THE REGENERATIVE PARADIGM IN TOURISM
An overview on the concept of regeneration — why it matters, the supporting trends, its potential for impact and its implementation in tourism and hospitality.
The tourism industry, with its contribution to global GDP of 10% and over 300 million jobs, is one of the sectors that has suffered the most from the pandemic with a 75% decrease in visitors compared to pre-Covid. And unfortunately, it is not expected to fully recover until 2024, a recent McKinsey paper stated. Therefore, there is an urgent need to find innovative ways to ease this tourism crisis and prevent further repetition.
But tourism was facing difficulties before the pandemic started; the WTTC had warned of the consequences of over-tourism in 2016, saying ´we need to change how we think about travel, if we really want to be sure that the positive impacts outweigh the negatives´. The loss of image the industry has suffered in recent years brings up the question of what kind of tourism we want to have in the future. In a moment of crisis, we should not forget to look at the potential it might present. If we see Covid as an opportunity for innovation or even as a catalyst for change, we could come out of this with new ideas and concepts on how to improve, maybe even reinvent tourism. A key role in this could be played by the approach of regeneration, which some regard as ´the new sustainable´. In this article we explore the key aspects of regeneration and its implications for tourism and the hospitality industries.
THE STATE OF TOURISM
Tourism was one of the fastest growing economic sectors with an average CAGR of around 4.5%, outpacing global economic growth each year during the last decade. The pre-pandemic forecasts were positive too, predicting a further annual growth from 2019 to 2027 of over 5%, with each fourth new job being created in this industry.
Apart from its economic weight, the industry comes with a number of particular characteristics. First of all, tourism is not a neatly structured, vertically integrated industry, but it is a complex network comprising thousands of self-organising agents — more than 95% of tourism enterprises are SMEs. As a consequence, the coordination between the public and private sector makes consistent protocols and transparent communication difficult. In a situation of crisis, this represents a challenge as a lack of consistency creates a lot of uncertainty. As well as that tourism has some enchanting virtues, as it operates at the intersections of different social domains and connects a variety of industry sectors. It is a key-industry that can pioneer fundamental change by taking on social responsibility with bold innovation for the common good.
The strong growth during recent years has come with effects that have severely impacted the global ecosystem and the inhabitants of most tourism destinations. Growing visitor numbers bring revenue but along with that come problems and the hailed industry has become more of a stressor than a benefactor in many heavily travelled areas, be it big cities or remote islands. The industries capacity to create jobs is often used in its defence, but most of these jobs are poorly paid, using low skilled labour and of a temporary nature. A shift towards creating sustainable livelihoods would be a positive evolution, supporting the resilience of local labour markets and communities. The awareness of the importance of quality over quantity and net impact are growing. Like in any other sector the quantitative maximisation is likely to be a dead-end. At a certain stage in a growth cycle one needs to redefine priorities and this could be exactly that decisive moment for global tourism.
The evolution of tourism has always been a reflection of societal changes, representing social and cultural trends, and serving as an indicator for economic development. The current megatrends show that our society is evolving fast, probably the fastest ever. Driven by technological progress and globalisation, our needs are changing and thus will have a knock-on effect on tourism. And now, on top of that, many of these trends are being reinforced and accelerated by the pandemic. Here we discuss the key trend overviews:
Strong changes in demographics at both ends of the spectrum are occuring, eg. downaging in the segment of the elderly. General lifestyles are changing with a growing focus on wellbeing but also an increasing complexity in our life networks, resulting in ever increasing mobility. Excessive multi-optionality leads to overwhelm with more last minute bookings and an exchangeability of offers. As a result of this we are seeing a strong need to slow down, and for individuals lives to be simplified. A side-effect of this is a new focus on regionality with people wanting to return to rural areas, escaping urban life.
The impact of the digital age has increased transparency, asymetry and the mixing of traditional sectors and has led to a reduction of market barriers resulting in the entrance of providers from outside the industry. Price-transparency has increased price-sensitivity and the need for seamless one-stop online purchasing. In that context, one should not forget that a seamless journey is defined by the quality of the travel experience as a whole and not just by the technology implemented during the booking process. The widespread use of networks and platforms has also changed interactions and paved the ground for the sharing-economy and ´new work´. The lines between between work and leisure have been blurred, and associated phenomena like digial nomads, home-office, co-working and workations have emerged, creating what is now known as ´third spaces´ (spaces that merge work and leisure).
