In a conversation with Anna Pollock, Bill Reed, and David Leventhal, we explore how regenerative travel practices have the potential to become an agent of positive transformation and contribute to a better quality of life for all. By Amanda Ho, Co-Founder, Regenerative Travel, Inc.
As the world ground to a halt during the pandemic, we reflected on the basic notion of why we travel, and how we as an industry have a responsibility to create change for the future of our planet. We are at a turning point as a human species to reverse the trajectory of climate change with an urgent call to repair and replenish the damage to our environment and our communities. Regenerative principles are emerging as the future of tourism with the potential to create better conditions for people and lives to flourish. We now have the opportunity to rebuild a framework that brings back a transformational travel experience that creates abundance for all stakeholders—one that is non-extractive, immersive, inclusive, diverse, and equitable.
“Regeneration is a rebirth of thinking about our role and regenerating our role on the planet,” says Bill Reed. The paradigm shift to regeneration requires a change in how we think and see the world. Through this primer for regenerative travel, we examine case studies from hotels that may have been practicing regeneration without explicitly using the terminology. We include a lexicon (pages 13 to 14) so one can more accurately use some of the standard terms and phrases we discuss. By providing a lexicon and backing it up with examples in our case studies, we hope to share a vehicle toward this paradigm shift.
Regeneration is aspirational in nature, as we can always be more eco, more green, more sustainable, and more regenerative. Sustainable travel was the first step in establishing a collaborative relationship with nature and understanding how our operations can fit into the design of the whole system. Regenerative travel takes a step further.
Anna Pollock says, “The only way we will be able to heal the earth is to improve our capability to be in a relationship with ourselves and our communities.” Tourism can be a transformative change agent that inspires a shift in consciousness for the traveler to realize their role in upholding the values of regeneration.
Travel cannot continue to be measured by infinite growth. We need to collectively draw upon tourism to holistically make net-positive contributions to the well-being of all stakeholders in the ecosystem. This can only be accomplished by understanding the value in expanding our knowledge, presence, and relationship with a given community, and the ecosystems which support those communities.
In a conversation with Anna Pollock, Bill Reed, and David Leventhal, we explore the meaning of regeneration and how regenerative travel practices have the potential to become an agent of positive transformation and contribute to a better quality of life for all.
About Anna Pollock:
Anna, the founder of Conscious.Travel, has 45 years of experience in tourism as an independent consultant, strategist, and international speaker. She is one of the leading proponents of regenerative tourism that requires a fundamental shift in perspective and paradigm to realize its true potential as a healing force and transformative change agent. She has been working with Visit Flanders, helping shift their goal from volume growth to destination flourishing.
About Bill Reed:
Bill is an internationally recognized planning consultant, design process facilitator, lecturer, teacher, and author in sustainability and regeneration. He is a principal of Regenesis Group, a regenerative design, living systems integrator, and education organization, as well as The Place Fund, an investment fund focused on Regenerative ESG real estate. His work centers on creating the framework for and managing an integrative, whole and living system design process known as Regenerative Development. In addition to his stature as one of the leading thinkers in this field, Bill has consulted on over 200 green design commissions from buildings and city masterplans.
About David Leventhal:
With a background in emerging media and technology, over the last 20 years, David’s endeavors have focused on real estate and hospitality following his values for regenerative, environmental, and social impact. As the owner of Playa Viva and founder of Regenerative Travel, David has championed this regenerative ethos since the founding of Playa Viva in 2006. By creating a sense of place, both geographically and historically, Playa Viva encapsulates a new type of luxury for guests: one based on cultural authenticity, natural immersion, and impeccable service.
Why do we need to move from sustainability to regeneration?
Bill Reed: The most important thing in regeneration is regenerating our capability as humans to assume our proper role on the planet. Many thinkers would define that proper role as being a “steward.” However, I don’t like that as much as I like the word “gardener,” because gardener implies reciprocity and that we learn as much from life as we exchange as humans. Regeneration is a rebirth of thinking about our role and regenerating our role on the planet.
Anna Pollock: Everyone needs hope that there is a way out of the mess that we’ve created. There’s a sense that sustainability is not going to fully get us there. If we covered the planet with LEED Platinum buildings, built to the highest levels of sustainability, this would not ensure humanity survives long-term, especially if we continue to expand our level of resource use. This distinction is important for the travel and tourism industry because travel’s current model requires the industry to continue to grow. And there’s this assumption that is not questioned—that tourism can continue to get bigger. We have a tendency to think about growth as GDP and economic growth¹, but we can also grow in ways that are less “consumptive” and extractive, such as growth in knowledge and understanding—how do we value that? We don’t need to necessarily expand physical presence. We can expand our psychological and knowledge presence, and relationships. This is regeneration.
How should we start thinking about regenerative travel?
