Podcast: What in the World Is Regenerative Travel?

In our fourth episode of “Unpacked by AFAR,” we define and demystify what “regenerative travel” is and explore how travelers can integrate sustainability into their journeys beyond carbon offsets.

Unpacked Regenerative Travel

Is there a way to travel in an environmentally friendly way that goes beyond carbon offsets?

Illustration by Tara Anand

In our new podcast, Unpacked by AFAR, we explore the world of ethical travel in a friendly, accessible—and dare we say—fun way. Every other Thursday join us as we answer your ethical conundrums from how to engage with animal tourism (“I know I shouldn’t ride an elephant, but can I swim with dolphins?”) to travel that doesn’t harm the Earth (“What is zero-waste travel—and is it even possible?”). Here’s the transcript from our July 28 episode.

Listen now. And be sure to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

KRISTY DRUTMAN, HOST: Welcome to Unpacked by AFAR. I’m Kristy Drutman, also known on the internet as Browngirl Green. I tell stories about how we can solve, or at least try to solve, the big environmental issues of our time, and today we are focusing on the travel industry. What exactly does sustainability in travel mean? Turns out, so much more than most of us think.

Travel is one of the most beautiful activities and privileges in the world. But unfortunately, it also comes with its own share of environmental and social impacts—and we need to talk about that. As we know, the climate crisis is a huge issue, and yet for many of us, it can be so easy to set that aside in our excitement to get back out in the world. But given that travel is skyrocketing and has now even exceeded prepandemic levels, there’s really no better time to figure out how we can make it better than right now.

Maybe you already think about sustainability when you travel. If so, you’re not alone.

In 2021, Booking.com released a report on the state of sustainable travel around the world. According to their research, a whopping 87 percent of travelers want to travel more sustainably. So clearly a lot of people are talking about this.

But the reality is, only 39 percent of travelers actually manage to travel sustainably all the time. And 43 percent said that they “sometimes, rarely or never” manage to travel in a sustainable way.

Well, why is that? To begin with: It’s difficult.

Look: I’m an environmentalist, but I also love to travel. And for years, I struggled to reconcile the two. What does it mean to be an “ecofriendly traveler”? I felt guilty about traveling and the potential negative impact it has on the environment. There are carbon emissions to consider, single-use plastics on airplanes and hotels, and all the little items you bring along to use only for travel but throw away and never use again, like mini deodorant.

I tried to minimize my impact by doing things like trying out soap and conditioner bars, offsetting my flights by purchasing some carbon offsets, trying to eat less meat, and so forth.

But I had an inkling that there was more to it.

Let’s get a little academic for a second. The International Labour Organization says that sustainable tourism is “composed of three pillars: social justice, economic development, and environmental integrity.”

I’d spent a lot of time focusing on environmental integrity but hadn’t considered the others as much.

So in this episode, we’ll meet two travel experts who expanded my perspective on what sustainable travel truly means.

As I learned, sustainability goes beyond, say, choosing public transportation over a car, or choosing a metal straw over a plastic one. It is the framework we use to travel, the decisions we make before and during our trip, and interactions we have along the way that leave a far greater impact on the places that we’re visiting.

First, we’re going to hear my conversation with Amanda Ho, cofounder and CEO of Regenerative Travel. Amanda works with hotels to create experiences that involve—and benefit—local communities as much as possible, what she calls regenerative travel. Her whole mission is to figure out what a sustainable travel experience looks like. We started by talking about what exactly “regenerative travel” means.

KRISTY: For people who don’t know, what are some of the ways travelers impact the environment and world negatively without realizing it?

AMANDA HO: Climate change is the most imminent threat to human well-being and the health of our planet. Tourism is actually the second fastest growing industry in the world as of 2019 and it [is] responsible for 8 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. In order to achieve the goal set forth in the Paris Climate Agreement, the travel sector has to implement far-reaching rapid efforts to reduce emissions to restore and protect our planet.

But I think what we are seeing, from our perspective, is really that there’s a lot of mindless travel in terms of that’s not intentional, not engaging with the local community. Travelers are really not taking the time to be more respectful and enjoying themselves and also more of an extractive mindset rather than looking at how they can contribute when they do travel.

