Ideas for a brighter future for all

Regenerative literacy can help build sustainable tourism

The end of 2022 has been marked by COP27 on climate change and COP15 on biodiversity, and crucial decisions on the future of our planet.  

The key themes emerging from COP15, the 15th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity are Nature Positive and rebuilding biodiversity. Both of these represent aspects of the regenerative movement. For some this might sound like the buzzword du jour, a revamped “sustainability”, but it appears in the Earth Charter (2000), which is replete with words such as “restore”, “rehabilitation”, “regenerative”, “renewal”. The Charter also calls for “a change of mind and heart” – changes that are equal in importance and perhaps greater in urgency than any call for increased in technical expertise or scientific knowledge.  

But for many scientists, we have been trained to work with head (technical expertise) and not so much with the heart. So how can we respond to the changes required of us now in light of COP15?  

Literacies help connect 

In response to the increasing urgency of bringing the earth back within safe planetary boundaries, we recently proposed a focus on “regenerative literacy”. UNESCO’s definition of literacy says that it “enable[es] individuals to achieve their goals, to develop their knowledge and potential, and to participate fully in their community and wider society”. Unlike the more managerial  science-based concept of sustainability (measure to manage), regenerative literacy focusses on head (knowledge), heart (attitudes and emotions) and hands (actions).  

In our area of work, we apply this idea of regenerative literacy to tourism. When you think about good tourism experience, it’s the things that you have done and the emotions that you felt while doing them that generally come to mind.  

Tourism also connects us, both as tourists and as hosts, to place. Tourism inherently asks what is special about a place, what makes is worth showcasing and preserving, what elicits those special emotions? Knowing (head) and caring for (hands) and about (heart) are all is importantimportant here and we increasingly recognise that a strong sense of place, how a place works and what is it, is connected to good stewardship of that place, and therefore the ability to care for it and when required, regenerate the lives that (once) live(d) here.  

Indigenous cultures are often linked to terms like sense of place, and stewardship, as evidenced by the recent Earthshot Prize to the Queensland Indigenous Women Rangers Network for their work in protecting the Great Barrier Reef and the cultural traditions linked with it. This stewardship may make use of scientific knowledge, but it is more than that; to use a gardeners’ analogy, it’s an ability to see the state of the whole system (garden) in the droop of a flower or the patchy yellowing of leaves.  

Eco tourism
Regenerative tourism 

Technology is a starting place for the Positive in ‘Nature Positive’, but it is just a starting place. The regenerative process that can bring the planet back to within safe boundaries is represented in the spiral graphic below. A spiral acknowledges that things rarely happen in a straight line, they loop back on themselves, so that it sometimes feels like we are back where we started with little progress.  

On this spiral, carbon literacy with its widely accepted technologies such as low energy appliances, renewables, smart tech (sensor lights, etc), at the base. An individual who finds themselves on this spiral will usually engage with their head first – what can a smart meter offer me? How can it help me reduce my energy bills? Before progressing to hands, what actions can I take to reduce my energy and heart, a curiosity (an emotion) to know how one’s energy usage compare to others. Which may then lead to a search for more information on energy benchmarks, for example. However, benchmarks in and of themselves do not create change. Change requires more than measurements and knowledge. It requires “hands” and “heart”.  

For tourism, there are at least two key players in this process – the host and the guest. The host, who is paying the energy bills, may start this process, but will soon find that the guest’s behaviour (e.g., taking long showers, leaving lights and appliances on) matters to. And so, the host, leading the way, invites the guest to follow. 

Once both players are involved, a small community of two is created, and we ascend the spiral to green service literacy. Green service is an emerging area in tourism. It is more than technology-based and aligns with the emergence of co-design and co-creation of tourism experiences. The co-creation of tourism experience is the foundation of extremely successful companies such as Airbnb with its focus on authentic experience of place, hosted by a local who knows it.  

A host who is “green service” literate knows how to build sustainability into the value proposition of their tourist experience. Fresh, locally grown organic produce as part of a wellness focus for example. Using this food example, a host might start out with an understanding (head) of food miles, or food waste, and the associated carbon footprint. A host might seek solutions and take actions (hands) such as changing their supply chain to buy from local producers or learning how to compost food waste.  

This might then extend to empathising (heart) with the issues facing farmers in times of drought or floods, and so on and so forth as hosts pass through the one iteration of the head, hands and heart stages on the spiral. They might then invite the guest to learn more about the local produce of the region, perhaps build a “pick your own” (strawberries, for example) visit into the experience, and finally connect the guest to the stories of local farmers who have held the land in the family for generations.  

Progressive Greening of Practices

Green service literacy has the advantage of offering both, a lower carbon footprint and including the community participation aspect often. It is a perfect fit for tourism, where #buildforwardbetter seeks to place greater attention on the wellbeing of hosts (tourism workers and destination residents) alongside the satisfaction of tourists.   

 We argue that green service literacy still doesn’t go far enough in a world where we have passed safe planetary boundaries. For this we need regenerative literacy. While green service literacy emphasises the relationship between host and guest, regenerative literacy focuses on the interconnectedness of all living beings and even beyond to include landscapes such as rivers, seas and mountains.

Authors

Dr Alexandra CoghlanDr Alexandra Coghlan is an Associate Professor in the Department of Tourism, Sport and Hotel Management at Griffith Business School. Her research focus is consumer behaviour and pro-environmental outcomes of tourism. Dr Coghlan also has a BSc(hons.) in marine biology and is a PADI-certified dive master. She has a 20-year career of working in national parks, especially the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.

Professor Susanne BeckenDr Susanne Becken is a Professor of Sustainable Tourism at Griffith University, Australia, and a Principal Science Investment Advisor with the Department of Conservation, New Zealand. Susanne has led several government-funded research programmes in New Zealand and has also undertaken a broad range of consultancy work in Australia and internationally. Susanne has widely published on the topics of sustainable tourism, energy use and greenhouse gas emissions, tourist behavior, environmental policy, and risk management. She is a Fellow of the International Academy for the Study of Tourism, and was honored with the Ulysses Prize by UNWTO in 2019.

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