Traveling unlocks new parts of ourselves. In the Shondaland series Traveling Well, we’re inspiring new journeys and revealing how to make the most out of your next trip. Our collection of travel tales and inspirational guides will sweep you away and motivate you to discover new possibilities around the world.
As porters hacked their way through the forest enveloping the slopes of Mount Sabyinyo, I eagerly followed, placing each step meticulously to avoid getting caught in the gnarly vines of the thick underbrush. I advanced up the newly made trail at a seemingly fast pace with one goal in mind: to see the endangered mountain gorilla in the wild.
Suddenly, a silence fell in our small group. We reached the Agashya family of mountain gorillas, one of a dozen habituated to humans. I squeezed through a small clearing in the bamboo trees, and there was a mama gorilla sitting in the midst of a thicket, grooming her baby, oblivious to the flies swirling about. Alerted to our presence, other family members joined them but quickly busied themselves with chewing or playing, unfazed by the camera clicks and hushed voices.
Toward the end of my visit, I sat on the forest floor admiring the view of a dominant male, sitting cross-legged like me, peacefully taking in the surroundings. That brief moment solidified my connection to this species, which shares most of our DNA. I descended the mountain with a newfound purpose to help protect these charismatic and crucial animals.
The gorilla trekking experience in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park is the ultimate example of regenerative travel, a form of visiting destinations that’s about “genuinely having a positive impact on people and the planet,” according to Sue Snyman, director of research at the School of Wildlife Conservation, African Leadership University, in Kigali, Rwanda.
The $1,500 price tag per person to spend an hour with the gorillas may seem steep, but the money helps ensure the survival of this species and uplifts all Rwandans. The endangered mountain gorilla is currently the only great ape experiencing a population increase.
According to the State of the Wildlife Economy in Africa Report, published by Snyman and her team, the Rwanda Development Board (RDB) shared $2.85 million with communities around the park in 2019, a large percentage coming from gorilla permit fees, as part of its Tourism Revenue Sharing Policy. The trekking experience further helps by providing employment for guides, trackers, and porters in the nearby villages. Because Volcanoes National Park is under the management of the RDB, the remaining proceeds go back to the government to benefit the rest of the country.
During the pandemic, destinations that relied heavily on tourism revenue suffered, but they also felt a reprieve from the pollution, overcrowding, and other harmful effects of visitors. Once travel began to resume, it became clear that practices of the past were no longer sustainable. According to a 2022 study by travel agent network Virtuoso, 82 percent of respondents indicated that the pandemic inspired them to invest in responsible tourism.
What is regenerative travel?
Many believe that regenerative travel is about giving back more than you consume on a trip or simply leaving a place better than before. Others say it’s about making conscious choices that reverse climate change, not just slow it down. Rose O’Connor, founder of the travel planning company Sustainable Wanderlust, says regenerative travel should help destinations rather than deplete and extract resources. “The benefit,” she says, “has to stay within the destination.”
In a 2013 report, the World Tourism Organization said that only $5 of every $100 spent in a developing country remained there. This means very little money trickles down to aid education, conservation efforts, health care, local businesses, farming, and other key programs. Snyman says communities must be directly engaged through employment. “[Destinations] need to build their capacity and improve their skills [for] long-term success,” she says. “Empowerment is not just for show.”
Any kind of travel that “helps the traveler and the destination move forward” is regenerative, says Sucheta Rawal, founder of Go Eat Give, which organizes purposeful vacations in six countries that sustainably connect people to cultural education and international cuisines.
Rawal has been organizing the Volunteer & Yoga in Bali trip since 2013. Participants enjoy a spiritual experience, complete with daily yoga classes, spa treatments, and plenty of time to reflect by the pool. The itinerary also emphasizes exposure to Balinese culture. Guests stay at a locally owned sustainable resort, feast on the cuisine, learn local arts and crafts alongside artists, and volunteer at the Bali Children’s Project dedicated to the education of disadvantaged young people.
“You feel a sense of connection with a broader world, or come back with an idea that alters your lifestyle,” Rawal says, “and along the way, if you improve the lives of others through tourism dollars, it’s regenerative for them as well.”
