I often see the emerging concept of regenerative tourism described as “leaving a place better than we found it.” In fact, the basic sentiment is widely shared even beyond tourism, in what Carol Sanford would call the “do good” paradigm.

That’s nice, and necessary. But it’s also dangerous without further clarification. Picking up a single piece of litter does the job, according to that definition. And that doesn’t get to the level of systems change that’s needed. It doesn’t offer clear guidance about what we should stop doing – how we can stop generating the litter in the first place, for example. And it risks settling for momentarily better, only to fall back into harmful patterns again.

Worse than that, we risk inflicting our definition of better onto a people and place. What constitutes “better” to us may not be a vision or experience shared by others, and it may not reflect full system conditions. This is a recipe for unintended harm and for subtle patterns of colonialism. 

To counteract these risks and more faithfully serve our regenerative intent, we have to ask: what is the full extent of “better” that is needed? “Better” according to whom? And on what timescale?

And we have to recognize that “regeneration” refers to a living system’s ability to heal itself and to continuously generate new possibilities. It points to the system’s capacity to learn, adapt and evolve in deep responsiveness to ever-changing context. 

“Better,” in this case, means more capable of continuous self-regeneration. 

Instead of the oversimplification of leaving a place better than we found it, those who oversee tourism might instead commit to cultivating a “giving field.” In their research into inspired, creative, effective organizations, my friends Warren Nilsson and Tana Paddock noticed and named this phenomenon, in which each person involved feels that they are getting more than they give. Everyone feels that they are getting more than they give. This should be an impossibility: if I am getting more than I give, someone else must be giving more than they get. But life offers a different pattern, beyond the zero-sum transaction of exchange. Together, we can create a generative, generous field of relationships and potential. A giving field. Among my farmer friends, we call this the “soil” of community. 

Tourism stakeholders and those in other contexts can consciously play a role in cultivating such a field, in a strategy of continual, collective learning, practice and becoming. And from that field – from that cohesive, connected, caring community – wise, effective action is more likely to emerge, including picking up that piece of litter, and more. 

Beyond piecemeal solutions and quick fixes, a regenerative strategy addresses system health, system capability, system thrivability.

[Photo by Kristine Cinate on Unsplash]

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