So we really are championing this more intentional, non-extractive, inclusive, diverse, and equitable type of travel at our organization. We really believe that it has to go beyond just sustainability. We have to take it into account, everyone within the whole ecosystem. Travelers are an inherent part of how they contribute when they travel to a place. We really are trying to change the nature of how people are traveling.

KRISTY: I love that, and I love what you were saying about extractive versus non-extractive travel because I feel like that’s at the root of rethinking the ways in which sustainability is done as you’re participating in tourism. I wanted to know if you could dive a little bit more deep into what is extractive versus non-extractive tourism?

AMANDA: Starting from the basics of just the language and terminology, we say that being green or eco is just doing no harm. Sustainability is reaching net-zero, but regeneration is actually making something better. We really believe that being non-extractive is creating better conditions of life for everyone within the environment, within the community. This really looks at how all parts are connected through this concept of whole ecosystem thinking. Both humans, lands, animals, wildlife, everyone is really a part of this whole ecosystem. We really believe that as a traveler, you have to tap into that whole ecosystem.

We really believe that from a regenerative travel perspective, any type of experience you can have in a destination can really act as an inspiration to really connect you deeper with nature. So actually, returning home to yourself and being more mindful. I think first and foremost, we believe that regenerative travel starts with your own intentions and your mindset, and how you want to engage with the community, with the destination. It’s not just coming into a place and seeing, “OK, what boxes can I check off?” I think we see a lot of this with cruising, for example, just going from jumping around from point A to point B, and just maybe having an hour or half a day, just come in.

It really just brings about this type of traveler that is not really deeply engaging with the community. The dollars that they’re spending and the port might really not be reaching back to local businesses because they don’t have the time to really explore, take the time to get to know the locals, and really understand what makes the destination so special.

KRISTY: You mentioned earlier that regenerative travel thinks about benchmarks. How do you even develop benchmarks for that? Could you explain that a little bit more?

AMANDA: Yes, of course. This really came about because we realized that there was so much greenwashing within the travel industry. I think as sustainability became a trend, everyone was just saying they’re sustainable, they’re eco, you’re green. It really goes beyond just not washing your towels every day and no plastic water bottles is great. That should be at the minimum, but we really realized that without any measurement or benchmarking, we really have no idea what you’re doing. We realized that we had to mandate all the hotels to then actually measure what they’re doing across environmental and social impact.

We developed 29 metrics that connect to broader frameworks like the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals and also the B Corp certification where they’re customized for small hotels. We measure 29 data points looking at waste, water, energy—on the social side, inclusion, education, and distribution, and then the last point is also legacy, but I think as a company, as an organization, we really are trying to champion social regenerations, so looking at how a hotel can build their operations and programming to support underrepresented groups.

Do they have upper management and underrepresented groups at the top? How much money is flowing back into the local community? How much money is being spent on educational outreach programs or skills training for staff? We really are trying to help hotels understand how they’re uplifting their locals, uplifting their staff, and really providing more opportunities for staff to be trained and rise within the organization rather than having to import GMs that are not based in the destination.

KRISTY: Do you have any specific examples you could offer of maybe a hotel or a travel experience that you felt really embodies what you’re talking about?

AMANDA: I went to another one of our hotels last summer in Tuscany, it’s called Oasyhotel. I think most people don’t think of forest or nature as part of a traditional Italian experience, but Oasy is definitely one that really honors that. It’s located near Pistoia. It’s about the northern region of Tuscany.

Again, being [a] European gastronomic experience, I ended up doing cheese making. You can do wolf tracking, the whole preserve has been well honored by WWF, so it’s in partnership with World Wildlife Fund to protect the land and they’re opening up other locations around Italy. Essentially when you go there, you’re on these hectares of land, and you really are immersed in the most local northern Italian Tuscan experience.

