Regenerative thinking goes beyond sustainability

While destinations try to implement their best practices for sustainable tourism, forerunners already focus on regeneration. Is regenerative tourism just another trendy term amongst others, or what does it mean in practice – and why is it important?

This article has originally published in Finnish (suomeksi) by Saana Jaakkola, Valpas Media, in comercial cooperation with Mood of Finland company (owned by Anu Nylund). Saana Jaakkola has translated the article in English.

In December 2021, a small but enthusiastic group of Finnish travel professionals interested in the transformation of the tourism industry joined an online event organised by Anu Nylund. Through her company, Mood of Finland, Nylund offers educational and tourism services focusing on responsible and sustainable tourism.

Not all participants were from Finland. The keynote came from Chile; Carlos Briceño and Martín Araneda from Turismo Regenerativo inspired the participants with real-life examples of a new, refreshing type of tourism. Regenerative tourism.

The Global Regenerative Tourism Initiative gathers together tourism professionals, entrepreneurs, influencers and the locals living with the impacts of tourism from all over the world. The collaborative platform aims to urge a global mindset change from sustainable and responsible towards a regenerative way of thinking and action.

When talking about regenerative tourism, this is where we need to begin: from a complete change of mindset.

What is the purpose of tourism?

Carlos Briceño and Martín Araneda led the participants for a virtual adventure to the Southern tip of South America, in the middle of Patagonia’s breath-taking and pristine landscapes. Far away from people, far away from everything.

Picture: Pixabay free

Then, they dropped a question: what is the purpose of tourism? Why would tourists need to be taken to this remote, untouched destination?

– Tourism has to serve another kind of purpose than just entertaining tourists, Carlos Briceño said.

Until now, tourism developers worldwide have thought about what a destination could give to tourism and tourists. Regenerative tourism turns the question around and asks what could tourism and tourists give to the destination. How could tourism increase the well-being of the local environment and people?

– We have to think about how we could take travellers to these pristine locations in a way that benefits the destination. How could we help tourists create a deep and meaningful connection with the place, not only with its beauty but also the problems and threats that put it in danger? Briceño specified.

The principles of sustainable and responsible tourism have instructed us to minimise the negative impacts of travel. Regenerative mindset teaches us that reducing the downsides isn’t enough. It teaches us to build back better.

By its simplest definition, regenerative tourism ensures that tourism positively impacts the destination. Tourism should bring improvements instead of just minimising the negatives, leaving the place in a better condition than before.

In reality, regenerative tourism goes further than this.

Raising awareness of regenerative tourism in Finland

Finland aims to be the world’s leading destination of sustainable tourism. Yet, there hasn’t been much discussion over regenerative tourism in Finland.

Anu Nylund believes the situation is about to change.

Nylund has started her journey along the path of regenerative tourism by following and learning from the world’s best-known experts and influencers. One of them is Anna Pollock, the founder of Conscious Travel and one of the most famous specialists and advocates in regenerative tourism.

Anu Nylund has put regenerative thinking into practice with Love Forest Finland. Her concept encourages people to plant trees and supports the protection of old-growth forests and marshland restoration through the Finnish Natural Heritage Foundation. ”By planting a tree in the soil, people rediscover their long-lost connection with nature”, Nylund has noticed.

Nylund has studied regenerative tourism on an extensive online course hosted by Turismo Regenerativo. Currently, she’s preparing a series of webinars and workshops in collaboration with Finnish and international experts – including Anna Pollock, Carlos Briceño and Martín Araneda – to raise awareness of regenerative tourism in Finland.

It’s not going to be an easy task.

– We need a complete change in the way we think about tourism. We have to let go of old habits and stay open and receptive to new ideas and information. Regenerative tourism isn’t about individual actions; the transition requires plenty of committed people and significant structural changes, Nylund emphasises.

Not everyone will be able to do so, Nylund believes.

– Some people aren’t willing to change, and that’s our greatest challenge.

New metrics for measuring success

For decades, visitor numbers and tourism income have been the leading indicators of success. The common goal has been to increase both, no matter the true costs.

Less attention has been paid to the negative impacts that tourism causes to destinations, their environment and natural resources. The development of tourism facilities, services, and infrastructure has taken its toll on natural areas. Often tourists also consume utilities, such as water and electricity, vastly more than the locals.

These success rates have been followed more intensively during the pandemic than ever before. Meanwhile, the climate and biodiversity crises stay forgotten in the background, even though tourism plays a two-faced role in them; tourism worsens the environmental issues that will massively influence the future of the whole industry.

