Regenerative Tourism Explained: Mindset, Trends, and Examples

 

I have to make a confession. When I heard the term regenerative tourism, I thought to myself, not another label. Don’t we have too many already? Green, Responsible, Sustainable, Eco, Ethical, Conscious, the list goes on. How can we expect travellers to understand? As I delved deeper into the concept, an eerie sense of inner peace propagated through mind and matter. Of course, this is how it should be, not only in the travel industry but for humanity as a whole in everything we do. Improve, and advance. Regenerative tourism connects to the human spirit of aiming higher, not accepting the status quo as a desirable end state. It provides a chance to become closer to nature and the specific place you find yourself in.

Curious to learn more, I realised I had to move beyond academic literature. I needed a practitioner’s view to understand realities on the ground. Running a travel magazine allows me certain privileges, such as reaching out to experts in the field to get a personal crash course in every conceivable niche. To our valued readers, I am elated to forward the knowledge and inspiration I receive to help you make sense of the fast changing face of travel and tourism. With me today is Sonia Teruel, CEO and Founder of The RegenLab for Travel, a platform for facilitating a transition towards regenerative development in the industry. She has over 20 years of experience in the sector, many with sustainability as her north star where she supported rural and indigenous communities in Mexico. Sonia is one of the leading voices in the regenerative movement.

Profile picture of Sonia Teruel, The RegenLab
Sonia Teruel, CEO and Founder, The RegenLab for Travel. All images in the article courtesy of The RegenLab.

 

Regenerative tourism – how do you define the concept, and how does it differ with ecotourism?

Regenerative tourism is an emerging, evolving and dynamic understanding that comes from the regenerative development paradigm, living systems principles and indigenous wisdom. It is about integrating tourism into a wider, holistic perspective where human beings and nature co-evolve and have a reciprocal relationship, so it requires a mind shift.

It prioritises the integration of all stakeholders in its design (most importantly, the hosts), valuing collective wisdom and the co-created purpose of the destination.

Ecotourism is a type of tourism; a segment, if you like, which follows the sustainability paradigm that aims to meet the needs of the present, without compromising the ability of future generations to assure their own necessities. Regeneration seeks to find the destination’s potential and create the conditions for the place, its ecosystems, and communities to thrive by having long-term healthy growth and mutually beneficial interactions.

 

Can you walk us through a regenerative tourism example from the visitor perspective – how would a hypothetical stay play out?

A slower pace, with experiences created to foster deep and positive connections: the visitor with him/herself, with the local community, and with the destination and the systems that sustain life there.

Sunset over a lake between mountains
Lago di Gallo, Matese Regional Park, Campania region, Italy. Credit: Sonia Teruel.

 

Unique experiences, designed according to the particularities of the location, include a great diversity of stakeholders. Instead of creating a consumer centric, standardised experience, which might disrupt the community’s way of life and sense of place, we ensure an aligned reality where everyone benefits. Tourism must add and support, or even revitalise. It can catalyse collaborations. But it cannot subtract or compete.

Experiences come co-created with a purpose among the different stakeholders. It could be the restoration of ecosystems, education, reconnection with ourselves, others and nature, the revitalisation of a community. It seeks to transform and even to create changemakers.

 

Which actors need to be involved for a successful project outcome?

The bigger the diversity, the better. We cannot limit ourselves to tourism stakeholders. A destination comprises many economic sectors but also people with varied interests. We map out all of those parties: local community representatives, businesses, universities, farmers, artists, NGOs. We have conversations about how they want to portray the destination and with what purpose. How will tourism support social and ecological systems? How can it help us create the conditions to thrive, today and tomorrow?

 

What were the main reasons you started RegenLab? What personal motivations lay behind it?

I have always been passionate about travelling. The kind which creates meaningful encounters that ignites a change in you. That makes you a better person. And community-based tourism seemed to foster all of it. In Mexico, I was the General Manager of an ethical tour operator that cared deeply about creating bridges for communities that weren’t seen or heard. And we believed in sustainable development as a way to do that responsibly. But after getting two different sustainability certifications, we observed a lack of inclusivity, no real understanding of the place (despite using standardised guidelines). Conflicts remained unsolved, many locals didn’t feel empowered, a lot of inequity lingered, and nature degraded…. I felt we missed something. We were not grasping the whole picture, not seeing.

Beach on a semi cloudy day with a person walking in the distance
Exmouth seaside, Devon. UK. Credit: Sonia Teruel

 

During my quest to find answers, I encountered this wonderful paradigm: regeneration. After writing a very challenging thesis (as far as I know, no other thesis existed about regenerative tourism at the time), I went even further. I made it my mission to raise awareness; help other tourism businesses and organisations take the leap towards regeneration. I visualised a better world, and this is my personal contribution.

 

Since you got involved, how has the market for regenerative tourism developed? Where do you see the most progress?

