Experiencing new places is a mechanism for us to foster appreciation, grow empathy, and build desire to protect our natural world. But the act of traveling doesn’t have the best track record for the planet.
Tourism significantly contributes to the climate crisis, representing about 8 percent of global emissions. Flocks of visitors cause many more problems, including overdevelopment and degradation of natural areas.
One of the terrible ironies of the climate crisis is that some of the most beautiful – and popular – places in the world are also the most vulnerable. As temperatures rise, extreme weather events increase, water sources dry up and natural habitats die, these places and the way that people interact with them must change.
Hence the emergence of regenerative tourism. The main goal is for visitors to have a positive - rather than a low or “sustainable” - impact on their destination, meaning that they leave it in a better condition than how they found it.
The concept goes beyond "not damaging" the environment and aims to actively revitalize and regenerate it, resulting in a positive cycle of impacts on local communities and economies: sustainable regeneration. This may seem like a faraway dream today, but innovations across the travel ecosystem are already helping tourists reimagine their role in protecting the places they visit.
From regenerative itineraries to trip-planning tools with emissions data, load balancing mechanisms, and efficient multimodal transit, new systems are helping destinations offload tourism clusters, attract high-quality travelers, and promote year-round visitation as opposed to peak seasonality. At the destination itself, restoration of wild places - whether desert, rainforest, or wetlands - creates unique attractions where tourists can experience the natural world.
Tourism isn’t going anywhere - but we can leverage it to foster appreciation for our environment. In order to preserve our natural heritage, we must design new techniques to protect these places from the beginning, rather than scrambling to save them after the fact.
The Regeneration Mandate
Some destinations are implementing this visitation style by force, like the Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA), suggesting the state implement a “regenerative tourism fee,” that would directly support programs to regenerate Hawaii’s resources, protect natural ecosystems, and address un- or underfunded conservation objectives. While some communities are mandating this style of visitation, others are encouraging low impacts with their infrastructure.
Another mechanism for regenerative tourism is actually inviting visitors to participate in conservation activities. Several travel agencies have emerged to allow visitors to both explore and volunteer while on vacation.
As an example, Hands Up Holidays offers eco-luxury vacations that combine volunteering and sightseeing all over the world. On their eight-day San Francisco adventure, visitors stay at Cavallo Point Lodge at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge and receive a private tour of San Francisco, Napa Valley or Sonoma. Led by guides, they also help restore the native ecosystems, including sand dunes, prairies, and the unique San Francisco coastal habitat.
Perhaps destinations could allow visitors to opt into volunteer programs over paying a fee, considering that many travelers are pursuing this form of travel without any incentives other than giving back. We can even envision a future where the travelers most committed to regenerative practices might earn rewards or discounts on their stays, commensurate with their contributions to the local environment.
For consumers looking to plan their own vacations, we’re beginning to see technical infrastructure that enables informed choices with a better understanding of their impact while planning.
For example, Google Flights shows users the projected carbon emissions of various itineraries, so that a buyer can consider their environmental footprint in the same way they would price and duration.
These emissions estimates are flight-specific as well as seat-specific. For instance, newer aircraft are generally less polluting than older aircraft, and emissions increase for premium economy and first-class seats because they take up more space and account for a larger share of total emissions, according to a Google blog post.
To put these estimates in context, flights with significantly lower emissions will be labeled with a green badge. And if you want to prioritize carbon impact, you can sort all of the results to bring the greenest flights to the top of the list.
Other travel search tools like Kayak are promoting multimodal travel opportunities, with their Trip Builder feature. Allowing consumers to easily compare the possibilities of flying, driving, or taking a train or bus to their destination can open doors to less carbon-intensive travel, while creating opportunities for unique experiences that tourists would otherwise miss.
KAYAK also allows travelers to sort their flights by “Least CO2.” The U.K. version of its site has an entire page dedicated to responsible travel, even encouraging users that it’s “their turn” to create an eco-travel guide for their favorite destinations.
