Regenerative Tourism vs Sustainable Tourism – The future of our industry, traveller and planet

Regenerative Tourism vs Sustainable Tourism – The future of our industry, traveller and planet

By Nic Cooper, Regenerative Tourism Specialist
Published on February 1, 2023
Noah Buscher X8ZStukS2PM Unsplash

As an industry, we have a clear understanding that the conscious traveller is no longer ‘niche’, but mainstream.

Recent Future of Demand research by Tourism Australia suggests that more than 75% of travellers are committed to sustainability in some way. ‘Sustainability is increasingly influencing traveller choices in terms of where to go, how to get there, where to stay and which experiences, they engage with at the destination.’

This means travellers are more likely to spend their dollars with responsible operators than those that are not, so becoming a more Sustainable business, is in everyone’s (and our planets) best interests.

With such compelling consumer demand for sustainable tourism experiences, as well as the obvious environmental and social evidence, many businesses have or are soon to be jumping on the Sustainability train but perhaps for very different reasons.

Some are looking to make a positive difference in the world, others believe it’s good for business, whatever the reason, the benefits of becoming a more Sustainable/Regenerative tourism business are significant; environmentally, socially and commercially.

Perhaps, however, we should take a moment, to step off the Sustainability train, and instead get on the Regenerative rollercoaster. A ride full of excitement that can be scary as you do the loop the loops, but you will end up with a sense of accomplishment and fulfilment.

Sustainable and Regenerative Tourism can be confusing with overwhelming amounts of information out there containing endless graphs, terms, reasoning etc. But how does this apply to your business and how can you apply it?

Let’s break it down.


Sustainable vs Regenerative

Whilst these two terms are often used interchangeably, they infact represent different stages on the same continuum.

As you can see below, being sustainable, is a commitment to add no additional harm to the planet or people. Whereas, Regenerative practice is a commitment to offer a net positive benefit to the environment and communities - further down the continuum than Sustainability.

Regenerative Tourism Sustainable Tourism

So What is the Difference for the Tourism Industry?

From a tourism perspective, being a sustainable tourism operator means acting responsibly and having socially and environmentally responsible practices.

Sustainable Travel International states that ‘Sustainable tourism accounts for both the immediate impacts felt today as well as those longer-term impacts that will be experienced by future generations.’

Regenerative tourism, on the other hand, means businesses and destinations in the visitor economy ensure each activity implemented has a positive impact for the destination and it's people.

What does it take to be a Regenerative tourism business?

Becoming a Regenerative business is a holistic approach, looking at consumer facing operations as well as business operations, giving back whilst also running a successful and profitable business, supporting your community whilst your community in turn supports you, offsetting emissions whilst also decarbonising.

Being a Regenerative tourism business means you are:

  • Making ethical choices, where all choices either improve or do no harm to the community or environment
  • Supporting the community you operate in
  • Having a long-term positive impact on the environment
  • Being economically beneficial to both your own business, and others in your community and beyond who have a shared ethos

The UN World Tourism Organization (WTO) defines sustainable/regenerative tourism as “tourism that takes full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities".

Through making conscious choices, a tourism businesses can help regenerate their community and environment through helping to tackle:

  • Climate change
  • Social injustices
  • Threats to native wildlife
  • Negative community sentiment
  • Over-tourism
  • Pollution & Waste
  • First Nations rights
  • Visitor behaviour

All whilst running a prosperous and healthy tourism business.


The Elephant in The Room

We know tourism is a significant contributor to global emissions, and at the same time the tourism sector is highly vulnerable to climate change, which is especially the case here in Australia.

As an industry we must connect the dots, so that when our tourism businesses are hit with cancellations, destruction and other devastating consequences due to bushfires, floods, and droughts, we are also part of an industry which is one of the root causes of climate change leading to these natural disasters.

There are huge steps that still needs to be taken by governments, airlines, transportation providers, accommodations, and other industry organisations and authorities to reduce the emissions and find solutions to more sustainable ways to travel. Progress seems frustratingly slow as we see the UN Climate Change Conference (COP) come and go each year.

So, should it be the problem of smaller tourism operators to take action?

The answer in short, is a resounding yes!

According to Tourism Research Australia, of the 334,532 tourism businesses in Australia, 78% have only 1-4 employees, and 95% have under 20 employees. Put simply, the backbone of the visitor economy in Australia is small businesses who collectively have the power and opportunity to make a huge difference.


“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has” - Margaret Mead, American Cultural Anthropologist 


The Future of Tourism

Tourism is vital to Australia and Australia is vital to tourism. The future of tourism is adopting a regenerative approach - tourism for good. Because travel is one of the most important life experiences one can have.

As Discover Hervey Bay puts it "Traveling is important in life because it will open you up to a new way of living and being. You will experience new connections with people and places and immerse in different cultures, which can help widen your perspective. So much learning and personal growth can come from traveling."


Business for Good, is Good for Business

Becoming a purpose driven business is a highly rewarding process, and ironically if a business steers away from the traditional ‘growth at all costs’ business model to make ethical decisions that support people and planet before profit, it can attract more customers.

The Sustainable Travel Study By Expedia Group 2022 found that half of consumers would be willing to pay more for transportation, activities and lodging if the option was more sustainable.

Not only can being a regenerative tourism operator be good for business, but it can also lead to more positive reviews, more attention from media and tourism bodies, more advocates for your business, and a more supportive community.


"The greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it." - Robert Swan, Environmental Leader and First Person in History to Walk to both North and South Poles


Celebrate Progress not Perfection

Like all business development initiatives, becoming a Sustainable and Regenerative tourism business takes time. Time to consider your options, time to implement your new initiatives, and time to settle into a new rhythm.

It's also a mindset; sitting in the mess about what your business values are, and how you live those values too. Having a deep and clear understanding of this helps you to identify what practices you will change to become sustainable, or regenerative, and to accurately articulate this to your guests.

Sometimes the biggest and most difficult step for a business to make on the path to becoming more Sustainable or Regenerative, is the first step.

Starting is the most important and significant milestone, from making small changes, to aiming for longer term goals.

So start slow, build, and celebrate your changes, and remember that regenerative tourism is a continuous, ever-evolving process and it’s all about progress not perfection along the way.

*Image Credit: 


Nic Cooper

Nic 'Coops' Cooper is our Regenerative Tourism Specialist, and is also owner/operator of micro adventure tour operator Wild Adventures Melbourne. He is a leader in Sustainability in Australia, one of the few B-Corp Tourism Operators in Australia, and a Tourism Australia Sustainability Storyteller.