As we plan for a new future of tourism, we have the opportunity to rethink how we travel, how we sell travel and how we can help improve the world in which we live.
From travelers and travel advisors to tourism suppliers and destinations, the world eagerly awaits the time when we can all travel again as we used to.
Or do we?
While there are compelling financial incentives for suppliers and destinations to want to see a return to normal, and travelers are surely eager to set back out on the road to adventures and discoveries, this lull in tourism has also opened the doors to some big questions. Among the most notable is: What is our obligation to the destinations we visit?
For the past several years, there’s been an increasing focus on the concept of sustainable tourism. And while sustainable tourism is about reducing the strain we place on the ecosystems of the places we visit, there are many who question if that’s enough in itself or just the start.
“Sustainable tourism was largely defined on the concept of doing no harm,” says Sven Lindblad, founder and CEO of Lindblad Expeditions. “The concept is to ensure that when we go someplace, we don’t damage it and we make sure it’s available for future generations to also enjoy.”
Regenerative tourism builds on that concept and goes a step farther. “With regenerative tourism, there’s an opportunity for tourism to actually improve the destination,” says Lindblad. However, he also notes the conflict inherent in the very premise: “When it comes to nature, is it possible to leave a place ‘better’ than it was before?”
So how does that translate to real life? “We can go beyond the concept of not doing any harm to see how we can creatively improve the condition of a place,” he says. “If there’s a destination that has been negatively affected in the past, we can mitigate those effects and get it closer to the state it was in prior to the negative changes.”
But to do so requires what Lindblad calls “an attitudinal shift,” both across the industry and among travelers. “If we—the travel industry and travelers, governments and citizens—are ever really going to be successful dealing with our collective relationship with the environment, we need to give such efforts permanent and consistent consideration,” he says. He notes that in the past, such efforts have waxed and waned, making it difficult to effect large-scale change. “As human beings, our relationship with the environment tends to be broadly fungible,” he says, “so that its importance rises and falls based on other issues we deem priorities. For example, leading up to 2008, we saw a lot of concern about the environment and climate change—and then the economy faltered and the concept of climate change was eclipsed by economic considerations that we as a society deemed more important at the time.”
Still, Lindblad is hopeful that today’s unique circumstances might have created the perfect storm to move forward with tangible change. “It’s possible that this pandemic has scared a lot of people, rightly so, and one could argue that there’s a correlation to our degraded environment,” he points out. “There’s currently an imbalance in our natural systems—and finding a better balance is in our interest on so many levels.”
To that end, Lindblad believes the current situation might be pivotal in helping multiple entities find ways to create that balance. “The real opportunity—the holy grail—is figuring out how to get tourists engaged in contributing in meaningful ways,” Lindblad says. “There are difficult questions we all need to ask: What is the capacity of any given destination? At what point does tourism stop being a healthy economic asset to a destination and start to do damage? The answers are different depending on the locale. And then the next question: How do we control tourism so that it benefits a destination without degrading the destination?”
Lindblad notes that the two most common ways of limiting tourists come from both destinations and tourism operators. The first is for the destination itself to control the number of people who enter. As recently as last year, for example, the Netherlands Board of Tourism & Conventions announced a plan to focus its advertising and marketing on locales other than Amsterdam to help control the numbers of tourists to that popular city, and this summer a grassroots petition asked the Amsterdam city council to put a cap on the number of tourists. Last fall, Venice announced an entry fee to the city, meant to be implemented this summer but now postponed to the summer of 2021, while voters in Key West just approved referendums to ban large cruise ships completely, limit the number of daily cruise ship visitors and give docking priority to cruise lines with the best health and environmental records.
“Dealing with it from the cost side puts economic pressure on the numbers,” says Lindblad. “Some people would say that’s an elitist approach, but it can be very successful. Bhutan, for example, created a structure years ago with the help of my father, Lars-Eric Lindblad, that successfully resulted in a form of regenerative travel that has lasted 50 years.”
Another approach is to actively work towards channeling dollars to aid destinations. Lindblad says that Lindblad Expeditions, in partnership with the National Geographic Society, for example, “raises about $2 million a year from guests that gets channeled into significant projects around the world that are vetted by scientists and are really meaningful. Especially now, a lot of these countries are seeing their funds dry up and are really struggling as tourism has slowed. Through the Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic Fund, which supports conservation, education, research, storytelling and technology initiatives, we have the opportunity to fill that gap and provide funds that governments can’t.”
The ideal, of course, is a mix of such approaches and calls for the support of the many entities involved in tourism—from the destinations themselves to the many suppliers who contribute to a locale’s tourism to the travel advisors customizing the experiences and ultimately, to the traveler.
One subset of the travel industry that is pioneering such approaches, with a shared global mission of placing destination needs at the center of tourism's new future, is the Future of Tourism Coalition. This group of six non-profit organizations includes CREST (Center for Responsible Tourism), Destination Stewardship Center, Sustainable Travel International, Tourism Cares, and the Travel Foundation, as well as a number of high-profile signatories—Lindblad Expeditions is proud to be a Founding Signatory.
“This is one of the beginning stages,” says Lindblad. “We are talking about the current situation and acknowledging the importance of strategic planning. But we can do so much more—the travel industry as a whole can play a bigger role if we commit to it. There is great value in investing in the health of the places we depend on.”