There seems to be a growing awareness of the interconectedness of the ecosystem and human activities. A new sense of neo-ecology is emerging that includes new values and socio-economic ideas. There is a higher sensibility for the internalisation of external effects, whereas actual consumption behaviour is often in stark contrast to this. There is a willingness to pay a premium for ´guilt-free travel´, but this requires creative price-service combinations with clear added value.
Regarding the political plane, a dwindling level of trust in authorities can be observed, which represents a move towards decentralised global systems in an increasingly multipolar world-order. At the same time there is a growing need for security that is fuelled by fear of change, resulting in attempts for more control. On this topic it is good to keep in mind the relevance of regulatory interventions by governments since sustainability measures that are only driven by consumer choices are pretty ineffective and may never be able to cause systemic shifts. Therefore coordinated government policy decisions are needed to create real impact.
When the Brundtland report popularized the term ´sustainable development´ in the 1980´s, the following definition was used: “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. Since then we have come a long way and the term sustainability has become common use. At the same time, it has become clear that sustainability alone will not solve the climate crisis, (which in the 1980´s was still far away on the horizon) since sustainability only slows down the damage by trying to sustain the status quo in doing less harm. In addition to that, a lot of the current sustainability measures are simply window-dressing, since they don’t question the current modus operandi and its worldview. It is therefore a problem-solving approach that is reactive and not focused enough on potential.
A key difference is the underlying thinking since regenerative sustainability is based on a more holistic worldview. This requires a regenerative perspective to embrace a whole systems thinking approach, focusing on healthy ecosystems to realise that everything is interconnected. With regeneration we look at our relationship with life and become stewards of the future, thus transcending the goals of sustainability. A whole systems approach means a paradigm shift in thinking as it goes deeper than a mind-set shift. It addresses a shared set of values, beliefs and assumptions on how our world works and thus shapes our sense making. In that context a metaphor is being used, which compares the current system and it´s heritage from the industrial revolution as mechanical and reductionist. Whereas in regeneration we start to see ourselves as living beings in living systems, learning from and caring for nature. We shift from best to better practices, which means that there are no tried and tested recipes and checklists.
Adopting a regenerative mind-set could be a turning point. Once we see ourselves as part of the whole, a reset of our perception starts to take place and we begin to think differently about our role in the world. Only when we understand life´s interconnections, can we respond to what´s happening around us. Our capacity to thrive within the web of life depends on our ability to develop eco-literacy which does need to happen fast. The success of a natural system is associated with its capacity to maintain itself and create the conditions for all life to thrive.
Regeneration views growth not as expansion in size but as the development of increasing complexity, productivity and balance. In human terms this means to ensure that all aspects of our humanity, from mind, body to heart and soul, can flourish and work in harmony with one another. I am nevertheless not suggesting that our current sustainability measures should be dropped, or not be developed further; they just have to be complemented by more regenerative practices. This will allow us to create more resilient ecosystem and communities that can thrive in the future.
REGENERATION IN TOURISM
Change occurs when a critical mass of people and organisations can collectively envision a different future. This will unavoidably need a process of learning and unlearning. Tourism has been operating for too long with a manufacturing mind-set, where destinations become factories, extracting value and externalising the costs of their impact on the ecosystem. If the post-pandemic industry simply recovers, without addressing those issues it will set itself up for future crisis. The opportunity of rethinking the industry, creating new approaches and a new understanding of what a travel experience could be, should not be wasted. If we start to adopt more regenerative perspectives, we get an idea of the potential that lies in the current situation. When traveling starts to play a role again as provider of personal growth experiences with its core vocation being hospitable, it will experience a renaissance.
As travellers are seeking more profound experiences, the importance of meaningful connections between people and places becomes essential. Great importance goes to the sense of place, as this is the foundation that connects people. It is in the setting of a place where things happen and regeneration always starts locally. Creating and honouring a sense of place is an integral regenerative practice as it fully immerses the traveller in the story of the local history and culture. Seeing this as an exchange where we learn from the place and vice versa allows the place to co-evolve, revealing its character and its potential. Tourism should become more about relations and development and it is up to us to define what that should embody. Once we start to look at the net benefit tourism has in a destination, we realize how important the health of the entire ecosystem is. But the regeneration of an ecosystem can only be achieved if the major stakeholders start aligning around a common purpose, sharing trust and actively collaborating. Such a purpose could be to redesign tourism in a way that it sustains livelihoods, whilst developing our innate human potential by providing nourishing experiences as a response to a longing for inspiration and wholeness. Working with the net benefit in mind, will also require the implementation of new KPI´s that measure success more on the qualitative side, as well as starting to consider the triple bottom line in every decision, which entails people, profit and the planet.
