Navigating the Green Horizon: Unraveling the Nuances of Sustainable Tourism, Regenerative Tourism, and ESG

Written by Angela Nagy

In recent years, the global travel and tourism industry has begun a paradigm shift towards more conscientious and responsible practices. The terms “sustainable tourism,” “regenerative tourism,” and “ESG” (Environmental, Social, and Governance) have become an important part of tourism discourse, reflecting a growing awareness of the opportunity to harness tourism as a force for good. While these concepts share common goals, they embody distinct elements that support achieving a harmonious balance between tourism, people, and the planet. 

Two years ago, as the term regenerative tourism became more commonplace, I published “Is Regenerative Tourism More Sustainable”? The article sought to demonstrate how regenerative tourism and resiliency are critical steps along the journey to sustainability. With the term ESG now being widely used, this post will delve into the differences that distinguish sustainable tourism, regenerative tourism, and ESG, while demonstrating that they are all important steps towards the same goal. 

Sustainable Tourism: Balancing the Triple Bottom Line

Sustainable tourism is a broad umbrella term encompassing practices that seek to “take full account of tourism’s current and future economic, social and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities.”¹ The focus is on achieving the delicate equilibrium between these three pillars, often referred to as the triple bottom line. When we have achieved sustainability, social, environmental and economic systems will thrive in balance with each other. We will have “met the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”²

Regenerative Tourism: Supporting the Path to Sustainability

Regenerative tourism plays a pivotal role in advancing the journey toward sustainability by actively fostering the restoration and enhancement of destination ecosystems and communities and looking at ways that we can leave things better than we found them, creating net-positive impacts, and often requiring a place-based approach.

At Destination Canada’s 2023 International Symposium on Destination Stewardship, Fogo Island Inn’s, Zita Cobb, shared a perspective that I won’t soon forget, and which almost perfectly describes regenerative tourism. She flipped the notion of money as capital, and humans and nature as resources, on its head. Instead, she compelled us to think about nature and people as “sacred capital,” and money as the resource. 

Traditionally, we use people and extract from nature to enhance our financial assets. However, this is often done in a way that ultimately undermines the very things we need to thrive (a healthy society and a healthy planet). In Zita’s view, nature and culture are our most valuable assets that form the foundation for economic and community development. Rather than viewing money as the primary driver, she sees it as a resource that can be strategically deployed to support and enhance the existing natural and human assets of a community.

Cobb’s perspective aligns with a holistic and regenerative approach to development, emphasizing the importance of preserving and celebrating the unique natural and cultural heritage of a place. By recognizing the value of these assets, she promotes a model where financial resources are harnessed to support and sustain the delicate balance between nature, culture, and economic prosperity.

Similarly, in regenerative tourism, the emphasis is on actively contributing to the revitalization of natural, human, and cultural assets affected by tourism. This approach acknowledges the interconnectedness of all living systems and recognizes the need for positive, transformative actions to address the cumulative effects of human activities.

Regenerative tourism encourages initiatives such as reforestation projects, habitat restoration, and community empowerment programs. By embracing regeneration, the industry acknowledges the imperative to go beyond mere conservation and strives to leave a positive, lasting impact on the places visited. Tourism is viewed as a catalyst for positive change, and businesses and destinations commit not only to reducing harm but also to actively participating in the regeneration of the environment and local cultures.

In essence, regenerative tourism is an integral part of the evolutionary process towards sustainability. By recognizing the need for restoration and enhancement, it contributes to creating a more resilient and balanced relationship between tourism and its host environments. In this way, regeneration becomes a stepping stone on the path to achieving the overarching goal of sustainable tourism practices that benefit both the planet and its communities.

ESG: A Performance Measurement Framework for Sustainable Tourism

ESG, standing for Environmental, Social, and Governance, is a set of criteria used by investors and businesses to assess a company’s impact beyond financial performance. In the context of tourism, ESG principles can guide companies and destinations in integrating environmental sustainability, social responsibility, and ethical governance into their operations.

Environmental considerations under ESG encompass a commitment to reducing carbon emissions, conserving natural resources, and minimizing pollution. Social factors include promoting diversity and inclusion, ensuring fair labour practices, and fostering positive community relations. Governance principles focus on transparent and ethical business practices, responsible leadership, and compliance with regulations.

While ESG is not exclusive to the tourism industry, it plays a crucial role in holding businesses accountable for their impact on the planet and society. Companies and tourism destinations embracing ESG principles in tourism commit to a holistic approach that aligns with broader sustainability and regenerative goals.

Sustainable tourism, regenerative tourism, and ESG represent varying aspects of a commitment to responsible and ethical practices within the travel and tourism industry. Sustainable tourism sets the goalpost for achieving an industry that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Regenerative tourism supports this goal by creating a net positive impact, fixing the life-supporting social and environmental assets that we have undermined for too long, and ESG provides a measurement framework, helping us to understand our sustainability performance and to what extent we are integrating responsible practices into business operations and destinations. As travellers become increasingly conscious of their choices, these distinctions become crucial in navigating the green horizon and ensuring the long-term viability of tourism for generations to come.

In 2024, learn more about how you can join the hundreds of tourism businesses and destinations measuring their sustainability performance, signing the Sustainable Tourism 2030 Pledge, or achieving Sustainable Tourism Certification.

Angela Nagy is the Founder & CEO of GreenStep Solutions. She and her team work with tourism businesses and destinations to help them measure, improve and certify their sustainability performance and take climate action.


¹ https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/topics/sustainabletourism#:~:text=The%20World%20Tourism%20Organization%20defines,the%20environment%20and%20host%20communities%22

² https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/content/documents/5987our-common-future.pdf