Travel

Regenerative tourism is going mainstream. What does that mean for Canadian travellers?

Jill Doucette, founder and CEO of Synergy Enterprises, shares insights on new trends in the tourism industry and why there’s reason to be optimistic about a sustainable future for travel

  • Feb 15, 2024
  • 1,574 words
  • 7 minutes
Jill Doucette is the founder and CEO of Synergy Enterprises, which advises businesses — including clients in the tourism industry — on how to measure their environmental impact and decarbonize. (Photo courtesy Synergy Enterprises)
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Sustainability is a major focus of the tourism industry as it continues to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. Most reputable tour operators and attractions tout their sustainability policies, although greenwashing – PR bluster with no measurable impact – is not uncommon, and there’s much work to do. On a recent trip to Florida, I was surprised to find no recycling options in the hotels, attractions and resorts I visited. Plastic, glass, paper, organics – it all just went into the same bin, and ultimately to the same landfill. 

Jill Doucette is the founder and CEO of the Victoria-based Synergy Enterprises and Synergy Foundation, a commercial and non-profit group respectively that give businesses and organizations advice on how to measure their environmental impact, implement solutions, decarbonize, and effectively communicate their results. Jill works directly with dozens of tourism clients in Canada, Europe and the Caribbean. Dynamic, deeply knowledgeable, ambitious and personable, she is a recognized thought-leader in the industry. 

Ski hills are lacking snow, wildfires are scorching wine regions, floods and storms are damaging attractions and landmarks, and extreme heat is changing long-established travel patterns. As tourism grapples with the realities of climate change, Jill is driving change through Synergy and the influential IMPACT tourism and sustainability conference, an annual event she co-founded in 2018. I caught up with Jill to learn more about the issues, and how travellers like us can make a difference.

On going beyond sustainability

We’ve seen the emergence of and significant interest in regenerative tourism [in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic]. Regenerative tourism goes beyond the idea of doing less harm or having a minimal impact. It redefines the goal posts in the tourism sector, asking the question: what is the ideal state of tourism for it to have a positive impact on both communities and ecosystems? Prior to the pandemic, we saw examples of over-tourism and the damage it can do to ecology and culture. A perspective shift in tourism was already starting to happen; regenerative tourism is now geared and focused towards placing travel in balance with the world. 

On greenwashing in the tourism industry

There have been concerns with some of the claims being made, and greenwashing remains an issue. That said, with better standards in the tourism sector, including rigorous certification, it’s getting harder to greenwash these days. In fact, we’re seeing the emergence of green hushing, a term to describe positive environmental efforts that are purposely downplayed or kept under wraps to avoid any criticism that it’s only being done for marketing purposes! We encourage our tourism clients to share their goals and be transparent with their journey towards sustainability, so that everyone can understand why and how they’re making the changes.

Jill Doucette speaks at the IMPACT tourism and sustainability conference, an annual event she co-founded in 2018. (Photo courtesy Jill Doucette)
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On travellers’ changing priorities

We have a situation where demand is exceeding supply for truly sustainable and regenerative tourism experiences. Sustainable world class tour operators are fully booked way ahead, while there’s very high occupancy for accommodations in this space. Global surveys show there’s been a huge change in traveller sentiment. In 2017, less than 30 per cent of travellers were seeking sustainable services; now that number is between 70 and 80 per cent. Sustainable tourism isn’t a niche thing anymore. This is driven by younger travellers, but we’re seeing numbers climb with the older demographic as well.

On the effectiveness of carbon offsets

Verified carbon credits in the voluntary market have been around for a while now. We’ve seen some great projects, such as those that support Indigenous ownership and land management, and are transparent in their socio-economic and biodiversity benefits. Without carbon credits, these projects would never have been funded. Regarding questionable projects, we’re seeing more international standards to create rigour and deal with the bad apples. Another significant improvement concerns transparency and using blockchain technology, so that you’ll be able to trace your offset, have a record of it, and see how it was used. This is still niche, but I think it will become mainstream. The industry’s challenge is that offsets are fairly cheap, so it’s easier to pay for an offset than make any meaningful change. When offsets become more expensive, they support higher quality projects, and it incentivizes companies to change their behaviour. The market is under a microscope, so I think we’ll see those improvements.