Regenerative mindset requires defining new and more humane metrics for measuring success.

Carlos Briceño shared a real-life example from Costa Rica, where success is measured by the number of hummingbirds returning to the area after winter instead of the annual increase of visitor numbers.

Experts aren’t exaggerating when they talk about the significant changes required. Anna Pollock, one of the world’s leading specialists on regenerative tourism, often quotes Albert Einstein:

”The world we have created is a product of our thinking; it cannot be changed without changing our thinking. No problem can be solved with the same consciousness that created it.”

We can’t solve problems by acting and thinking the same way we did when we created the issues we face today. And that’s why a complete change of mindset is required; we have to acknowledge that people are part of nature, part of planet Earth, where everything – and everyone – is connected.

Nature persistently regenerates itself to ensure it can keep flourishing. Us, people, would need to do the same.

From continuous growth to continuous flourishing

The most well-known example of regenerative thinking comes from farming. Regenerative cultivation heals the soil and produces climate benefits by increasing biodiversity and improving the soil’s capacity to preserve and sequester carbon. Healthy soil provides a more abundant harvest, much to the producer’s advantage.

Regenerative cultivation helps the soil flourish. How could we transfer this mindset into tourism?

Anu Nylund talks about the sense of place. It means including the local community in tourism development starting from step one.

– When discussing regenerative tourism, the key is to ask the locals how they see their home and how they would like it to be preserved for generations to come. What are the main aspects they want to share with tourists? What are they most proud of, why do they want to live there and, most importantly, what kind of visitors do they wish to invite there?

Nylund emphasises that regenerative thinking requires innovative efforts for restoring the environment and preventing disadvantages instead of quietly watching the slow devastation of the destination.

Prevention isn’t only better for the environment and local communities; it’s also economically more viable policy than finding ways to rehabilitate a ruined destination.

– In practice, it could mean restoring an abandoned village school for tourism activities instead of new buildings, Nylund specifies.

There are notable examples of regenerative tourism from Belgium to Patagonia and New Zealand but also in Finland. Anu Nylund benchmarks Lapland Shephard Holidays, a new concept for rural tourism designed in terms of local well-being.

Instead of continuous growth, regenerative tourism pursues continuous vitality and flourishment. Therefore we need to consider how tourism could make destinations and their communities flourish.

But how could we change our mindsets towards regenerative thinking in a world where responsibility and sustainability remain distant goals?

International traveller – the change agent of the future

Our virtual trip to Patagonia started to provoke thoughts and conversations among the participants. Some of them shared memories of destinations that lost their sense of place in only two years when a small, idyllic village surrounded by subtropical forests transformed into a hotel-filled tourist destination chasing ever-growing visitor numbers. Gone were the forests, together with the village.

Some participants questioned Finland’s outspoken goal to become the world’s leading example of sustainable tourism. How could we possibly change our mindsets towards regenerative tourism when more Charter planes carry one-day visitors from the UK to Lapland and back than ever before?

– Travel companies can earn their income with fewer visitors, but it has to come from the strategy. We need significant changes and decisions about future ways of doing business to preserve our nature. This transition needs to be supported financially, states Nylund.

She believes that travellers play an essential role in the changing environment. Nylund refers to travellers as change agents of the future, the empowering force requiring actual benefits for the destinations. Every avid traveller can – and a growing number of travellers will – think of ways to leave their travel destination in a better shape than before.

This force could affect tourism for example in Lapland.

– What if it was the travellers who say they don’t want to travel to Lapland to help it stay authentic? If travellers were to make that choice, the decisions would need to follow.

Nylund challenges local communities worldwide to consider how they would get by if the visitor numbers would crash permanently. What would be the new, regenerative services to help the destination flourish and locals earn a living with fewer visitors?

– We’re most likely heading towards time and age where travellers say they rather pay for destinations not to welcome tourists. They’ll prefer virtual trips, where local professionals guide them through their travel destination, and it will be enough as they know it’s the only way to rescue it.

Nylund refers to a well-known phrase that states: Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man how to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.

Regenerative tourism goes further than this. It aims to nurture the environment to ensure enough fish for future generations.

– This applies to Finland, too. At the moment, we’re on the road of overfishing, reaching the limits of the destination capacity. We have to change our mindsets, or we’ll be heading for the worse.

Einstein already knew it. As Anna Pollock often refers, no problem can be solved with the same consciousness that created it.

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