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Designing tourism for good

10 min read

23 Ideas to inspire discussion and ignite action

How do we implement sustainable and responsible tourism that replenishes the natural, social and cultural resources on which tourism is based? While there is an array of ideas and initiatives emerging, there has been little opportunity to collect and curate all these insights in a way that can inspire, ignite interest and action on the ground. There is no recipe approach, but together there is an arc of possible actions that can steer us in more sustainable, inclusive and regenerative directions. In this post, I share snippets of practical ideas drawn from over the 25 years of consulting, research, industry and community engagement.

Design with nature

Anna Pollock argues that regenerative tourism is rising. Business and destination managers are starting to take notice. For some, it’s just plain old good sense, but for others, regenerative tourism is a difficult concept. It requires a change in mindset, it can mean questioning very deeply held assumptions, and with that comes a disruption in old ways of doing things that can be unsettling. Peeling back the layers, and explaining regenerative tourism in different ways, and from different perspectives, can reinforce the conversation and help to unleash nothing less than the social movement that is needed.

For planners, regenerative tourism is a new term for an older set of ideas that is well established. It’s nevertheless important to bring these ideas together, to strengthen the discussion rather than to compete across different disciplinary spaces.

Ian McHarg’s Design with Nature (1967) was a much-loved text and was already a classic by the time I was an undergraduate student. McHarg was a systems thinker, a man trained in urban planning and landscape architecture, inspired by biomimicry, and an interdisciplinary boundary spanner. Fifty-two years ago, Lewis Mumford, father of the Garden City movement, captured the importance of McHarg’s message in his forward:

“Despite nature’s many earlier warnings, the pollution and destruction of the natural environment has gone on, intensively and extensively, for the last three hundred years without awakening a sufficient reaction; and while industrialisation and urbanisation have transformed the human habitat, it is only during the last half a century that any systematic effort has been made to determine what constitutes a balanced and self-renewing environment, containing all the ingredients necessary for man’s biological property, social cooperation and spiritual stimulation.”

Even today, McHarg’s Design with Nature provides inspiration, outlining an approach to urban planning and landscape management that respected, and was informed by, nature. But it also begs the question about how many times we have to invent new terms, new perspectives, and listen to new ways of expressing these ideas before they start to inspire decision-makers, change agents and action. In tourism, the majority of professionals are trained within business and marketing schools, so it’s not surprising that they have not come across the perspectives advocated by planners, landscape architects and environmental scientists. An open mind, interdisciplinarity and willingness to learn from others are essential ingredients for innovation.

 Change is hard

I don’t want to get into a whole debate about the flow of information and knowledge here, but we can flag an obvious challenge – thought leadership. Part of the problem is the way knowledge has splintered and fractured into specialisms and collaboration is missing. Both the organisation and the incentivisation of work in higher education encourage individuals to carve out a research niche, build an individual reputation, and minimise meaningful engagement. In the process, researchers are encouraged to concoct their ‘impact’ in an ever-so-small aspect of an increasingly large and complex set of social challenges. So we need to look elsewhere for thought leadership. But it’s also a challenge of organisations and professions that define themselves in narrow terms and have little flexibility or motivation to span boundaries and look outside. Visionary thought leaders and boundary spanners find it hard to build traction in a world that awards narrowly-defined metrics and outputs generated through small-thinking, industrial-style research.

McHarg was a big-picture thinker, a boundary spanner, and a creative hack who could combine counter-intuitive thinking and draw parallels between unrelated observations to create new understandings. We need more of this. We also need a cacophony of voices to interpret, reiterate, expand and deepen insights through the use of different language, styles of communication, disciplinary lenses to target different audiences. This would drive the message further and to a wider range of thinkers and practitioners who combine deep thinking and practical wisdom.

In other words, without fear or favour, we need a new language and new thought leaders, and to give oxygen to big ideas. We need to question values and motivations which have led to the current accumulation of wealth in the one per cent, and we need to imagine new forms of economic exchange that are more sustainable, encourage resource renewal and replenishment, and new interpretations of community, well being and flourishing.

The process of changing our thinking — of moving towards regenerative tourism — requires that we embark on a process of creative thinking, of creating spaces of dialogue and engagement, and that we entertain new possibilities, new relationships, and new practices.

A planner’s perspective on regenerative tourism

So my intention here is to describe, interpret and explain how we might tourism as I understand it, from a tourism planner’s perspective. Following this, I provide a list of big and small actions derived from 25 years of consulting and research activation.

But first, I start with five fundamentals underpinning regenerative forms of tourism:

(1) Tourism is made possible by using environmental, social, cultural, financial and other resources. These resources are most often made up of a mix of common, public and private resources. Given that the vast majority of the resources that contribute to tourism are either common goods or in public ownership (e.g. national parks, scenic landscapes, reefs, rainforests, social vibe, cultures) we have a responsibility to manage these resources in perpetuity. The key question we need to ask then, is who benefits from using public resources?