A regenerative tourism economy can leverage the potential of each person involved, its businesses and communities and as a result, create positive feedback loops that could lead to higher spending and an increase in length of stay.
We have to be mindful of the fact that this is an emergent process, a paradigm doesn’t just get established in a day. So its about creating a fertile ground for these new ideas and shared learnings, which will allow life and tourism to thrive.
REGENERATION IN HOSPITALITY
So how can one integrate regenerative principles in a hotel or incorporate them to any other service that a visitor uses during his trip or stay? By creating the circumstances for regeneration with your guest experiences. By crafting spaces for engagement, interaction and insight, the guests are invited to learn and be inspired. We could say that we engage travellers in a collaborative discovery of life, which might be the first step to trigger a transformative, or memorable experience. If we see hospitality as offering quality of life via inspiring human encounters, then how the guest experiences are designed is of the utmost importance.
And how do we deal with that growing need of visitors for authentic, transformative holiday experiences? Since with a growing individualisation, it is more of a challenge to design offerings that appeal to everybody. Therefore the participation of the visitor and the act of co-creation of their experience gains importance. This is a new approach that might not appeal to everybody right away but it is applicable with certain adaptations to almost any segment and setting. So regeneration is not a concept that applies only to the luxury segment, it can also be applied to the mass market, which is actually expected to be affected most by the pandemic.
With the growth of business-models that are inspired by the sharing economy, people have started to be more receptive when it comes to sharing resources or using crowd-sourced marketplaces. Hence succesful providers will try to embrace this evolution and start to engage in new and lateral cooperations; thus creating spaces of resonance that allow the unfolding of experiences that were not possible before. Creative and emotional storytelling will support the emergence of regeneration smart destinations, where hybrid and neo-eco concepts are inspired by glocalisation (the merge of global and local perspectives).
As a hotel you are part of the local community, with your influence going way beyond the property line and even the existence of the business. So as a starting point, begin by assessing opportunities as to where you can add value. As a guideline we can use the different capitals for this; some speak of the five capitals (financial, natural, produced, human, social), others differentiate eight of them by adding the dimensions of intellectual, cultural and political capital. It can also be helpful to use the SDGs as inspiration and pick a domain or two to focus on. The UNWTO has recently launched a platform called Tourism for SDGs with the aim of bringing the 17 goals closer to tourism.
The growing digitalisation and tendency to hi-tech should not make us forget that there is also a trend towards hi-touch, meaning emotions and personal connection. Individualisation is currently co-existing with a movement that advocates a more social and community driven behaviour. So we see a tendency to balance the unstoppable technological progress with a need for romance and simplicity.
With a regenerative approach to human resources, which can be seen as an investment in the company culture; attention is paid less on using people and more on developing their unique potential to help meet their aspirations and then those of their company or community. This would help to raise engagement levels, reduce turnover and even increase productivity. This will be essential as the human factor is the decisive element in the creation and delivery of compelling experiences.
At the moment a lot of operators and owners are thinking about strategy, positioning and how to adapt to the new normal. If we focus on the ideal scenario we would like to create for our business and the industry at large, we can start to include them in regenerative ways to our mid and long-term strategies. But how to translate these goals into concrete measures is the key question. How will that relate to investments, operational procedures, standards, marketing and communication? The most important aspect is to start understanding and embodying this new paradigm of regeneration and its underlying trends and human needs. This will then start to guide decisions on all levels and thus have its direct results in the design of operations and positionings. The key point is the authenticity with which this is achieved. The modern traveller is becoming wary of ´greenwashing´ attempts with lip services in PR and communication. By making teams more agile and engaged, individual strengths and passions will be brought to the table, thus increasing resilience towards uncertain and exterior influences. This increase in collaboration amongst different players and stakeholders by pooling structures, resources and data will also help to move towards regeneration.
So basically the concept of regeneration offers us an opportunity to rethink not only our industry but also the purpose we want to have in our lives, giving us a glimpse of a different reality that might sound a bit utopian at first but is definitely desirable and achievable. Finally, we have to ask ourselves if we actually have a choice, do we want to continue as we have been in the past, or do we want to be brave and create a better world for ourselves and for our children?
Read the follow-up article where I apply the regenerative vision to a concrete destination: https://martinhohn.medium.com/regeneration-of-tourism-in-ibiza-abf7404cf95a
The author works at the intersection of regenerative placemaking & social innovation and is currently living in Ibiza, Spain. For more information on his work: www.atma.life