I’ve just come back from a wonderful week as a Researcher in Residence at Nova School of Business and Economics (pictured above) in Portugal. I was there at the invitation of Graham Miller, head of the Westmont Institute of Tourism and Hospitality and a thoroughly delightful host. My time was divided between giving talks to share perspectives and stories and being in conversation with faculty, students and people from the local business community. I was both informing and being informed.

As I reflect on new insights that emerged for me during this time, one observation stands out. It’s something I’d been noticing in many conversations about regenerative approaches to tourism with people in different parts of the world, but it solidified over the past days in Portugal. Here’s what I’m seeing:

When conversation begins from the context or lens of tourism, it often struggles to find its way to community in a meaningful way. If we can see community at all from within that lens, we ask questions like “what do you want tourism to do for you?” And the answer stays within the bounds of existing tourism structures, perhaps with minor adjustments and uneasy trade-offs between current patterns and new priorities. The frame stays stuck in fragmented transaction and utilitarianism.

We struggle to see the forest of community for the trees of tourism’s economic activities.

Conversely, when we start with the lens of community, tourism often seems an irrelevant area of activity at best and a harmful one at worst. By definition, tourism is assumed to exist outside of the real work to be done. It is something other people do to us in community, often without our consent. Tourism is assumed to have little to contribute to larger concepts of shifting paradigms, caring for people and place, and designing more participation and justice into our social systems.

We struggle to see the trees of tourism’s social embeddedness for the forest of community wellbeing and transformation.

Part of the problem is the word itself. “Tourism” draws our attention to the visitor and away from ourselves and the wholeness of our place. It proposes a transactional relationship, in which others are invited to show up as consumers of local resources. It is a temporary state to be a tourist, whereas community is ongoing and evolving.

But when we shift our language and lens to the host, to the patterns of our hosting, and to our intentions around hospitality, new possibilities come into view. New connections. New conversations.

  • We are all hosts, first of ourselves and each other and the potential that exists between us.
  • We are all hosted by the people and places where we live and work, with more or less care and reciprocity.
  • We are all in need of hospitality as the healing experience of the wholeness of a place and of our place within the wholeness of life. Hospitality as the temporary or enduring experience of home.

Nothing could be more universally relevant. Nothing could be more fundamentally human.

With this recognition, we can ground the conversation not in what tourism can do for us but in who we are together, what healing (or regeneration) is needed in our place, and how we want to host each other – and visitors – in doing that work.

With this, we see that it’s not tourism that has the power to bring us together. It’s the concept of home, as the ground of wellbeing that can only be cultivated collectively. Many of us feel that we don’t have community; it was particularly disheartening to hear students talk about how foreign the concept was to them. But community is more verb than noun. It is something we create as we gather with others around any issue or opportunity we care about. Home is where the (active) heart is.

As we expand our lens, we also see that it’s not tourism that has the power to convene people in collective tending to community wellbeing. It’s the people who work in tourism, with all their care for people and place, all their understanding of local context, all their relationships and all their natural hosting ability. This is a role and skill set that many in tourism don’t recognize in themselves. But there are more and more inspiring examples of tourism professionals stepping forward in courage to “host the hosts” in their places. And there are ready partners in adjacent fields who can offer support.

As encouraging as it is to see the phrase “regenerative tourism” rising to downright trendiness, I find more clarity and broader relevance when I speak about the tourism sector’s role in “hosting regeneration.”

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