On how Canadian tourism stacks up

Canada is a leader on a number of fronts, and representatives from other countries are visiting us to learn, and bring our ideas home. There’s been some great initiatives. For example, Frontiers North Adventures in Churchill, Man. have invested in community partnerships, science and research projects, and decarbonization through the custom retrofit of an electric Tundra Buggy. The Inn at Laurel Point in Victoria was named Canada’s first carbon neutral hotel over a decade ago, and they’ve continued to enhance their initiatives, looking at local food supply, pollinator programs, growing food on-site, and offering guest programs. Destinations like Bay of Quinte in Ontario have focused on capacity building and using regeneration to shape the development of their experiences. All this completely changes why people visit the region, what they do, and what they leave behind. It’s a great approach for other destination marketing organizations.

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Frontiers North in Churchill, Man. has an ambitious plan to convert its entire fleet of Tundra Buggies to electric vehicles by the end of the decade. (Photo courtesy Frontiers North)
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On how tourism can become more resilient

There needs to be more focus on resilience. Extreme weather events create pressure on our grid, along with the push to electrify everything.  To reduce this grid dependency, microgrid systems such as solar with battery back-up is a great solution, along with investing in geothermal energy.  When we look at the vast amount of waste in the global supply chain, we also see a wasted opportunity. We’re burying too much waste in our landfills. More resilient local economies can remanufacture waste into resources as a buffer to the global supply chain, which is often disrupted by climate change. A great example: there’s a Vancouver business called ChopValue that builds new furniture out of used restaurant chopsticks, collected weekly from hundreds of local restaurants. Circular economies and regenerative strategies work.  

On sustainable travel trends

When you book a flight on some services, you now see the estimated carbon impact of your ticket. It will be interesting to see if this carbon labelling will have an impact on consumer behaviour.  We’re also seeing a trend towards less frequent trips, longer trips to destinations, and reducing individual travel overall.  There’s also a rise in the popularity of alternative methods of travel, such as rail, and a general awareness that travellers can have a lower impact.  Most destinations and tour operators now bring sustainability into their strategies and action plans. Cruise ship and aviation have challenges because of their scale. Short term solutions there involve fuel switching to renewable fuels, while longer term solutions may involve smaller aircraft, and hydrogen. The first thing we have to do is get off the crude heavy oils and look at SAF (sustainable aviation fuel). That technology is still evolving. 

If nothing changes, tourism will contribute to the mass extinction of biodiversity, eroding the local cultural fabric instead of enhancing it. The exact opposite is true when it comes to regenerative tourism, which protects natural areas and supports the local economy.

On how travellers can make a difference 

Travellers have so many choices when it comes to destinations, but a little pre-trip planning can have a big difference. Do your research, think about your intentions, and what your personal impact will be. Kayaking versus jet skiing offers a very different experience. Before you set out, ask questions like: am I supporting the local economy? Am I making a positive difference to the local environment and culture? Travellers can also be incentivized to help. For example, guests can forego a service in exchange for contributing to a positive restoration project. I came across a high-end resort in Costa Rica where guests could fill a container with beach plastic in exchange for a cocktail at the bar. Guests loved it so much they had to get a bigger container for the plastic, and expanded the clean-up area. It’s the kind of positive experience that turns a beach clean-up from a chore into something paying guests are proud to be a part of. Other hotels and resorts have done similar test projects and seen great results. Here’s a problem, here’s a solution, here’s a reward: it can be extremely simple. This can be applied to air travel, package tours, and other areas of operations.

On what the future holds for tourism

If nothing changes, tourism will contribute to the mass extinction of biodiversity, eroding the local cultural fabric instead of enhancing it. The exact opposite is true when it comes to regenerative tourism, which protects natural areas and supports the local economy. Tourism can have an incredibly positive impact. Personally, I’m feeling positive for the future. There’s a lot of power in hope, even when things seem impossible. We’ve already seen a lot come to fruition, and I’m inspired by the businesses and organizations we work with. I know it seems slow from an outside perspective, but we’re seeing a huge progression with the success of regenerative tourism strategies. It’s the way of the future.

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