A lot of new terminologies have entered the tourism lexicon. The latest travel trends – more conscious, positively impactful, and inclusive to the people and planet – have given rise to concepts like sustainable tourism, responsible tourism, transformative tourism, and regenerative tourism. What does each one mean and how unique are they in their meaning and implementation?
We asked our panel of sustainable tourism specialists how these new terminologies differ from each other and what type of tourism should sustainability leaders focus on (highlighted respondents are available as consultants or speakers).
Our key takeaways:
- Most practitioners in tourism don’t understand or distinguish between these concepts.
- Each of these terms is built on a foundation of sustainability and elevates specific elements of it.
- All share the same focus: creating a future-proof tourism industry and doing well for people, the planet and wildlife.
- Sustainable tourism is about the long-term viability of travel and tourism, about positive change and about supporting our planet. With the 17 UNSDGs it has a set of clearly defined goals, and is therefore easy(ier) to monitor and measure in practice.
- Responsible tourism focuses on the accountability of each actor. It is to be expected from businesses to act responsibly.
- Regenerative tourism seeks to not just maintain but improve a destination. It is a step further, actually enhancing rather than just sustainaing a destination (or the industry as a whole).
- Leaders should focus on regenerative tourism that moves sustainability up a level: it is not only about minimizing the negative impacts and damage but going beyond and restoring that damage to make the places heal and flourish.
Regenerative tourism is a sustainable, inclusive, and fluid process that is context-specific and guided by principles that involve stakeholders collectively creating the conditions for the tourism system to improve the overall health and well-being of all living systems in a destination over time, enabling them to thrive and for tourism to create net positive impacts.
Transformational travel is an approach that can be designed and implemented to support travellers who are intentionally travelling to stretch, learn and grow into new ways of being and engaging with the world. This involves inspiring travelers to be more mindful of where they go, how they consume, and how they leave and continue to engage with a destination.
Each of these terms is built on a foundation of sustainability. Each elevates specific elements of sustainability. From responsible tourism which focuses on the accountability of each actor, to regenerative tourism that seeks to not just maintain but improve. Leaders now should recognize the fundamentals and work to achieve the promise.
Each term assists in getting the message out that we must do better in ensuring the long-term viability of our planet and ensure that tourism is one of many mechanisms affecting positive change, and transforming the power of tourism to support our planet and all living beings within.
Sustainable tourism – Visiting and experiencing others’ places, the impact of which (whether on people, places or species) is not negative so can be continued ad infinitum.
Responsible tourism – taking responsibility for the decisions made in tourism and the impacts created as a result, and a consciousness of it.
Transformative – tourism which causes a change; by implication positive.
Regenerative – it not only creates positive change but creates conditions for renewal, revitalization, and onward evolution. Natural, holistically considered as part of the ecosystem which means vitally complete systems change – a change in attitudes, targets, measures, and priorities cannot function the same way as before as a result.
Of course, leaders should focus on regenerative and move from our old purely economic GDP models of capitalism which have been shown to fail, creating exploitation, overtourism, and damage. However, most people are still purely profit and self-focused, even if they are supposedly in responsible or sustainable tourism (greenwashing).
It is mostly about fashion, some terms become trendy, and some others go out of fashion. Of course, there are a small group of sustainability experts who can see the differences in these concepts, but for the tourism sector and audience (tourists), it is just a game of buzzwords.
To me: I’d define it almost the same as ‘responsible’, just that we have the benefit of the 17 SDGs clearly defined, that’s why I think ‘sustainable’ is a better term (except that it leads to the above confusion).
Responsible tourism better captures the concept that each of us is responsible for our actions, a necessary value/ingredient for sustainability. Both terms are closely interlinked.
Transformative best captures SDGs 4 and 16 but isn’t as holistic as sustainable tourism.
I would say they are all related concepts, regenerative tourism is taking it a step further and making sure you are giving back to the local environment, community and economy.
