Global Understanding Through Regenerative Tourism

Below is a blog written by Cassie De Pecol, Founder and Chief Explorer of Expedition 196.

yogaThere are two forms of tourism: Tourism (Tourist) and Responsible Tourism (Traveler). The ‘Tourist’ will travel to locations that are relatively safe and within their comfort zone. They’ll expect to stay in a 3-5 star hotels owned by large corporations, embark on tours offered by the hotel, and will typically not veer off the beaten path to unknown locations. They’re knowledge of the local people of that country and their way of life is very limited, and they’re not interested in learning more about it first-hand. They are waited on by local people but that’s about as far as their study of that culture within that country will go. The hotels they stay in don’t necessarily have any sustainability or energy efficiency practices, instead they offer tours such as riding with the dolphins and learning about culture by having a woman come into the resorts event area for a belly dancing show, for example. The ‘Traveler’, on the other hand, will be more open to experience off-the-beaten-path locations and unique experiences that test their limits. They’ll be more supportive of the economies of local cultures (staying in locally owned hotels), spending time learning about the local people and communities, adding to the regeneration of the environment that surrounds them, and trust in their hosts.

‘Responsible Tourism’ encompasses two main components; Sustainable Tourism and Regenerative Tourism. While ‘Sustainability’ is the trendy word right now, I believe that ‘Regeneration’ will soon overpower the realm of Sustainability. Sustainability is to sustain the land, the communities, to develop land and avoid further depletion of our resources. Regeneration is to restore land that was once degraded, ecosystems that were once being threatened, wildlife that was once becoming extinct, cultures that were once suffering. To ‘Regenerate’ (within the tourism industry) is to not only give back to local communities, but create a solution to one problem, and hone in on it year after year, perhaps by partnering with local and NGO non-profits, working to alleviate these issues. To not only plant a couple of trees, but to build an excursion where guests have the opportunity to plant new flora that produce edibles. To ‘regenerate’ is to encourage guests to give back to local communities during their vacation, to learn about the people, to have a conversation, through a unique tour experience, for example. To be a traveler who supports regeneration, is to plan a vacation through an eco-resort (or eco cruise-liner) who supports the local communities and economies of the countries of which they embark.

bikeDuring my travels in St. Lucia, I performed a case study. The island is comprised of at least several “1-800 Sandals” resorts. I wanted just to speak with the people who worked there to get a sense of their clientele and overall sense of happiness. The employees came up to me with a massive smile on their face, willing to answer any questions that I had, offering their input on activities, and the like. I sat down with one of them, Ron, and talked with him for a bit. I’m assuming he told me to call him Ron because it’s easier to pronounce to foreigners. I said, “Hey Ron, I’m not here to vacation, I’m here to learn more about 1-800 Sandal’s sustainability impact and its cultural influence. How do you like working here?”. He took me aside and said, “I can barely keep afloat, I work long hours, I’m overworked and don’t make enough to provide for my family. But it’s a job.” I asked, “Do the guests want to learn about your culture, where you’re from in St. Lucia?”, Ron responded, “No, they’re here for a vacation! They don’t want to learn about that type of stuff while they vacation here”, he said with a chuckle. I paid $70 for a dinner which granted me access to walk inside the premise. There were couples, mainly from Western areas of the world, and many from the US. I observed as they enjoyed their vacation, never leaving the resorts premises. They drank their Mojitos and Piña Coladas and enjoyed their Honeymoons, never once engaging in conversation with the people who worked for them. If they did, it was to show whoever it was they were Facetiming with, the idea that they were mingling with the local people when in reality, they weren’t. Meanwhile, the employees worked diligently to ensure a perfect vacation for their guests. They had the typical, “Save water, use less” signs located in the bathrooms, but in regards to their sustainability protocol, that was about it. In a place that receives an average of 9 hours of sunlight a day, they had no solar panels. They had no tours where guests had the opportunity to learn about the local culture. They had no reverse osmosis system or wildlife/ecology conservation program, which could easily be implemented given the vast capital that this resort chain endows. I went back to my locally owned lodge near the airport to digress. If these resorts focused on their sustainability message, the people who vacationed there would not only experience a luxurious vacation, but they’d walk away having contributed to the greater good of the environment and local culture. A feel good, do good vacation. There needs to be a major shift in the way we travel, and regenerative tourism has to be it.