Again, being [a] European gastronomic experience, I ended up doing cheese making. You can do wolf tracking, the whole preserve has been well honored by WWF, so it’s in partnership with World Wildlife Fund to protect the land and they’re opening up other locations around Italy. Essentially when you go there, you’re on these hectares of land, and you really are immersed in the most local northern Italian Tuscan experience.

Oasy is also really incredible because at the base of the camp, they actually provide schooling and education for underprivileged disabled children. A lot of the funds generated from the hotel actually support that organization called Oasi Dynamo.

They’re the beacon within the community. They also produce their own products, their own cheese and jams, and so forth that are from the local community. It’s such an incredible gastronomic experience that I think people don’t normally associate with Italy.

We really are trying to get people out to explore these destinations that aren’t traditionally associated with Italy or Portugal—for example, most people go to Lisbon and the cities. We’re really trying to get people out of these areas that are highly trafficked and almost dealing with over-tourism, to get them to explore these places that are more under the radar.

KRISTY: I really like that. I wanted to know just because people who are going to be listening to this are maybe at the beginning of their sustainable travel journey, what are some tips that you have for people before, during, and after their trip?

AMANDA: That intentionality is first and foremost, but from some more practical measures it’s really looking at, what is your accommodation? How are you going to choose your hotel? Are you going to go with Airbnb? Maybe you’re going to try and choose a more sustainable property.

I think one option, one of the most basic ones, is actually trying to maybe not go through a traditional OTA, like Booking.com or Expedia. These OTAs, they charge quite a high commission rate. Actually, if you go direct through the hotel, you actually give the hotel much more back—they don’t pay a commission.

For example, if you’re booking a property that’s supporting conservation that allows up to 30 percent commission that would normally go to the OTA, maybe that can be then contributed back to conservation and their foundation. Anything that they’re supporting in terms of sustainability and regeneration. That’s just a basic one in terms of accommodation.

I would then look at, what type of tours are you going to do there and experiences? Can you choose experiences that are really integrating locals? I would say that one of the biggest parts of this is definitely doing your research. Are you supporting an organization that’s a multinational or a big corporate brand, or are you supporting a local mom-and-pop independent shop that really is run and operated by locals?

Looking at transportation, can you take public transportation? Can you take the bus? Can you take a train? Do you have to fly? Can you rent a bike instead of maybe renting a car? Other more practical things are: Can you pack to reduce waste, like bringing your own reusable instead of plastic water bottles, a simple one? Can you bring your own conditioner and reduce use of single-use plastics at the properties?

Lastly, really essentially around it’s really just how you can immerse yourself back into local culture.

KRISTY: I love that. I think it’s about, like, when you are traveling, based on what you’re saying, to travel sustainably or thinking in this regenerative mindset, you’re ultimately thinking about what you’re exchanging. Whether that be your energy, your money, your resources, the waste that you produce. You’re thinking constantly about that cycle as you’re traveling, is what it sounds like. You realize that it’s going to leave some sort of impact and ideally you want it to be a positive one. That’s the mindset.

AMANDA: Yes. That’s exactly it. Obviously, there’s more technical in terms of the environmental side of your carbon footprint and so forth. We really believe that it ultimately comes back to—it’s an embodied experience ultimately, and yes, you can choose to support certain businesses, but again, whose lives are you impacting when you’re traveling? Where is your money going?

I think that’s everything that we try to preach in regenerative travel is, our hotels just act as that transformation opportunity because they have the experience on-site where they have you releasing baby turtles into the ocean or you’re having this amazing sundowner looking at elephants and a pack of lions over the horizon. You’re like, “Wow. This is incredible. How can I save this for kids in my future generation? How can I ensure that we protect this Earth?”

I think really travel offers that moment of realization and transformation. But I think it’s then how to translate that realization into actionable steps not just when you’re traveling, but when you’re home. When you continue on your travels, how can you really embody that understanding into your own life?

KRISTY: You know, for some people, they may see that trying to find sustainable travel options, like you were saying, requires some more research and time and maybe some more money since it is going directly back to local people. For people who may see that it might be a little bit more expensive or time-intensive to invest in sustainable travel—you’ve already hinted at it—but could you explain a little bit more about the short- and the long-term benefits on both those local communities and the travelers, if they do make that investment?