The capital of the tourism industry is anchored to its environment and in the culture of the communities concerned. Sustainable tourism must be fully and not partially concerned with the environmental and socio-cultural ecosystems that it promotes. It is indeed a holistic and non-segmented approach.
Definitions relating to sustainable tourism are plentiful (as are definitions of ecotourism etc). Sometimes new ones can be useful to draw attention to particular issues (as have pro-poor tourism, inclusive tourism, or biodiversity-based tourism for example), but they can also detract from actually getting on with implementing it.
For the sake of argument and to illustrate, here are definitions of each to pick and choose from (but then a web search will reveal many variations):
- Responsible Tourism
From the International Conference on Responsible Tourism in Destinations (2002) The Cape Town Declaration, Cape Town, responsible tourism is defined as:
- minimizes negative economic, environmental, and social impacts
- generates greater economic benefits for local people and enhances the well-being of host communities, improves working conditions and access to the industry
- involves local people in decisions that affect their lives and life chances
- makes positive contributions to the conservation of natural and cultural heritage, to the maintenance of the world’s diversity
- provides more enjoyable experiences for tourists through more meaningful connections with local people, and a greater understanding of local cultural, social, and environmental issues
- provides access for physically challenged people
- is culturally sensitive, engenders respect between tourists and hosts, and builds local pride and confidence
- Regenerative tourism
Regenerative tourism is “creating the conditions for life to continuously renew itself, to transcend into new forms, and to flourish amid ever-changing life conditions” (Hutchins and Storm, 2019) – through tourism.
- Transformative tourism
Transformative is defined as ‘causing a marked change in someone or something’ ie. The difference with transformation is the ‘causing’ – it doesn’t just happen passively, the change is prompted. What this means is tourism which transforms the guest or tourist through their personal experience, and is caused to do so.
It does not. In the end, the focus of all concepts is the same: creating a future-proof tourism industry and doing well for people, the planet and wildlife. We should all aim to make a difference and care less about what we call it. All these new names are a way of sub-niching sustainable travel and I feel some are more focused on the concept than actually turning it into practice.
In my opinion, sustainable tourism leaders should avoid the proliferation of concepts. Sustainability is enough and includes any other process or sub-concept such as transformation, responsible or regenerative. Sustainability implies any of these and stressing each of these topics as main subjects only bring confusion and misunderstanding, not always beneficial.
Under the long shadows of the climate crisis and the pandemic, the short answer is there is no difference.
The long answer is that competing academic, marketing, economic and socio-political interests and stakeholders create an endless series of adjectival tourisms, which are initially vaguely defined until they acquire some sort of legal base, i.e. a country passing a law for spearheading/funding ‘regenerative tourism’ in an affected area, and this law requires specific qualitative and quantitative criteria.
Traditionally, sustainable tourism uses more criteria and certification, especially in relation to the environment, than other forms of tourism. While it is important to maintain a minimum standard of “do no harm”, there should be a greater focus on “providing positive value” and finding ways to measure socioeconomic and other benefits.
In addition, sustainable tourism and leaders should more openly and holistically address the climate crisis and ways to limit carbon emissions that go beyond buying offsets.
On the reality of making tourism the engine to care, conserve and regenerate socio-environmental ecosystems, and the one raising awareness on the cultural capital, as a systemic view and action plan. Take the responsibility that corresponds to being the means to achieve the goal, makes us aware of what we have inherited.
There are no clear definitions – neither for one nor the other. In essence, responsible, transformative, and regenerative tourism cover aspects, which are also part of sustainable tourism.
Sustainable tourism is the holistic approach and that is exactly what leaders should focus on. It makes no sense to be perfect in certain areas and neglect others. Customers are rarely looking for perfection but are looking for constant improvement in all areas of sustainable development.
Sustainable tourism does what it says on the tin – it’s a business that is sustainable for the long term because the financial, environmental, social, and governance principles that underpin it are in harmony with each other and not competing. By doing this all stakeholders have a vested interest in the outcome and ensure the long-term success of the project.
New terms are emerging that show conscious reflections on the ways in which tourism could be improved to better serve a destination by changing its traditional ‘extractive’ character. New theories have been produced about possible future paths.
