The tourism industry across the globe and in The Bahamas continues to reshape itself in this new normal with a lot of uncertainties clouding the strategies that are put in place as we continue to learn as we go. Nonetheless, what is certain in all these strategies and plans is that a business-as-usual approach is almost certainly wrong.
All tourism-related stakeholders must innovate a new approach. The current crisis may not be a one-off. In the future, we could possibly face similar or different types of crises more frequently that will require the industry to transform for the better. Staying resilient will be the order of the new norm. Advancing despite the adversity is key for the tourism industry to continue to stay relevant. Over the past many months, on behalf of University of The Bahamas, I had the opportunity to facilitate a series of webinars with the Tourism Development Corporation (TDC). The salient discussions in all of the sessions were on how the tourism industry in The Bahamas needs to innovate, transform and diversify. One such transformation that is gaining momentum in other parts of the globe is the old but highly relevant concept of “regenerative tourism”.
The tourism industry is still hopeful for a post-vaccine return to travel that will be better than it was before March 2020 – i.e. a more responsible, smarter, greener and less crowded destination. But isn’t that what sustainable tourism is all about, which aimed to find the equilibrium between the economic, social and environmental impacts associated with travel? Well, that is the aspirational limit that every destination aimed to achieve before the pandemic. Post-pandemic, “regenerative travel or tourism” or basically leaving a place better than you found it, may be the way forward for global tourism including The Bahamas.
According to Anna Pollock, Conscious Travel, in her presentation in 2019: “Regenerative tourism is based on a fresh understanding that the visitor economy in general and the destination in particular is not an industrial production line but a living, networked system embedded in a natural system called nature and subject to nature’s operating rules and principles.” She further added, “Regenerative tourism is not about stopping marketing or even about de-growth; it’s simply about agreeing to apply a more mature, robust, creative understanding of what growth means in nature and that is to develop as in de-veil, or reveal the potential inherent in every living thing and allow it to become more – as in more complex, more beautiful, more adaptable, more resilient and more capable of living life to the full.”
This concept can be adapted to tourism. The key point is we need to protect the very resources that tourism relies on – commitment from the host and guest in stewarding the human and natural resources. Thus, what the community wants to share and what the visitors value becomes important to build greater creativity, collaboration and resilience.
The old concept of sustainable tourism is a low bar compared to regenerative tourism. Regenerating a destination is more critical post COVID-19 compared to merely sustaining a destination. Sustainable tourism says “do not make a mess of the destination”, whereas regenerative tourism says, “Let us better enhance the destination for future generations.” Sustainable practice is doing the minimum to maintain the status quo; regeneration involves restoring and regenerating the capability to live. This should be the premise of all tourism strategies in the future. If regeneration is not possible, the tourism strategy has failed in the long term.
principles of regenerative tourism
The coalition “Future of Tourism”, which includes the Center for Responsible Travel, Destination Stewardship Center, Green Destinations, Sustainable Travel International, Tourism Cares and the Travel Foundation, with the guidance of the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC), introduced 13 guiding principles that “provide a clear moral and business imperative for building a healthier tourism industry while protecting the places and people on which it depends”. The Bahamas can adapt these principles which will lead the tourism industry in being regenerative rather than just sustainable.
(1) See the whole picture. Recognize that tourism in The Bahamas involves the destination as a whole. This includes all the business entities, ecosystems, natural resources, cultural assets and traditions, communities, aesthetics and built infrastructure.
(2) Use sustainability standards. Use or adapt internationally approved minimum criteria for sustainable tourism practices for both industry and destinations.
(3) Collaborate in destination management. All tourism development must include collaboration and equal participation by the government, the private sector, civil society organizations and the diverse local communities.
(4) Choose quality over quantity. In the current norm, mass tourism should be part of history as we move towards high-yield niche tourism products and services to enhance the travel experience while sustaining the character of the destination and benefiting local communities.
(5) Demand fair income distribution. Manage leakages due to poor policies that result in unequal tourism benefits within destination communities. Regenerate income (rather than sustain income) is key during long periods of crisis.
(6) Reduce tourism’s burden. Every destination must account for all tourism costs that the local communities or businesses have to incur to provide the experience to visitors. This includes local tax burdens, social and environmental impacts and rainy-day funds during a crisis. What is critical is to develop a model that optimizes and generates net-positive impacts for the communities and the environment.
(7) Redefine economic success. Rather than measuring the raw contribution to growth in GDP, develop or use metrics that specify destination benefits such as small business development, distribution of income, and enhancement of sustainable local supply chains. The Gross National Happiness Index used by Bhutan is one example.
(8) Mitigate climate impacts. Strive to follow accepted scientific consensus on needed reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Invest in green infrastructure and a fast reduction in transport emissions involved in tourism – air, sea and ground.
(9) Close the loop on resources. It may be difficult during the current pandemic, but when we achieve a certain norm, reduce or eliminate the use of disposable plastics and all other single use items by tourism related businesses. We have already started doing this but we have not reached the transition to circular resource use – i.e. reusing, repurposing, recycling and recovery.
(10) Contain tourism’s land use. As far as possible (which may be a challenge in The Bahamas), limit high-occupancy resort tourism to concentrated areas only. Moving large numbers of tourists to resorts that will take over the coasts, islands and cays should be avoided so as to retain the geographical character, local access and critical ecosystems.
(11) Diversify source markets. In the wake of the current pandemic, we have learned the impact of not diversifying the economy and an over reliance on tourism. International tourism must be balanced with robust domestic tourism. Domestic tourism is more resilient in the midst of a crisis and will also raise the local community and residents’ perceived value of their own natural and cultural heritage.
(12) Protect sense of place. As we move into a new norm post-COVID-19, visitors will be encouraged to visit destinations that are diverse, uncrowded and safe. Destinations that are able to retain and enhance their identity and distinctiveness will survive. Thus, tourism policies and business practices that protect and benefit natural, scenic and cultural assets must be encouraged and supported.
(13) Operate businesses responsibly. Reward and incentivize tourism businesses and associated enterprises which support these regenerative principles through their actions and develop strong local supply chains.
Applying regenerative concept for tourism in The Bahamas
So, the million-dollar question: how can we apply this concept for tourism in The Bahamas? We are aware that when tourism does well, it can benefit the local communities; incentivize the preservation of culture, heritage and nature; and enrich the tourists’ experience of the destination. On the contrary, irresponsible destinations will erode the value of the tourism product and services and disrupt the communities and the surrounding ecosystem – economically, socially and environmentally. We in The Bahamas are presented with an opportunity to not return to the pre-COVID era. We need to think about the long-term and not short-term benefits that will help the country stay afloat during future crises. Regenerative tourism can be one of the ways.
• Dr. Vikneswaran Nair is the dean, graduate studies and research; and professor, sustainable tourism, at the University of The Bahamas.