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The Next Economy
‘Back to Life’ Program Seeds Regenerative Tourism Framework in New Zealand

Taking advantage of the forced pandemic pause and building off the momentum of a less extractive tourism model already taking shape in the country’s Bay of Plenty, the online program provided a foundation for shaping thriving host communities rooted in local context and culture.

New Zealand’s popularity among travelers has steadily increased over the years. In 2019, nearly 3.9 million international visitors arrived on the island (Aotearoa, the country’s Māori name); and international visitor arrivals were forecasted to reach 5.1 million in 2024, according to the country’s Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment. And, like most destinations, increased tourism in New Zealand has led to natural resource degradation, increased greenhouse gas emissions, loss of biodiversity, and overcrowding on beaches and in natural landscapes.

Like many industries coming out of the Industrial Revolution, traditional tourism models relied on extraction and exploitation.

“Places are packaged up and sold as destinations and places you must see before you die. And the landscapes, culture and people, in a sense, are packaged up as part of that sales proposition,” said Anna Pollock, founder of Conscious Travel and a change agent in regenerative-focused tourism.

Yet, long before COVID-19 swept around the globe, tourism professionals in New Zealand’s Bay of Plenty, in particular, were already exploring regenerative approaches leaning heavily on Māori values and wisdom to address tourism’s problems while reimagining the scope and purpose of the industry.

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In many ways, “regeneration” has become a buzzword companies are tacking on to their products in an effort to repackage “sustainable” offerings as having a positive impact on the planet and people. But no single product, company or even industry is singularly regenerative; nor is regeneration new. Rather, regeneration is an ideology and process that embraces the interconnectedness of Earth’s ecosystems and collective wisdom so that people and the planet can flourish. It’s as old as the planet itself — and it may be the answer the world needs as it stands on the precipice of catastrophic biodiversity loss and climate disaster.

“What we’re being asked to do as human beings, let alone as tourism professionals, is seriously rethink how we have related to the natural world,” Pollock said.

Taking advantage of the forced pandemic pause and building off the momentum of a less extractive tourism model already taking shape in the Bay of Plenty, approximately 80 tourism stakeholders across New Zealand participated in a program called Back to Life in early 2021. Led by Pollock, who has worked closely with New Zealand tourism partners for more than a decade; and Michelle Holliday — a consultant and author of the book, The Age of Thrivability: Vital Perspectives and Practices for a Better World, the 10-week online program provided a foundation for shaping thriving host communities rooted in local context and culture.

“It was a combination of content, conversation and practice as much as possible along the way,” Holliday said — noting that while she and Pollock provided content, they were very intentional in honoring and centering local Māori wisdom.

The program’s five modules centered on the core principles of regenerative tourism:

  • perspective and principles (what does regeneration mean and how can nature’s proven design principles be applied in a tourism framework?);

  • purpose (what does flourishing look like within a visitor economy?);

  • people (how do roles and relationships help create the conditions for healthy, resilient and productive communities?);

  • place (how does the uniqueness of place shape us?); and

  • practice (how do we broaden the understanding of and deepen care for nature and its people?).

Extensive offline reading prepared participants for facilitated discussions and small breakout groups where participants ideated and reflected on content. Everyone was invited to contribute to a “continuing harvest” document where they shared questions and thoughts on how to apply regenerative principles in their work and specific context. “The first session, in particular, was so powerful. People were so eager to be together in this exploration, and feel hope for a new way of imagining and doing tourism,” Holliday said.

“My understanding of regeneration, initially, was very shallow. It was the understanding that, like sustainability was ‘do less harm,’ regeneration was ‘do more good,’” said Josie Major, New Zealand programs manager for GOOD Travel. Similarly, Debbie Clarke, founder of New Zealand Awaits, said she had an awareness but not a thorough understanding of regeneration prior to Back to Life. Going through the learning process as a group was particularly powerful for her: “It was a deeply personal and very emotional experience, especially around understanding our place and our belonging to our place,” Clarke said.

For people working in an industry centered on doing, taking time to reflect upon and learn from the larger ecosystem in which tourism exists was a jarring departure. Initially, Pollock said, “everyone wanted practical tools for dealing with COVID, so you had that dynamic of how are we going to survive this enormous crisis and an inherent internal desire by many to go back to normal as soon as possible. The biggest challenge was getting people to understand that this is a whole new way of thinking, a whole new way of seeing the world — and that takes time.”

As New Zealand prepares to reopen its borders to vaccinated international visitors in early 2022, the question is whether the country’s tourism industry will fall back into its old habits or embrace an entirely new, regenerative approach that honors place and people far more than extractive profit.

“Since the course, it’s been a fundamental shift in thinking for me. In particular, the living systems principles and starting to see the visitor economy in our communities as living systems has been a profound shift,” Major said. “I’m taking the time to have conversations that don’t necessarily have a specific output. I’m building relationships and still deepening my understanding.”

For their part, Major and Clarke are committed to continuing the conversation about regenerative tourism in New Zealand through a new podcast called “GOOD Awaits” — which they launched after completing the Back to Life program.

“This is a practice. This is a journey,” Clarke said. “I think all of us in the course really realized, ‘ok, we’re in this together, we’re starting this together.’ And there is so much hope.”