Bill Reed: At the most basic level of green design—saving energy, recycling, reducing pollution, and so on—that is when we are working toward efficiency. We equate efficiency with sustainability. But efficiency only means we are doing less bad; we are being more efficiently unsustainable. The world is still not sustainable if we’re dumping more carbon into the atmosphere. The majority of green and sustainable hospitality projects are working on being efficient. Regeneration is about engaging and understanding the larger life shed of the system. If we can learn and appreciate the systems of life in the places we visit, there is a chance we will take that perspective home with us and engage with places in renewed ways. Further, it’s about learning to be in a renewed relationship with the people of that place. The only way we will be able to heal the earth is to improve our capability to be in a relationship with ourselves and our communities. Then we can more powerfully engage the combined intelligence of many people to reverse the damage we’ve caused.
Anna Pollock: What really matters is the quality, not so much the quantity of the visitor, and the net impact on the destination—is it positive? More importantly, are all of the participants in the system developing and growing in their capability to organize with themselves in the future? Regeneration redefines success as the development of capability and applies that to individuals, businesses, and communities. A hotel will go through stages of growth in terms of income and operations. So in the early stages, you are going to be keen to establish a presence in the market. You’ll probably start off quite small and then grow the number of visitors per year. After a point in time, the traditional methods of success will only take you so far. Then you may start to look at other ways in which you can create that positive net impact for your people in your organization and community. How can you help them grow personally, for example, so that they’re not doing the same job in 10 years?
Why is “history of place” relevant for regeneration?
David Leventhal: When you do a “history of place” assessment (like we did with Playa Viva), you look at the spot on earth that you occupy from a longer-term geological and archeological standpoint. This includes spoken or written history, all the way down to interviewing the town elders or local folks about their own hopes, dreams, and aspirations for this place. And then you begin to understand what your role is as a steward of the future of this place. When coming into a new place as a hotelier, you should sit on the land for a full year to understand the life cycle of that place. This same concept should be applied to the community. It’s about co-evolving and sitting with the community to understand it. You are not apart from the community—you are part of the community, and your hotel extends well beyond the boundaries of your property line.
Why is co-evolution an important part of regeneration?
Bill Reed: At an entry level, often what we’re doing is extracting value. We go to a resort and extract the value of the beach and the value of the food. People fly in to have a great experience and then they go home. That’s extracting value. With sustainability, we’re only slowing down the damage. We have to listen to the land, the social psychological systems, learn from them, and in reciprocity, give back to one other in order to create abundance. Regeneration is not episodic. It’s continually evolving, and you have to be conscious of that evolution and adjust to it as you move forward.
So the minute we start solving problems, we actually fragment the world. Putting it into a framework, there are three levels of work. There’s self-development, organizational development, and finally, the actualization of what you are in service to, and that’s the system.
Anna Pollock: So much of this is about a change in the way we think and the reset of our perception, because once you change the filters that we use for information, the whole world changes. Many people want checklists and to be told what to do. It’s true that examples help people understand new concepts, but it’s only when you understand the working principles of life and become aware of life’s interconnections, can you think for yourself and respond creatively to what’s happening around you.
How can we help travelers experience the paradigm shift?
David Leventhal: At Playa Viva, while we are doing many of the sustainable things such as being 100% off-the-grid solar, making all of our own energy, and producing some of our own food, there are certain practices that we are doing which hopefully the guest can experience more profoundly without ruining their experience. It’s a reciprocal process again. It’s not like we’re not going to feed you until you take this class on where your food comes from. We’ll present the menu and talk about where in our farm or in our community your food comes from, invite you to walk the land, meet the farmers who tend to the gardens and into the community to meet the ranchers, and maybe invite you to participate in the farm. The process of engaging people in the community to understand how that place is regenerative hopefully inspires them to go back and be more regenerative in their own lifestyle.
Anna Pollock: Regenerative principles should help the hotelier see that there is a more holistic and organic way of seeing the world, and that their role becomes a change agent for their community. They can start to tend the ecosystem they’re living in and provide a richer range of encounters for their guests that expand their horizons. We need to make a fundamental leap in realizing the interdependence, interconnectivity, and the dynamic nature of everything. It’s about developing your capability and contributing to the capability of those around you, to essentially break down the artificial separation between ourselves and the natural world. We need travelers to have that experience of true partnership and true interconnectivity.
The path from “sustainable” to “regenerative”
The travel industry, as it currently operates, is not sustainable. If we all agree that significant changes must occur in order for us to reverse climate change, then we agree that we must move beyond the status quo. Arguing about terminology and whether we should be green, eco, sustainable, or regenerative is not going to move us toward a better solution. Agreeing that we are all on this journey together is the only way to solve this existential threat to humanity.
From a very simplistic standpoint, being green is about doing less damage, sustainability is reaching net neutral, and regeneration is making it better. This is not to say that any of these are wrong, bad, or worse than the other; only that each of these is a step in the right direction. Each offers benefits which contribute to achieving the next result. The sustainability industry, just as ESG within the investment community, has built strong models and systems for measuring performance, certification, and accreditation. These same systems have not been fully built for regeneration, yet we are seeing great progress in areas such as regenerative agriculture.
Regeneration means to transform and develop a collaborative relationship with nature and community. It is about developing a renewed spirit of relationship—with nature and with each other.
We have to change our ways to reverse our negative impact and move to a path to overall improvement, making the world a better place for all of us to live in. The core principles of regeneration say we have to think differently about how we exist.