(2) Not all tourism is the same. Tourism generates different kinds of social, economic and environmental value. Some forms of tourism generate net benefits while others produce net costs. It stands to reason then, that we need to move beyond ‘all tourism is good’ towards more nuanced understandings of what makes ‘good tourism’ and to ask ‘what forms of tourism do we want in our region or community?’.

(3) We cannot take more resources from the system than the system can replenish. We cannot assume that the system of which tourism is a part is based on endlessly renewable resources that will keep on giving. Our planet and its resources are finite, so we must manage change taking into account ultimate environmental thresholds (using my old supervisor Jerzy Kowlowski’s term) or planetary boundaries (acknowledging Johan Rockström as inspiration).

(4) We are all in this together. The health and well-being of all people depend on healthy ecosystems and processes. The science on biodiversity loss, ecosystem destruction, the climate crisis, and the impacts of population growth are concerning, but the collective and cumulative impact of all these changes is alarming. While these impacts tend to affect those who are marginalised and have less capacity to deal with the effects, it’s just common sense that we need to plan for and address the changes ahead. In tourism, there is little evidence that scenario planning is commonly used, and most strategy making relies on trend analysis and projections that fit a single (typically growth) scenario. Anticipating and planning for change is complex, it requires robust scenario building, visioning and planning approaches, but the consequences of not planning may be far worse.

(5) We need new economic models and a new relationship with capitalism. It’s clear that our current economic system or at least the ideologies underpinning it are producing what economists call ‘market failures’. Increasing inequality, declining ecosystem function, resource depletion, among other challenges, are evidence of the failures of the current system. This is not intended to be a divisive statement where conservatives stop reading! Rather, it acknowledges that we need to recalibrate and construct a different future to a projection of the past. Change is needed so that we can bring everyone along, leave no one behind, and ensure regeneration of the Earth’s resources.

Caring and responsibility for more than ourselves

Regenerative tourism captures the idea that

our social, economic and environmental systems need to work in balance

and that we cannot extract more from the system than can be replenished.

The central question for tourism then is how to plan for and manage the use of human and natural resources on which tourism is based. Given the complexity of the system, the sheer number of stakeholders involved, and the fact that individuals, businesses, destinations and governments are motivated by different interests and attitudes, managing stakeholder expectations is a complex task.

Using regenerative tourism as the aspiration, we can create a positive, constructive and non-partisan dialogue about what we can do. Anna Pollock is optimistic that tourism professionals are curious and committed. I share Anna’s sentiment that regenerative tourism represents a maturing of the sustainability debate because it finally moves the concept of sustainability from an out-there and someone-else-is-responsible set of ideas to a personal position about values, about one’s relationship with others in the world, and the importance of intentional action. In other words, we are starting to see a shift in the way we take responsibility and care for others. Care ethics draws attention to reciprocity and mutual dependence, and it positions us as ethically bound to each other. According to the leading scholar on care ethics, Carol Gilligan:

An ethics of care directs our attention to the need for responsiveness

in relationships (paying attention, listening, responding) and

to the costs of losing connection with oneself or with others.

Suzanne Cavanagh puts it simply, encouraging us to embrace transformation and find new ways of working with tourism:

“Our job is no short of crafting a tourism industry

that is responsible, caring, economically viable

and delivers a legacy worthy of our planet and its people”.

The challenge is massive and it’s easy to be overwhelmed about what to do. Indeed most of us accept that change is needed, but sometimes inspiration is missing or it’s difficult to come up with concrete actions. Few of us have the opportunity or budget to implement big solutions. Thinking about the challenge in terms of crafting small collaborative actions, drawing from and blended initiatives, and adapting to meet local conditions is more likely to be the framework under which we operate. So we need to think of and map out an arc of possibilities to inspire, to progress, and to implement caring, inclusive and regenerative forms of tourism.

In what follows I draw from 25 years of work to identify big and small ideas that can help us make progress. In no particular order, many of these ideas overlap. They are drawn from my experience, my research, my engagement in tourism communities, and many have never been written up. 1. Expand your literacies — develop your communication superpowers and the ability to transcend gaps between different kinds and forms of knowledge. Indigenous knowledge is vast, important and underutilised. 

2. Reduce carbon pollutants — by identifying opportunities across tourism supply chains and business ecosystems. Gothenburg is a great example, and communicating their position adds value to their brand!

3. Protect and restore ecosystems — design access taking into account environmental sensitivities and resilience. Raise attention and awareness among visitors of the importance and contribution of this restorative work.

4. Reduce the carbon footprint of tourism and events — everything from menus to the type of visitors that are targetted. Develop a low-carbon market strategy.

5. Re-evaluate goals — remember the value produced by tourism can be more than financial. Become familiar with impact investing, and measuring other kinds of value. Plan for a realistic future, taking into account climate projections and what that will really mean for your destination.

6. Go beyond tourism — tourism overlaps with many other sectors. Get involved and partner in initiatives in other sectors that overlap with tourism (e.g. transport, services, construction, waste, housing, employment services, etc.).

