Twenty million people swarm Venice, Italy, annually, ruining the city’s culture and polluting the air. In Bali, the power infrastructure and waste management system can’t keep up with visitors. All around the world, the most beautiful places are most prone to over-tourism.

It’s not like we can or should ban tourism. Worldwide, about 1.67 trillion U.S. dollars will be spent on travel this year, and that’s still lower than pre-pandemic figures. That’s a lot of people relying on tourist dollars. And there’s the rich cultural exchange and understanding between cultures that travel can bring. What if tourists could not only do no harm but actually improve the places they visit? This idea of regenerative travel is starting to catch on.

Related: County in Wisconsin rolls out a sustainability pledge

Maybe regenerative travel can save tourism before more places are suffering as much as Venice or Bali. “Destinations cannot ignore the future importance of regenerative tourism and transformative travel,” Tracey Poggio, chairman of the Association of National Tourist Offices, said in 2021. And some destinations are doing their best to follow Poggio’s advice.

Principles of regenerative travel

Improving the places we visit sounds good, right? But how do we get started? First off, support local businesses. Your dollars make more impact when you pay a family running their own guesthouse versus being filtered down through a big corporate hotel. Help clean up the environment. Join an official cleanup effort or simply spend an hour picking up plastic trash on the beach. Donate a few dollars to a local social project such as a school or to a park.

The organization Regenerative Travel has set standards for its members — individual hotels that agree on best practices. These include being independently owned, honoring a sense of place, providing authentic hospitality, being inclusive and egalitarian, operating ethically, respecting ecosystems, and communicating regenerative values and practices.

Baby turtle on a beach

Case study: Playa Viva, Mexico

About 35 minutes south of Zihuantanejo, Mexico, Playa Viva is a regenerative retreat that follows the motto: “Where your vacation meets your values.” It promises a luxury nature vacation including oceanside yoga and farm-to-table dining.

Playa Viva started as a regenerative project in 2006 when it purchased the land and hired Bill Reed and the Regenesis Group to lead its development, says owner David Leventhal, who also founded the Regenerative Travel organization. La Tortuga Viva is the property’s sanctuary that protects turtles from predators and poachers. The property features tree houses designed to resemble manta rays and is using palm trees as living piers to anchor sand dunes.

“Playa Viva is co-evolving with the community with a deep commitment to social and environmental impact, most recently with the expansion to ReSiMar, Regenerating from Sierra to Mar, a watershed regeneration project taking into account five key nodes,” said Leventhal. These nodes are education, fisheries, permaculture, water culture and resources and ecosystem restoration.

Leventhal also stresses the importance of “moving from ego to eco.” He wants Playa Viva to be an open source that shares its experience with regenerative travel both locally and internationally. Playa Viva also believes in looking through a lens of abundance rather than scarcity, reinvesting in its farm-to-table program, sourcing food locally and reinvesting in the community. “We are building a more fertile ecosystem that creates abundance here locally first,” Leventhal says. “Rather than extractive, taking locally generated resources and exporting them.”

Oregon forest and river valley

Case study: Willamette Valley, Oregon

In the U.S., Oregon’s Willamette Valley is promoting itself as a regenerative destination. It’s following the wisdom of a different organization, the Transformational Travel Council, to figure out how tourism can improve people’s lives. Business owners are banding together to preserve the local ecosystem, especially Oregon white oak trees.

Kieron Wilde is one of Willamette Valley’s dedicated regenerators. Wilde worked in fire ecology before turning to tourism and founding First Nature Tours. His business took a decidedly regenerative turn after the 2017 Eagle Creek fire burnt 50,000 acres of the Columbia River Gorge. He knew that with many trails closed, the remaining trails would face heavier impact. Wilde was able to combine his fire knowledge with people’s desire to help. Now he educates tour participants on the danger and importance of wildfire and gives them a chance to help maintain trails in the Willamette National Forest. Depending on the season, people can also join a kayak tour that includes taking part in a watershed restoration project.

Be part of the regenerative travel solution

It’s easy to hate on tourists for jamming up beautiful places, trampling flower fields for an Instagram post and generally disrespecting nature. But again, tourism is a huge and vital industry. If people stopped traveling, not only would their lives be bleaker but many families who depend on tourist dollars would suffer.

As the Whidbey and Camano Islands website puts it, regenerative tourism “is not anti-growth; it simply asks that we grow the things that matter most to us in ways that benefit the entire system and never at the expense of others.” Instead of ruining places, this island destination advises on “creating conditions for life to continuously renew itself, to transcend into new forms, and to flourish amid ever-changing life conditions.” Those are words for travelers to live by.

Images via Pexels