AMANDA: I definitely get that at the end of the day price point can be a barrier to making some of your decisions and supporting certain businesses but ultimately, we really believe that travel, it should cost what it is. We are ultimately supporting, like you said, we are supporting local communities. We are paying people fair wages, we are looking at giving benefits to the people that are employed in tourism and all that has a cost. Ultimately, there is a cost [for] conservation and it shouldn’t—it has to be sustainable and profitable.

For example, like we just mentioned with OTAs that’s a very simple way. Like instead of looking at Booking.com and trying to get that cheapest rate, that $20 that you were trying to save on Booking.com, if you book directly with the hotel, that ultimately can go back to the property and enable them to do more of the work that they’re doing. I think it’s just trying to not think about this, but how much are you actually saving in terms of choosing one or the other. There are still so many things that you can do on the ground in terms of how you’re being more sustainable, more regenerative.

Like I said, with the tourists, transportation, good businesses you’re supporting. I think it really goes beyond accommodations. Definitely, I think people just have to ultimately realize that there is a cost to investing into these new types of businesses, and I think they should have more or have joy and appreciation for that because you should feel good about where your money is going.

KRISTY: Yeah, no, I think it’s also this idea of the kind of experience you’re trying to have. Like you were saying, there is that very short-term Insta pic like consumerist mindset of like, “Let me go in and just extract from this place basically, to show x, y, and z people that like, ‘Hey, I got to experience this.’” It’s like are you really present? Are you really engaging with the environment that you’re in with your surroundings? Are you thinking about, you know, the impact you’re leaving or is it just using this up, trashing it, and leaving. If you do care about the environment, it’s something worth investing into.

AMANDA: It’s a way for you to really just to see how other people are living, appreciate their worldview and maybe that will shift yours to really be more in tune with our society or the global connection of the whole planet and realizing that we all have such a part to play in terms of saving our planet from climate change and just creating a more inclusive, equitable society, we can do that every day in how we interact with people.

I think travel offers that opportunity for us to see that outside of our own environments, I think that people are just a bit more at ease when they’re traveling and feel a little more open to experiencing. I think that’s just such an important part of really helping us shift our mindset. I definitely hope that people will continue to seek out this type of regenerative travel experience because I really think it has to be the way forward in terms of how we are living our lives.

KRISTY: If you want to learn more about how Amanda’s work is helping change the travel industry, go to regenerativetravel.com. Amanda opened my eyes to how easy it is to opt-in to most mainstream travel experiences, without realizing the heavy environmental impact on areas that are often already over-extracted and over-visited. So regenerative travel in this way offers a simple alternative. This also made me realize how valuable travel can be in the future as a teaching tool to bring more people into the sustainability conversation.

We’re going to take a break for a quick word from our sponsor. We’ll be back in a minute to look at a specific example of a place that has suffered from this type of nonsustainable travel—and how we can instead apply a regenerative mindset to our future trips.

KRISTY: Welcome back to Unpacked by AFAR.

My conversation with Amanda made me think about my most recent trip. In May, I spent two weeks in the Philippines—a place I know really well. It’s where my family is from, and I’ve visited and lived there at different points in my life. I’ve observed that many outsiders have a misconception of the Philippines as just a dirty and dangerous place, and because of that they overcrowd the most “travel-friendly” locations like Boracay or Palawan.

On this most recent trip, I even decided to be more of a tourist myself and visit Palawan, a highly sought out destination. I told my family I was traveling there and my aunt found an all-inclusive, pre-prepared travel package for me.

I was coming off of a long work trip in Cambodia, and I was all-in on an experience that would require a lot of enjoyment but little thought. I also assumed it was sustainable, because the experience seemed to be run entirely by locals.

During the trip, some of my online community members shared that there are a lot of Indigenous land protectors in Palawan whose land is threatened by mining and logging operations. They said that much of the tourism industry on Palawan actually covers up and, in some way, profits from this exploitation. I was so shocked. I knew that my trip benefited the local economy to some extent, but to be honest, I hadn’t really done my research. When you grow up in a brown family and they tell you they just got the plug, you kind of just go for it. It felt too awkward and weird to challenge my family and demand an ecofriendly experience, when that wasn’t something as readily known or accessible to them or myself.