7. Define your values and build your purpose — identify your purpose (hopefully its more than only profit) and incorporate it into your business plan or organisation‘s mission and operation. Business and organisations with a higher purpose enjoy stronger customer engagement and presence and are likely to be more successful in the future.

8. Personalise your relationship with the SDGs — not all SDGs are created equal. Some are more important than others as the building blocks on which everything else depends. Interpret the SDGs and what they mean for your business, organisation and destination.

9. Explore the promise of planning and design — urban design and planning schemes provide a range of useful tools and opportunities to direct, guide, and encourage an appropriate type, style and form of tourism. Planning contributes to a sense of place, identity, experience, and the psychology of place as well as visitor management.

10. Strong leadership — build and support courageous leadership team with the strength to speak truth to power, awareness of the strengths and contributions of others, with empathy and great communication skills.

11. Build user-centred solutions using a design thinking toolkit — Inclusive user-centred design will design solutions that address the needs of both humans and nature so that each will have their needs met.

12. Nudging for good — Way back before environmental economics started using nudging to manipulate consumer decisions, environmental psychology was being used to manage visitor behaviour. Careful use of signage (or no signage) and other urban design elements like paths, street furniture, and planting created helped visitors make decisions, Use physical, economic, educational mechanisms to encourage access to resilient environments and discourage access in sensitive places, use co-location strategies to increase economies of scale, to shape visitation and development.

13. Deliver awesome experiences that connect people and places. Focus on the unique qualities of place and build awareness of those qualities. Protect and value ‘silent’ common resources that contribute to awesome experiences e.g. clean air, night skies, silence, connection to nature, and so on. Once they are denigrated they will be difficult to restore.

14. Design a responsible, caring tourism organisation — tourism organisations and their dedicated staff often have the best understanding of what their destination needs but can’t deliver because they are subject to top-down policy directions. What would your DMO look like if it were to deliver regenerative tourism experiences and opportunities? Some DMOs are designing their organisations and metrics to deliver what’s important to them and the results are inspiring.

15. Digitalisation — The digital economy is here. While tourism digital native firms are thriving, research shows that tourism SMEs tend to lag behind. Digital technologies offer new ways of doing business, connecting with suppliers, and building business ecosystems that can reduce environmental and social impacts of tourism.

16. Marketing — Adhering to ethical marketing principles is obvious. Beyond that, there’s been a big push on storytelling as a means of building an emotional connection with markets. In my experience, storytelling can be much more than a marketing tool (and we need to be wary that customers may also become cynical once everyone jumps onboard). Storytelling can also be used as a community-facing tool to build the community’s story and contribute to their sense of wellbeing, cohesion and ‘the welcome’ they can offer.

17. Creative thinking, making stakeholder engagement fun — flip the familiarization tour and take your local councillors and staff on a tour from hell to get them thinking about how roads, rates and rubbish contribute (or not) to the tourism experience.

18. Courage to do things differently. When Copenhagen called out ‘Tourism is Dead’ it was a clever strategic communication strategy signalling that it was time to stop, think and take a moment to reposition tourism. The strategy changed the manner and tone of the conversation, bought new stakeholders to the table, and bought time to develop a new direction. Consider the counter-intuitive!

19. Experiment, test, then experiment some more. Let’s face it, policy is one big experiment. Traditional policy-making has a long timeline – research, analysis, evaluation of options, decision, implementation – before change can be measured and evaluated. The alternative is to work in agile ways, activate change quickly by working with stakeholders in incubators and living labs. These are the new practices I mention above!

20. Engage the next generation. Logan City Council’s Paddock to Plate event engages high school students in producing food, culinary arts, hospitality and more. In the process, the students transition into ‘global citizens’ learning about food security and sustainability. Just the kind of people we need to navigate the future of tourism!

21. Mobile living is here to stay. Unleash the value of mobile dwellers, what they can offer, and how they can contribute. Growth in international students has promoted some destinations to examine the opportunities to tap into student markets. These visitors are likely to generate ‘sticky spend’ that stays in the community, goes deeper and extends further while generating a smaller carbon footprint.

22. Design the future of tourism work. Massive restructuring of economic systems will mean that the nature of work is changing both in quality and quality of jobs. Take a moment to think about what kinds of jobs do you want in your destination, then design jobs that will attract higher productivity, higher-earning workers.

23. Education and learning to empower a kinder world. Tourism and travel help us understand and appreciate the world, build tolerance and empathy. Tourism can facilitate learning, personal growth and an understanding of our place and responsibilities in the world. Connecting with local communities, valuing their input, and ensuring appropriate returns are essential. Opening up access to community gardens is a small example where visitors can learn about what sustainability means in a different cultural context.

Of course, the above list is a ‘brain dump’, unordered and in need of greater explanation. On the other hand, the limited structure can enhance your own interpretation and idea-generation. Good Luck!


— This article originally appeared on the author’s Linkedin page.

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