plantTwo continents away was another resort I’d visited. Located at the tip of the Oman peninsula, nestled on the northern Musandam Peninsula and facing the Arabian sea, is the 5 star, Six Senses Zighy Bay Resort. The guests who visit this particular resort must be willing to venture way out into the Middle East. They have to be open to traveling two hours from the Dubai Airport by car, through the desert of UAE and Oman to get to this very secluded resort deep within the mountainous rifts. I took a seat next to Manuel, the Organic Garden intern at Six Senses. He traveled there from Germany. “How much of the garden is factually organic? In my experience, it’s challenging to harvest an organic garden over 80% to serve a hotel.”, I asked. Manuel said, “It’s a 95-98% organic garden that supplies much of the produce for the resort”. There is a compost system, a reverse osmosis irrigation system and the resort has plans to install solar panels in the near future. In every room, the guests can purchase a cute little Zighy goat stuffed animal where 100% of the proceeds go to the local schools. They also have cultural tours to the mountains and communities, where guests have the opportunity to visit the families who live in the surrounding areas. I took a ride with one of the guides and had the opportunity to meet Mohammed, a man from Pakistan who lived high up in the mountains. “I chose to live here for peace and serenity.”, Mohammed said. Every day, he climbs 100 stairs just to get to the top, where his rustic house is.

goatThe primary focus of Expedition 196 is to generate awareness within the tourism sector. To deter travelers from the traditional experience, and focus more on the development of regenerative hotels and tour companies, in order to reverse damage to the environment and save endangered species and cultures who are suffering. Traveling “Sustainably” doesn’t have to mean the letting go of things that provide comfort to the average traveler. That’s what rustic travel is for; to give up certain elements that make a person comfortable, in order to experience a truly authentic, and surreal experience, with traditional essences of normality, left behind. Sustainability and moreover, regenerative tourism provides an opportunity for the traveler to reduce their carbon footprint, while making friends with the local people. Sure, they might have to give up their Herbal Essences shampoo in order to use the biodegradable shampoo and soaps provided by the hotel (if they do so choose), but it’s a do-good-feel-good experience that should add to the overall authenticity of their vacation. Sustainable/Regenerative resorts, lodges and hotels can range from $10/night to $10,000/night. This form of travel appeals to all types of travelers and that’s the best thing about it. There’s really no excuse to not travel in this way.

Personally speaking, I’m a frequent flier. My work involves me to travel to 196+ countries, which means that I can’t shy away from the fact that I need to fly, a lot. I’m fully aware that my carbon footprint is through the roof and I’m sure that there are many other business travelers who can relate. But this is one way that a simple effort can help to reverse the damage that’s already been done to some of our degraded environments and hurting cultures around the world.

So, how does responsible tourism generate understanding/peaceful relations? I’m a firm believer that just by engaging in conversation with local people, a newfound open mind is birthed. A person develops a heightened and unbiased understanding of that Nation. There’s politics, there’s religion, and then there’s everything and everyone else in between. The level of turmoil that every Nation faces, stems from primarily politics or religion. If you go to Kabul, Afghanistan and take a stroll through the streets, you might start a conversation with a local. In this case, you’ll see that they have many of the same desires as you. They want to live, they want to provide for their families, they don’t want to die. They want a wholesome, happy life. They’re not a threat to you. Their government or a religious group might be a threat to your government, but the millions of people who live there, pose no threat at all. Even if we know nothing about a culture that is experiencing turmoil, we can generate peace by making the right choices, by choosing to travel responsibly. Because by traveling responsibly, we’re able to understand a culture, a problem, an ecosystem, more thoroughly and therefore develop a mutual respect and a yearning to want to help, even if “helping” is exchanging a smile and a conversation with a local person.

Like the rest of us, I want to change the world. This is me doing my part. By not only practicing what I preach, but sharing my observations and knowledge with other prospective travelers to further a shift within the tourism industry.