I now know I didn’t make the most sustainable or ecofriendly decision. But, I’d like to make a better decision in the future for my next trip. So in this next segment, as a case study, I was able to talk to a travel expert and storyteller in the Philippines to get his advice.

PACO GUERRERO: For us, for myself and the team at Grid, the real crux of sustainable travel really is about engaging in a sustainable way with local communities so that they can develop their model of the travel industry and have it become an income for the community and have it last for a very long time.

KRISTY: That’s Paco Guerrero. Paco is one of the founders of Grid Magazine PH, which offers tips and advice about how to be a more intentional traveler within the Philippines, especially when it comes to different communities.

Paco shared that, one of the things that makes the Philippines so special is the number of Indigenous people who call the islands home. He wants to see more travelers seek these communities out—and he wants to see more communities offer these travel experiences.

He used the island of Coron as an example. Coron happens to be in Palawan, where I was on my trip. But on Coron, the Indigenous Tagbanua people have full control. Paco explains more.

Unpacked Regenerative Travel

Travelers should aim to engage with a new destination in a way that is mindful and positively impactful on the local environment.

Illustration by Tara Anand

PACO: It was given over as an Indigenous territory by the Philippine government.

This means that any development or any tourism that happens in Coron is actually planned, controlled, monitored by the Indigenous group. Now that also means that the profits go directly to them, which is a big help to the community. It’s an interesting model because it was a long fight to get to that point where they could control their own island, but now it’s one of the Philippines’s best tourism destinations. To stress the fact, one of the reasons it is the best is because it is purposefully kept underdeveloped.

Basically Indigenous people have limited the access of travelers and developers to the island. You go to Coron on their terms, not on your terms. They give limited access to the beaches and the lagoons. It’s controlled, as far as the number of people who are allowed every day. Also, there are no large hotels or big structures on the island. The Indigenous people have chosen to keep the structures there built with natural materials and in the local way of constructing, the very famous nipa huts that you see from around the Philippines.

It’s one of the most photographed islands in the country because you have these beautiful limestone cliffs and then these really quiet, very beautiful, original nipa hut, which is just made out of bamboo and some weeds. That’s a good example of how this tourism can really succeed.

KRISTY: But it’s not like travelers have to choose Coron over, say, a more packaged experience in Palawan. The travel industry does support local communities.

PACO: The reality is the Philippines actually is a very densely populated country, so employment and economic development is definitely at the forefront of any push the government or the industry might have, and that’s a good thing. I think we all agree on that. Certain areas necessarily will be what we would say overdeveloped.

But there’s a lot left out there. Small communities that are trying to develop their own form of tourism. I think as a traveler, if when you book your trip, if you try and do a little bit of both. You know, yes, do the five-star resort, enjoy your time and then try and find something off the beaten path. Try and find something that’s community-based. I don’t think for the traveler, it should be an either-or situation.

KRISTY: When travelers look for, ask for, and book these experiences, it can create demand that also helps communities refocus on their natural resources. Paco shared that the Philippines has a problem with people using dynamite and cyanide to fish in the coral reefs—but outsiders supporting the tourism industry can help.

PACO: As a traveler, I think, what you can bring is yourself. The local community—there are many stories like this around the Philippines, where local communities were poisoning the reefs with cyanide and dynamite, and discovering that there’s a dive site nearby transforms them into tourism. They realize, “Why throw dynamite into this water when I have these divers who are willing to come here, stay in a small hut or resort, open a dive shop, and they’ll hire me as their boat guy?”

The more they see these things happening, these success stories happening, the side effect is sustainability. I think in these rural communities that are struggling with poverty, struggling with access to resources, sustainability really isn’t the primary goal, it’s always a side effect of sustainable development first.

KRISTY: Paco shared one of the ways the pandemic—and the lack of tourism—unexpectedly affected the Philippines negatively.