Rather than seeing the above terms as antagonists, therefore, I prefer to look at them as complementary pairs of glasses. At the core, they all respond to the same need to make tourism a more conscious, positively impactful, and inclusive sector.
Sustainable tourism, in my opinion, is the general approach of continuously imagining how to maintain over time a balance between all the aspects of life affected by the sector.
In practice, however, we have realised that it is difficult to take all the variables into account and work with them at the same time if we do not adopt a holistic approach. But this is difficult because we are used to working with them separately, and also we are quite unfamiliar with some dimensions.
We have moved away from considering tourism only from an economic perspective, and we have since long included into the picture also the social, cultural and environmental dimensions, even though we still do not know how to integrate them. On this, I believe, the regenerative tourism approach has a lot to contribute.
However, I still consider it relevant to talk about sustainable tourism because it is helping us to think in terms of balance – forcing us to consider the change as a structural and inevitable part of the process while expanding our vision of tourism beyond the economic aspect, and including the social disparities, the lack of inclusion and gender equality issues into the bigger picture.
We are now definitely more aware of the existence of the local communities and their ancestral heritage, even though we are still disconnected from them, and of the environmental damages we are causing, even though sometimes we feel powerless. Moreover, talking about sustainability in tourism constantly obliges us to place ourselves and our activities on the timeline. Looking to the past as well as to the near future compels us to take conscious actions.
Responsible tourism, in the way I look at it, is a form of self-reflection and involves a lot of self-questioning. It focuses on the awareness of the impacts that our actions, habits, and choices we make while travelling. It applies in the first instance to the tourists’ behaviour, of course, but also to the whole hospitality sector and all the stakeholders involved, not only on the ground.
How my choice of food, entertainment, etc will affect the place that is kindly hosting me?
Because all our choices have an impact. We moved away from the idea of “leaving no trace”. We are guests in a land far from home, and even if our presence will have an impact -whether we like it or not- we can still choose the kind of impact we can have.
Am I creating more social disparities with my choices, more unnecessary pollution with my habits, more discrimination with my attitudes, and more cultural stigma and preconception with my demands? These are some of the questions that a responsible tourist should ask himself.
There is also another set of questions that a responsible tourist should address to the tour operators, a practice that is happening more frequently nowadays.
- How the local community is involved in your operations, how the interaction with the local community is structured?
- Do they participate in the designing of the experience?
- What is left to the local community at the end of the process?
These are the questions we should keep asking ourselves, eager to find the answers, even if we may not like them, because they may suggest that we change our habits, and potentially our journey.
Responsible tourism, as I see it, is a form of education and an ethical set of behaviours, towards the place, seen in terms of the natural environment and traditions, as well as towards the people, considered both as social and human beings, as well as to be cultural beings too.
And, most importantly, there is a crucial question that should arise from these reflections: how can we do things differently? And this question of course is addressed both to the tourists and to the tour operators.
Transformative tourism, I believe, is particularly important at this moment in time, because it helps us reflect on how we approach the tourism experience, as tourists, as well as tourism professionals.
Is this just a holiday or can it be an opportunity to rediscover myself, my purpose in life, and most importantly, reconnect with the world and the people around me?
It is a matter of, consciously, getting out of the bubble we all constantly live in and ‘use’ tourism as a gate to reconnect on a higher level. What transformational tourism teaches us, ultimately, is to let go of our ego and embrace tourism for what it has always been: an open and unexpected encounter with the unknown. And from them, we can grow as human beings and expand our consciousness. It is a great opportunity, indeed, I think.
Regenerative tourism, I believe, gives us an innovative interpretation. It seems to have gathered some attitudes, practises, and approaches already existing at the grassroots level and in other disciplines and scientific areas of knowledge and applied them to tourism.
The regenerative tourism approach is holistic at its core, its structure is flexible, horizontal, and inclusive, and strongly practice-oriented.
