouldn't harm a place, the concept behind regenerative travel is that having a tourism economy should actively improve the area.
“Regenerative tourism 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. There can be no such thing as a sustainable business within an unsustainable system,” wrote international tourism consultant Anna Pollock in the 2019 LinkedIn article, which is cited as being responsible for popularizing the term.
“What it means is we’re trying to create a kinder, gentler style of travel,” says Klassen. However, he points out the terminology can get confusing: “I worry that we're creating yet one more piece of language to describe the idealized version of the kind of travel we all want to see. We've used words like 'sustainable tourism', 'responsible tourism' and 'conscious travel' to describe more or less the same idea. But if they haven't worked, or the words haven't stuck, have we just created the 2021 version of the same thing?”
Part of the problem with the earlier terms is not with the goals—those were and still are worth working toward—but with the ways the implementation became greenwashed and corrupted. This left travellers uncertain about whether they were doing something positive or simply contributing to the problem.
Norie Quintos, communications consultant and editor at large for National Geographic Travel Media, is an authoritative consultant for communities and organizations hoping to develop regenerative tourism plans and businesses. She says part of what happens is that once a money-making opportunity for businesses is identified, some companies just jump on the bandwagon. “Some of the worst examples are because businesses and third parties tried to get in on the action,” she says.
Quintos explains that while commercial interests obviously need to be involved, money shouldn’t be the driving factor. “You end up with situations where one participant decides what’s best for the other,” she says, pointing to voluntourism as an example. “Too often the supposed beneficiary isn’t consulted. Had they been asked they might have said, ‘Hey, I don't need my walls repainted. What I need is this. . .”
Community driven change
For Quintos, this is where the tenets that form regenerative travel diverge from the other ideas. She explains that the central idea is not about the travel experience itself, but about all the conversations and consultations that come first.
“We need to communicate with all the micro-communities, and the advocates for the things that can’t speak for themselves, like wildlife and nature,” she says, noting this is missing from many tourism economies. “Each of those communities must have a say about what they need to thrive and flourish."
The central idea of regenerative travel is not about the travel experience itself, but about all the conversations and consultations that come first.
One example Quintos points to is Indigenous tourism, a fast-growing sector of tourism that’s hugely popular with travellers who are looking for a deeper, more authentic experience.
“Indigenous communities need to be asked the very basic question: ‘Do you want tourism as part of your economy?’ If the answer is a yes, then another conversation begins. ‘What kind of tourists do you want? What do you want to share with visitors?’” she explains.
Quintos says that from this starting point, communities can create visitor experiences that don’t just attract tourists but, ideally, meet local needs and goals and make the community better.
Thanks to the work of people like Pollock, Quintos and Klassen, conversations about what we want tourism to look like are beginning to happen in communities around the world. Some places, like the remote South Atlantic island of St. Helena, which got its first airport a few years ago, have found that being late to tourism has given them a head start in learning from the mistakes in other places.
The former director of tourism, Chris Pickard, told me in 2016 that it was very important to locals that they not be made over into a Disney-fied version of themselves.
“We have traditions that are so odd,” he said, referring to local celebrations for Napoleon, who was imprisoned on the island. “I occasionally fear people will make fun of them.”
Instead, community consultations helped locals decide what they wanted tourists to experience. Things like the island’s hiking and diving with the resident whale sharks were on the list—but they wanted them done in a way that put the health of the ecosystem first. So diving is highly managed and can only occur with a local guide. Tourists are also invited to participate in locally beneficial tourism experiences that include clearing invasive plant species or walking the retired donkeys, which were once used for transportation.
Some other places that have experienced extreme tourism are also looking at their options. Experimenting with tools to control numbers, Angkor Wat put higher ticket prices in place, while some Canadian and US parks are now limiting the number of visitors per day. In Belgium, before the pandemic, the city of Bruges developed a city-wide lodging plan to ensure locals aren’t pushed out by Airbnb, capped cruise ship visits and worked to spread short-term tourists through the week.
In some cases, locations have even temporarily closed to better evaluate local needs. Boracay, a small island in the Philippines, was closed for six months in 2018 to develop more sustainable infrastructure as well as an agri-tourism program with the Ati people. In Mexico, Islas Marietas near Puerto Vallarta closed for several months in 2016 to allow for habitat restoration and develop a plan to limit visitors.
The role of a visitor pledge
All of this brings us back to the Palau Pledge and a key element that Klassen says has tended to be forgotten.
“We’ve done all this work on the supply side; hotels can demonstrate how they're sustainable, tour operators are using local businesses and engaging with locals. But travellers also need to understand what their responsibilities are,” he says.
As travellers, our role in sustainable travel has often been reduced to trying to parse language while researching businesses that reflect our values. But Klassen believes destinations need to go beyond just trying to entice visitors to come—and actually tell them what’s expected of them.
A statement saying, “I recognize I have responsibilities in this country, and I pledge to adhere to these rules,” is one option, says Klassen.
A visitor pledge is something that countries like New Zealand, Iceland, and towns including Big Sur, South Lake Tahoe and Sonoma County are developing. Some places, including Rome, are even beefing up their tourism laws—ticketing people for wheeling suitcases on fragile ancient stairs or bathing their dog in a public fountain. New Zealand, which has The Tiaki Promise, is also taking an educational approach; their cheeky “travelling under the social influence” video series highlights Instagram’s role in overtourism.
In each case, specifics vary, depending on local needs, but the deeper message about accountability remains the same. Visitors should educate themselves, learn about local issues and then treat a place the way they’d treat something they care about.
“Visitors have responsibilities. It’s time we asked them to step up,” says Klassen.
At its core, travel is about connection says Quintos.
“Where we once used travel to get away from everything, the future of travel is about engagement,” she says.
In this vision, when local people decide on the form tourism should take, travellers will be able to participate at a more personal level. “Tourism will give us space to talk about long-hidden issues like racism, poverty or climate change, and result in deeper experiences like graffiti art tours, agri-tours and Indigenous tourism,” she says.
Though not everyone will opt for this form of travel, it will create a shift in the industry. “Regenerative tourism is still an ideal; it's something we’re imperfectly moving toward,” says Quintos. “As David Attenborough so eloquently phrased it, ‘We need to go from self-interest to common-interest.’ We really can’t afford not to.”Add this article to your reading list