PACO: I heard, anecdotally, not the statistics yet, from several friends who are conservationist marine biologists, they were saying that, sadly, because of the COVID lockdowns, there were no tourists traveling around the Philippines. They were seeing more evidence of poaching in marine-protected areas just because the local communities had no money, they had no jobs, there was no tourism, and they needed to feed their families.

It sounds horrible, but that’s the reality of it. Conversely, you can see that with tourism operations and with profits from the tourism industry, it does have a direct impact, it can have a direct impact on sustainable practices.

KRISTY: I shared my Palawan experience with Paco, and this tension that can exist between relaxing and enjoying a place and while also caring about being a good steward of it. I’ve realized more and more that, in the face of the climate crisis, we must be active rather than passive observers.

PACO: To build on what you said, I think the strongest role the traveler has in this issue of sustainable travel is exactly where they spend their money on.

That’s the most powerful. You can pick up trash, you can travel with your own bottle, not use straws. Really, the power you have is in your pocket. If other businesses see that the resorts and the tours and the islands that are pushing sustainability are making a profit, then it becomes a logical choice.

KRISTY: Paco talked about how tourism in the Philippines really started in Boracay, an island that’s become one of the country’s top destinations for travelers.

PACO: All the other islands and mayors and communities who wanted to start a tourism program, the only model they had to look at and to study and to emulate was Boracay, which had a lot of failings: sewage, energy, waste, very unsustainable, but those weren’t issues when the island started to develop. What happened?

It’s a model that’s been extrapolated to many other communities around the Philippines and tourism destinations, and now they’re suffering the same problems Boracay has. But there are resorts, resort developers, restaurant owners, and other communities that are showing a different model, showing a different way of doing it.

KRISTY: If you want to learn more about Paco and his team, visit gridmagazine.ph.

Now as we wrap up this episode, I want to share what I gathered from our guests.

Takeaway #1

First, yes, environmental protections are important. But sustainable travel comes down to acting with intentionality and honoring and respecting the places we visit. We can all aim to be the traveler who leaves the land, people, and waters better than they were before you arrived.

Takeaway #2

Second: Traveling sustainably can add more curiosity, joy, and connection to your travel experience. That’s because you are not just purchasing or buying into the first activity, item, or option you see. It might take a little more time, yes. But by being mindful, and evaluating the options in front of you, you can consider the ecosystem of the place and how to make a positive impact on it. That might mean buying locally made products and food or reading literature or watching movies about the treatment of land and Indigenous peoples in that area.

Takeaway #3

It doesn’t have to be perfect. Even if your trip isn’t 100 percent supporting the local economy, that’s OK. As long as you intentionally try to invest some of your dollars, time, and effort into locally driven, sustainable tourism, you are ultimately shifting the tourist economy. Increased demand for these experiences—and increased efforts to protect local labor—really can make all the difference.

Thanks so much for joining me on this episode of Unpacked. If you’d like to learn more about me and my work—including my own show, Browngirl Green—head over to browngirlgreen.com for podcasts, videos, and blog posts discussing a wide range of environmentally conscious topics. We also have a green jobs board if you’re looking to build a career in the sustainability space. Or find me on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok. I’m @browngirlgreen.

Ready for more unpacking? Read more at afar.com/unpack, and be sure to follow AFAR on Instagram and Twitter. We’re @afarmedia. If you enjoyed today’s exploration, we hope you’ll come back for more great stories. Subscribing makes this easy! You can find Unpacked on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast platform. And please be sure to rate and review the podcast. It helps other travelers find the show.

This has been Unpacked, a production of AFAR Media and Boom Integrated. Our podcast is produced by Aislyn Greene, Adrien Glover, and Robin Lai. Postproduction was by John Marshall Media staff Jenn Grossman and Clint Rhoades. Music composition by Alan Carrescia.

And remember: The world is complicated. Being an ethical traveler doesn’t have to be.

>> Next: Podcast: Is it Really Possible to Travel Like a Local?

Kristy Drutman is the host of the Brown Girl Green podcast.
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