In another case, Airbnb recently added a category-based search in May, allowing users to discover one-of-a-kind homes in places they may never have considered before.
When you open Airbnb, you’re presented with 55 categories that organize homes based on their style, location, or proximity to a travel activity. Search results are also organized by categories that are relevant to each destination. The categories include activities to physical attributes including A-frames, eco-homes, castles, off-the-grid, waterfront stays, grand pianos, creative spaces, and ski-in/out.
“This can help alleviate over-tourism by redistributing travel to new locations beyond the same popular destinations,” Airbnb mentioned in a press release.
As tourism spreads to these hidden corners of the world, there’s never been a better time to reimagine how we manage flows of people, while still enabling travelers to connect with the natural world.
The idea of category-based, rather than place-based search could be a tool for places that struggle with over-tourism and crowding. Many National Parks, like Zion and Yosemite, are moving towards a lottery system for entry or popular hikes to manage their flow of visitors.
Today, not being selected to visit the park can be a massive disappointment, especially on tight itineraries. Imagine instead that a category-based search tool offered alternative places for those travelers to explore, along with activities off the beaten path. Neighboring communities could collaborate to promote offerings that don’t receive as much love or attention as the few top attractions in the area.
Responsible travel often involves narratives like “offsetting” given the extremity of the climate crisis. We must move from reaction to prevention and think about positive-impact design in every step of the user experience.
While several popular destinations are working to restore or rethink the way they interact with masses of tourists, we can look to established urban infrastructure design inspiration.
Amsterdam totals 767 km in bike lanes and paths across the city and sees an average of 2 million km cycled daily by residents. But the city wasn’t always a cyclist’s paradise: They built their world-renowned bike infrastructure. At one point, urban policymakers believed cars were the travel mode of the future and entire neighborhoods were destroyed to make way for automobile commuting, parking, and traffic.
To work towards its goal of being emissions-free by 2030, Amsterdam has developed its infrastructure to make the sustainable option the easiest one. Roughly two-thirds of urban journeys in the Dutch capital take place on two wheels, and only 19 percent of citizens use cars every day.
Take Hong Kong as another example, the Mass Transit Railway (MTR) Corporation, which manages the subway and bus systems on Hong Kong Island and, since 2006, in the northern part of Kowloon, is considered the gold standard for transit management worldwide.
Most commutes fall between HK $4 and HK$20 (about 50 cents to $3), depending on the distance. The public transportation system in Hong Kong can take you anywhere from remote fishing villages to rooftop bars overlooking the city’s jaw-dropping skyline, often in a fraction of the time and cost it would take by car.
Both of these destinations have made it easy for visitors and residents alike to pick a mode of transportation that has a minimal impact on the destination.
For so long, tourism success was defined by growing numbers. But we’ve witnessed the destruction that occurs when masses of visitors fail to consider the survivability of the very places they pay to visit.
A recommendation to adopt new sustainable key performance indicators for tourism, and go “from basic statistics on trips and overnight stays to data on the social, environmental and economic impacts of tourism” has emerged from the European Commission.
We’re beginning to understand the importance of moving beyond “heads in beds.” To truly realize the potential of regenerative travel, we have to start innovating long before the journey begins.
Inspirational itineraries that appeal to conscious travelers and trip-planning tools built on emissions data can shape mindsets before travelers take off. Efficient and multimodal transit systems can offload tourist clusters, while category-based search can help alleviate traffic. At the destination, ecosystem and biodiversity restoration can also create one-of-a-kind experiences and lifelong memories for conscious travelers.
Incentives can encourage year-round visitation over peak seasonality, while rewards systems can deliver tangible benefits for the most responsible travelers. As the movement grows, we can imagine travel becoming a mechanism for destinations to recruit volunteers, advocates, and changemakers.
Ultimately, success is going to vary by destination, but travel still represents a primary source of connection and investment in natural places. So let’s ditch the whole “don’t travel” narrative. It’s not realistic. Instead, let’s work to develop an even deeper appreciation for these precious places by designing new tools, systems and experiences to leave them better than we found them.