I believe that regenerative tourism could answer many of the questions that sustainable tourism has not been able to answer yet. Its strength relies on focusing on the connections that exist between the isolated silos and aims to create a network of practices that inspire collaborative work. It looks at society and organizations as living organisms, which are parts of a bigger picture. This introduces interesting concepts and lenses of interpretation of the reality that can lead to new innovative solutions and to a greater balance.
Sustainable tourism involves the whole community and hopefully forces the community – from local to national to agree on a plan.
Responsible tourism puts an emphasis on the traveller.
Regenerative and transformative tourism are the solutions to problems that are discovered when figuring out how to be sustainable.
It is all the same: responsibility for mother earth. You name it how you want. Focus on bringing back earth overshoot day to December 31st.
The clue is in the word ‘sustainable’ – this means it needs to be there for the long term, it implies doing no harm, it is about protection, preservation, conservation, respect, and enhancement.
Sustainable tourism can include all these forms of tourism, but I believe it is more than all these. Sustainability requires a long-term positive transformational change for good, which can be achieved by all these methods but most importantly, it has a long-term application to succeed and requires a dedicated positive change over a significant period of time. So the focus must be maintained on the long-term permanent benefits, although this can be achieved through much smaller short-term or quickly achieved goals, or one or more gradual, longer-term positive changes, or a combination of both.
I think sustainable tourism, as defined above, is a broader concept that includes responsible tourism and regenerative tourism. Transformative tourism generally refers to transforming individual tourists – it is too tourist and tourism-centric to be sustainable.
It is also based on a set of values that are strongly tied to certain cultures and levels of affluence. I’m not very comfortable with transformative tourism – it seems much more like a way of apologizing for unsustainable tourism than a genuine attempt to make tourism better in terms of sustainability.
Sustaining is no longer an option, now it must be about renewal. Due to the current existential danger of damaging human-made climate change, the desecration of our natural areas and resources, and the urgent need to update the concept of travelling to encompass regenerative forces and behaviour, I now prefer to use regenerative tourism to label our philosophy.
It is a form of tourism that includes considerations of renewal and education, interpretation and proactive commitment, symbiotic and ethical business practices, conservation with renewal and protection of natural resources, foment increased awareness of quality and authenticity, and to inspire a holistic comprehension of the importance of contemplating how we travel and how we might always consider how to help reduce our impact.
Sustainable tourism is a tourism product that is offered by the locals while responsible tourism is done while respecting the rules or culture of the people that they are visiting.
Sustainable tourism deals with practical requirements for business as normal.
Responsible tourism has a more wide-ranging focus on what tourism can do to make a better place to live and a better place to visit. To me, responsible tourism is the creativity and emotional underpinning of why we want to make tourism more sustainable (the nuts and bolts, cold hard task-driven activities).
Regenerative tourism is to my mind the next evolution, it requires that tourism helps to restore habitat, ecosystems, and cultures to a former, healthier state. It is the latest and most comprehensive attempt to make tourism as transformative in delivering net benefits to a destination as possible.
There is a danger of words losing their meaning when over-used as epithets, so I find it helpful to return to the terms from their original definition, otherwise, they all tend to merge somewhat meaninglessly into one!
From this perspective, each term does differ from the others but does overlap and can be incorporated into each other. Thus if tourism is responsible, then it is likely to be sustainable; if it is sustainable, then it has been responsible.
Transformative tourism is a personal reaction to experiences and, of course, can occur with any tourism, sustainable, responsible, or otherwise. However, it is more likely to be linked with the types of slow tourism termed responsible or sustainable. Practitioners aim to open the eyes of the traveller to a new world perspective through the different cultural local context and thus by definition is likely to be responsible.
Regenerative tourism looks beyond sustainability; it recognizes that we have gone too far in damaging the planet and aspires to give back. It is a way of seeing tourism as a living system within a wider carpet of life. This is where our focus should presently be.
Also, the pandemic restrictions have shown how fragile tourism can be, how its character can disappear and/or change overnight. This is a lesson in the need for tourism not to stand alone but be part of a more diverse web in its locality.