Demand and interest in regenerative tourism has definitely grown. Many small businesses have been created with this model and others and transitioning towards it. Tourism isn’t the only sector: there has been a wonderful growth in regenerative farming, which is very positive.

Unfortunately, there is also considerable greenwashing. Regenerative tourism is not only about using tourism for good or leaving the place better than you found it. It is much more complex and transformational than that. It’s important to do research, to dive deep into it and practise it locally. Which takes time.

A leaf held by a hand to capture water in it.
Selva Bonita, Quintana Roo, Mexico. Credit: Totonal Viajes.

 

The destinations that have taken steps toward it and are making solid progress include Costa Rica, New Zealand, Australia…. Flanders in Belgium created a wonderful project named “Travel to Tomorrow”. Others, like Curitiba in Brazil or El Hierro in the Canary Islands, Spain, have done a magnificent job in applying the regenerative model in their planning and economy.

 

What project to date are you most proud of?

To name a few, the work we did in Mexico with the tour operator, Totonal, left a wonderful feeling. We began internally within the business and expanded to our product and local partners. This first one came before The RegenLab. After this, I worked with different segments and goals. For example, I participated in a project called “Coequiperos” in Colombia with PUP Global Heritage Consortium and OpEPA (Organización para la Educación y Protección Ambiental). We designed and implemented satisfying regenerative methodologies in the process of narrowing bridges between dozens of community-based tourism cooperatives and tour operators. And last year I co-organised a regenerative training retreat in Barcelona with ONCE Journeys for Women – a really powerful and transformative experience (for the women participants and for us).

Group of women posing for a photograph outside a yellow house
Cal Faro, La Llacuna, Barcelona. Retreat “Women, Solstice and Regeneration” (The RegenLab for Travel and ONCE Journeys for Women). Credit: The RegenLab and ONCE.

 

You offer a digital taster session on regenerative tourism – pitch our readers on why they can’t miss this.

I offered the session in July and I am in the process of creating an on-demand version of it. It is the first one of a training programme called “The journey to regenerative tourism” which focuses on Destination Management Companies (DMCs) and inbound tourism businesses. I based it on my experience as an ex tour operator and cover three main areas: culture & stewardship (within the organisation); value chain (narrowing bridges and improving communication); and product offering (create transformative experiences for the communities and your clients). Its aim is to help businesses shift mindset and give them tools to implement it right away.

Read more about it here: https://www.theregenlab.com/thejourneytoregenerativetourism

 

You are involved in an entity called the Hive-Place Regenerators – tell us more about what you do there?

The Hive-Place Regenerators started thanks to Loretta Bellato, when she invited regenerative tourism practitioners from different countries to form an advisory group as part of her PhD research. During those monthly meetings, we connected deeply in terms of our own experiences and were able to touch upon what we need in the world right now and how important it is to be custodians of the true meaning of regeneration. We join forces using our skills and expertise to help DMOs (Destination Management Organisations) take a step further to regenerate their destinations and assist their communities and ecosystems to thrive.

Woman smiling
Calakmul, Campeche, México. Credit: Echoes of the Journey and Totonal Viajes

 

Lastly, what is your fondest travel memory?

When I first arrived in Mexico, I got in touch with whom would be my boss and one of my dearest friends, Marisol Herrera. I offered to see her in Veracruz and took the opportunity to spend some time with an indigenous community she worked with in Los Tuxtlas Biosphere Reserve. I remember that trip with great fondness, as it turned out to be the beginning of a fantastic adventure. I fell more in love with community tourism and its potential to transform travellers.

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Thank you, Sonia, for helping us dive deeper into a fast-growing market segment. Can regenerative tourism develop into the dominating form of travel as destinations realise the challenges facing them? It would mean a different relationship with guests and an altered dynamic between them and locals. As more inspiring examples of success see the light of day, journeys become catalysts for positive change.

From the traveller perspective, regenerative travel promises more than exploration. You function as a steward of the place you visit, taking part in the renewal of ecosystems, communities, and cultures. Picture immersive experiences where every step taken nurtures rather than depletes. However, the regenerative concept starts at the destination, where locals are empowered and integrate tourism within that mindset. A celebration of indigenous wisdom and cultural heritage ensures locals not only benefit, but actively co-create the travel experience and the whole tourism vision with a common purpose.

What appeals to me is the frame of mind. It’s a way of being in the world. You go from collecting souvenirs to a profound sense of purpose, establishing deeper and more meaningful connections to the places you visit. Regenerative tourism is humanity when the better angels of our nature prevail.

Follow Sonia and The RegenLab for Travel on LinkedIn for news on upcoming projects, and updates on workshops and seminars to further your knowledge base.

 

Have you heard of regenerative travel? Have you travelled to a destination where they practise it? Let us know in the comment section! Subscribe to our newsletter and benefit from travel guides, sustainable tourism and luxury travel tips, insightful interviews, and inspirational places to visit. One Planet Journey – The World’s First Deep Travel Magazine.

 

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