What is the impact of regenerative travel?
The effect of regenerative travel varies from place to place and person to person. “It is based on the unique challenges each location is faced with and can be different person to person, depending on the potential impact of each traveler on the destination, and the destination on them,” says Gangtey Lodge co-founder and owner Khin Omar Win.
At the Gangtey eco-lodge in Bhutan, visitors have curated experiences that combine wellness with culture and learn about the country’s Gross National Happiness and way of life. Guests can go on a rejuvenating hike and plant trees on a picnic outing, with a part of the proceeds going toward the protection of black-necked cranes, or sign up for meditation sessions at the Gangtey Shedra (a monastic university) and help preserve traditions and support local institutions. Travelers can also provide a sustainable livelihood to a family by having a farmhouse experience.
Whether a journey brings outsiders to Bali or Bhutan, tours like these are vital for the destinations, as many of the people who work as guides, street vendors, hotel and restaurant staff, and souvenir shop sellers often earn enough to live day to day in the aftermath of the pandemic. “They did not get government bailouts or had the ability to charge a credit card,” Rawal says. “We need to get out, not just to break out of cabin fever, but to sustain the life cycle of travel and everyone involved in it.”
Regenerative travel also empowers Indigenous populations, who are the original stewards of their land and seas, and it fosters a better understanding and appreciation of their cultures and environments in the traveler. For example, at the Klahoose Wilderness Resort in British Columbia, Canada, owned by the Klahoose First Nation’s Economic Development Corporation, guests can experience sightings of grizzly bears in Toba Inlet on excursions led by Indigenous guides. This remote, off-the-grid eco-resort is located on the shores of Homfray Channel, accessible only by boat or seaplane. Visitors can partake in sea kayaking, ocean fishing, marine wildlife viewing, hiking, and activities that immerse travelers in Indigenous culture.
“When the Indigenous people have a say, the land and community benefits,” O’Connor says. “The more the guest is incorporated into the experience and can see for themselves,” she adds, “it becomes more impactful and has long-lasting effects.”
How can you regeneratively travel?
Individual and group regenerative-travel experiences can be booked through specialty tour companies such as Sustainable Wanderlust, Go Eat Give, and Intrepid Travel. If you are looking to plan your own, it’s important to ask questions and do the research to learn how much of the tourism income actually stays in the destination, if the lodge or resort is locally owned and operated, and whether marginalized and Indigenous populations are profiting from tourism activities.
Recently, Intrepid Travel launched Black Cultural Heritage Tours in collaboration with Stephanie M. Jones, CEO of the Cultural Heritage Alliance for Tourism. The Charleston to Savannah: Exploring Gullah Geechee Culture small group tour set to begin in October is aimed at educating travelers about the culture, history, and impact of the Gullah Geechee people, descendants of enslaved West and Central African people, through food, music, art, dance, and interactions. The trip will include a tour of the historic Mother Emanuel AME Church, an important landmark in the civil rights movement; a sweetgrass-weaving workshop; a music and dance performance in Beaufort, South Carolina; a seafood boil with the residents; and a Sunday workshop service at one of Savannah, Georgia’s Black churches.
“Our trips are designed to level the playing field for micro local Black-owned businesses from underserved communities to actively participate and profit in their local tourism ecosystems,” Jones says. She hopes that visitors gain a better appreciation of the “many contributions Blacks have made in building the U.S., and that misconceptions and stereotypes are dismissed through their personal interactions with locals and business owners.”
As travelers, we can have a positive environmental and social impact on the destinations we visit. In turn, meaningful trips can make us more knowledgeable, empathetic, mindful, and even a bit happier, something we are all in desperate need of after a prolonged global pandemic. Travel needs to be more impactful, intentional, and, most importantly, regenerative as we begin to navigate this changed world.
Lavanya Sunkara is a New York-based travel writer who has contributed to Travel + Leisure, National Geographic, Fodor’s, and Readers’ Digest. Follow her on Twitter @Nature_Traveler.
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