The aim is also to manage tourism in a way that encourages all ‘tourists’ to become ‘travellers’, to be transformed from consumers to symbiotic participants in an ongoing dialogue and exchange with the people and places to which they are travelling. Tourism can be used to bring respect and attention to local practices—crafts and skills and can divert those involved in destructive occupations by providing creative beneficial activities and bringing livelihoods to sustain these. It should be embedded in a social and economic development model matrix.
‘Sustainable’ can be misconstrued as environmental only. Because of that, I originated Nat Geo’s ‘geotourism approach’ (tourism that sustains or enhances the geographical character of a place—its environment, culture, geology, aesthetics, heritage, and the well-being of its residents), which differs from the other terms mainly by its emphasis on quality and care for the distinctiveness of each destination and its people. Destination assets are a limited resource and should be treated as such.
No big difference, just different ways to do good for the planet and human beings.
We tend to take a practical and businesslike approach, and whilst the academics can debate the finer points of terminology, what counts is what hits the ground in terms of benefiting the environment and local people whilst helping to open the eyes of (i.e., educate) consumers. As leaders that is what we need to focus on, calling it what you will and supporting whatever is working.
Sustainable tourism is based on the idea of providing tourism and leisure for the current generation without undermining resources to the next.
Regenerative tourism is underpinned by the certainty that it’s too late to search for zero impact, as we have overpassed the limits of consumption and need alternatives that bring back preeminent natural conditions.
In a more modest, but still very important approach, responsible tourism searches are doable and every day better practices for tourists and tourism enterprises – understanding feasibility as the differential approach to reach the mainstream.
All are interlinked and, in many ways just different names for the totality or elements of sustainable tourism. Each focussed on an aspect:
- Responsible tourism to me is merely taking responsibility for sustainability in tourism – something that should be integral to every tourism business the world over
- Transformative tourism is focused on the traveller experience as part of the sustainable tourism paradigm
- Regenerative tourism looks at sustainability in a more proactive light-seeking not merely to mitigate adverse impacts but to ensure positive regeneration of the environment and communities
– Responsible tourism is more about taking responsibility for your own actions and behaviour to make tourism more sustainable.
– Leaders should focus on regenerative tourism that moves sustainability up a level: it is not only about minimizing the negative impacts (minimising the damage) but going beyond and restoring that damage to make the places heal and flourish.
– It is also imperative to look at the places as living systems; that is interconnected and alive, with so many aspects we need to help thrive.
I believe we are in a period of crisis and should respond as such. I have lived through some 10 different definitions of sustainable tourism in my 30-year career. I think it is best to look at the nuts and bolts of our situation and get very serious about how to respond to it. This means branding is of less importance in my view than the specific action items required.
Here are a few points to focus on:
- The rapid growth of tourism in the 21st century is leading to damage in destinations that are largely unreported.
- Tourism development is highly unregulated, and its impacts are causing an “invisible burden” on local destinations worldwide.
- Sustainable tourism initiatives change frequently depending on the external funders involved and have not become embedded adequately in local, regional, and national plans to manage climate change and climate resilience.
- There is little being done to create more thorough, holistic oversight.
- The goals of policymakers continue to be driven by gross economic benefit indicators, without an understanding of the costs and final net benefits.
Sustainable and responsible tourism I think are words that can and are used to often mean the same. Transformative and regenerative I assume is trying to change/improve.
Sustainable tourism nowadays has to involve all these other concepts to be really sustainable. Even so, there are tools to measure sustainability in tourism activity. Sustainable tourism has to be responsible for the communities and environment, has to transform people involved in the activity, and has to regenerate and improve the territories and the environment where it takes place.
Sustainable tourism development differs from responsible, transformative or regenerative tourism as it is defined by the impacts of all tourism, rather than a niche-market label and it follows a measurable pathway in terms of its environmental and social impacts.
