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In this Sept. 7, 2018 photo, tourists walk through Dubrovnik old town.Darko Bandic/The Associated Press

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The medieval walled city of Dubrovnik, Croatia last year squeezed 2.3 million tourists onto its cobblestone streets (nearly a million of them cruise ship passengers) – up 11 per cent from 2018. And before COVID-19 effectively shut down the global tourism industry, the UNESCO Heritage town was on pace to welcome even more visitors in 2020. But all that activity came at a cost: extreme overcrowding, damage to historic sites, strained infrastructure and disgruntled locals.

Closer to home, Banff National Park saw a 28-per-cent increase in visitors from 2013 to 2018 – visitors who caused traffic congestion, crammed trails and disrupted delicate ecosystems, leading the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society in 2018 to put limits on the number of tourists allowed in the ecologically sensitive area.

But when COVID-19 put the world on pause, over-tourism stopped with it. Now, as countries start to reopen and make plans for more tourism activities next year, there’s an opportunity for a sustainable reset.

Travellers are on board: According to a recent poll from the research firm Pollara Strategic Insights, more than 70 per cent of Canadians are in favour of prioritizing things such as nature conservation when talking about economic revitalization.

But some travel professionals feel that setting the bar at simply minimizing the negative effects of tourism can no longer be the goal. Instead. Kelley Louise, founder of Impact Travel Alliance (ITA), a New York-based non-profit that advocates for sustainable travel, says “regenerative tourism” could be the future of the industry. “The idea is that with so many stakeholders looking at the industry as a whole, sustainable tourism should be the norm," she says. That means creating new metrics of success that set sustainability as a bare minimum and aiming instead for a complete system overhaul.

Regenerative travel isn’t a new idea, Louise says. It prioritizes sustainability, environmental regeneration, social mobility, employment equality and equitable governance over revenue and numbers-driven metrics. “It has roots that stem from the circular economy,” she says. “It’s a commitment to continuous improvement. If you have a baseline of positive impact to local communities, the environment and the economy, how do you take that and make it better? Regenerative tourism is what you get when you start to ask these questions.”

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Busy pedestrian traffic mid-week in Banff, Alta., on July 10, 2019.TODD KOROL/The Globe and Mail

Some destinations have already begun this reformation. In 2017, the Belgian tourism office Visit Flanders started incorporating the regenerative travel ethos into its tourism efforts. Under the old model, it measured successful marketing campaigns by the number of visitors they attracted. Its “Travel to Tomorrow” philosophy, however, focuses on the idea that there is value in fewer visitors, with campaigns that prioritize the human experience over sales.

Elke Dens, marketing director for Visit Flanders, says the agency wanted to make changes for the benefit of both local residents and visitors – asking, “How can we make our community flourish?” instead of, “How can we get more tourists to visit?” Now, the focus is on how long people stayed and how they felt about their trips rather than overall numbers. “If we want people to enjoy the environment and be able to travel in the future, it is really necessary to change now," Dens says. "It’s part of a changing ecosystem. You cannot ignore issues. Take responsibility and show it.”

Dens says there are a lot of companies out there that believe they’re sustainable but don’t fully understand how to put the concept into practice, let alone how to move beyond that notion toward regenerative tourism. “Sustainability is good, because you do less harm to the environment, more good for the people and take on more social responsibility,” she says. "If we really want to work on regenerative tourism, we need to change the thinking about tourism in terms of exploitation, and start thinking about how tourism can make the whole community, the environment and our heritage flourish.”

Because so many organizations and destinations are coming at this from different starting points, the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) has established a baseline standard for more responsible tourism practices, offering criteria that help consumers find reputable destinations and companies. It also helps both government and private-sector organizations develop sustainable tourism requirements for destinations, and acts as an educational body providing training and best practices on a global level.

“Sustainable tourism is really just another term for good management of tourism. If brands want to sustain themselves for the long term, they need to manage for the long term,” GTSC president Randy Durband wrote in the industry publication Skift this past April. Among the best practices he recommended were choosing responsible suppliers, protecting their assets (which include the destinations tourists visit), and responding to resident concerns about overcrowding in parts of their cities.

People such as Stéphane Jeannerot, head of business development for Aventure Ecotourism Quebec (AEQ), are embracing the positive changes – and so, it seems, are consumers. Earlier this year, the Université du Québec à Montréal’s Transat Chair in Tourism conducted a survey that showed 70 per cent of Quebec travellers adopt sustainable travel practices, such as recycling, composting and supporting local economies, while three in five travellers offset their carbon emissions from travel. “People are avoiding flying, and engaging instead in low-impact travel, slow travel or micro-adventures,” Jeannerot says. “The adventure tourism industry can respond to these consumer trends.”

More than that, he believes it can be a catalyst for change. AEQ, based in Laval, Que., represents and accredits professionals in the province’s adventure and ecotourism sectors, and promotes ecotourism and sustainable economic development at the community level. Since 1990, Jeannerot says the organization has been adjusting its accreditation process to reflect changing demands, and adopting additional programs that “continue to make a more positive impact on nature by preserving local ecosystems and facilitating sustainability management.” (In 2004, for instance, the AEQ implemented the Leave No Trace principles, which include respecting wildlife, leaving natural sites intact and disposing of waste safely.) Adopting new standards like regenerative travel, he says, is an integral part of environmental stewardship.

Louise believes a combination of conscious consumerism, empowered communities and bold businesses could lead to the post-pandemic climate-friendly solution travel needs. “The pioneers within the industry are traditionally entrepreneurs and smaller players," she says. "Then larger players are able to incorporate those practices within their businesses as well. We need both sides to be doing that – the change could be immensely powerful to push the industry forward.”

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