I don’t think that there are very big differences between sustainable and responsible tourism in practice. We can say that sustainable tourism is about ideas, and responsible tourism is about defining (and accepting) who will put the ideas into practice. However, in reality, that’s not 100% true because when we implement sustainable tourism, we need to know who will take action. I guess we can say that responsible tourism forces us to consider from the start who needs to work together to put the good intentions of sustainable tourism into practice.
Transformative and regenerative travel are both new, and I don’t have much experience in these fields. Transformative travel seems to put the onus for responsible tourism and sustainable tourism back into the hands of the tourists and uses a more self-aware/spiritual approach. It looks like it has the power to be a very strong movement and inspire powerful change-makers. However, it currently feels perhaps too self-consciously ‘committed’ to be able to reach the mainstream?
Regenerative tourism proposes that we can go beyond aiming for neutrality (balancing give and take) and actually design tourism to fix, repair and give back more.
All of these tools exist. They are all useful. They will all be picked up by different people, depending on their interests, roles, etc. They all fundamentally have much more in common than apart, when compared to the common enemy which is people just not caring about other human beings and the environment, and prioritizing greed. So, I don’t think we need to use too much time comparing. Better to appreciate and learn which tools are the best fit for various challenges. Sustainable tourism is probably now best suited for engaging with mainstream tourism.
I feel that there are nuances between each – for example, responsible tourism was more used by businesses because they all can be more responsible while not always more sustainable.
Regenerative has been more about giving back or making a place better. What I believe leaders should focus on is action – not just definitions.. a new term comes out every couple of years but I feel this just distracts from the issue. If we focus on trying to ensure things aren’t out of balance – that would be more useful in terms of action.
These terms are all part of the same family and arguing over terminology (as well as among the sustainable tourism community) is a hindrance to the progress we need to make. A compelling call to action and vision of a common goal is what is needed and now.
Transformative and regenerative tourism for me, are two strategies to improve the balance between using and protecting (improving) our environment to create sustainable tourism. A give and take is possible from both sides, nature, and man, because this is the only way to create a harmonious balance which we need to develop sustainable tourism.
The named forms of tourism are, if anything, subsets of sustainable tourism, and variations on a theme. Leaders should always focus on outcomes, including all forms of impact.
I realize there are subtle differences between all four terms, and that ‘sustainable’ is a rather loose term, but they are all about achieving a more thoughtful, considered approach to tourism that takes into account the climate and biodiversity emergencies.
It is my belief that the focus on definitions is a distraction from the real issue at hand – the need for impact. Leaders are better to focus on the issues they can tackle, through clear goals and measurable results. Without measurable goals bringing positive impacts, what does it matter what we call it? Further than that, without the consumer on board, where are we? The great definition debate certainly doesn’t do the consumer any favours.
I know everyone is tired of the word ‘sustainable’ but it remains a very important concept and goal – to have tourism that helps, not harms. Many of the other terms feel like efforts to have a sexier title for sustainable travel. What matters is the outcome. Is tourism helping a destination as measured by environmental and social health? That’s what matters.
The labels are not important. These terms can be used interchangeably. The focus needs to be on redefining tourism itself – to imply a way of travel that is inclusive of local communities and mindful of protecting the natural/cultural heritage of a place.
‘Sustainable’ is like the global family name. All others are like surnames for like-minded concepts that embrace the same principles. I think we keep that global family name to spread the word out, but the more radical concepts are for engaged stakeholders who want to go further.
While there is overlap in the definitions, sustainable tourism could be seen as an umbrella definition under which responsible travel and transformative and regenerative travel find their niche. It does not matter particularly where leaders focus, as long as they are authentic in their efforts it will contribute to a more sustainable tourism industry that inspires.
Sustainability is the aim and responsibility is the path. We have heard a lot about transformative and regenerative tourism lately but my concern is that most of the time we find old wine in new bottles, and people using these new terms fail to actually suggest new ways of moving forward.
More about the sustainable tourism expert panel here – including previous sessions and answers to some of the most pressing issues linked to making tourism more sustainable.
Do you have a topic in mind that you think needs to be highlighted in 2021? Get in touch!