Since passenger planes were grounded globally just over a year ago, the tourism industry has been in crisis. However, Aotearoa-New Zealand was already talking about how to ‘do tourism better’. The question is: can one of the country’s best industries become not just sustainable, but regenerative?  Regenerative travel has very much come into focus in the past year, with the goal not just to keep tourism sustainable, but to leave sites even better than before the tourists arrived. Such enhancement is the crux of regenerative tourism.

Why is New Zealand introducing regenerative tourism?

When the 100% Pure New Zealand marketing campaign was launched in 1999 it was considered ‘pure genius’ by many. Twenty years on this branding was at risk from localised overtourism issues: Aotearoa-New Zealand’s population of around 5 million was hosting 11 million visitors per year from 2016 to 2019, and the strain was beginning to show. Tourism New Zealand was acutely aware that if locals were displeased with visitors, and visitors were not treating the country with the respect it deserved, the very thing people were going to New Zealand to appreciate, its life-affirming unspoilt environment (‘te taiao’ in Māori), was under threat.

Read more: How to travel sustainably in New Zealand

Two people hiking in Tongariro Alpine Crossing National Park
Tongariro Alpine Crossing National Park is one of the many world-famous natural parks that showcases New Zealand's unspoilt environment © Maridav/Shutterstock

To help cover some of the cost of managing its world-famous national parks, an international visitors’ levy of NZ$35 was introduced in 2019. This worked to allay local anxieties about the environmental cost of the visitor economy, enabling tourists to contribute to the management and protection of New Zealand’s unique natural assets. 

As Tourism New Zealand’s chief executive, René de Monchy, tells Lonely Planet, ''Tourism must give back more than it takes to our people and home. We are focused on ensuring that tourism contributes across the four well beings: economy, nature, culture and society''. 

Dolphins jumping out of the water
Regenerative tourism encourages tourists to respect the delicate ecosystems of places like Bay of Islands © jacquesvandinteren/Getty Image

New Zealand's regenerative tourism goals

Ambitious regenerative targets have been set to decarbonize travel in Aotearoa-New Zealand. Electric vehicles have been actively incentivized by the New Zealand government. And with its compact geography and holiday-park infrastructure, road-tripping via electric cars and campervans is very achievable. New Zealand is also invested in the development of new low-emission aviation fuels.

Restoring damaged landscapes, rivers and seas and moving to a zero-waste circular economy is on the agenda. Again, tourism businesses are leading the way: restoring indigenous plants and trees; trapping and eradicating pests; and switching to clean and green energy practices. They’re bringing their customers with them, educating them in a progressive, green ethos that is a large part of the New Zealand way of life.

Crowd of people explore the Rotorua Night market
Regenerative tourism stretches across environment, culture and community ©ChameleonsEye/Shutterstock

But regenerative tourism is not just about the environment — culture and society are just as important. As de Monchy explains, "The tourism story and experience preserves and enhances our values, culture and heritage". New Zealand’s unique culture and warm, welcoming people are also key selling points. 

For a year, New Zealanders posted videos on social media every day wishing the world ‘good morning’ from their favorite places (search the hashtag #goodmorningworldnz). Although a tourism marketing campaign, the way New Zealanders see — and represent themselves — has the dual benefit of raising the country’s profile internationally. The Kiwis continued this new 100% Pure people campaign in 2021, broadcasting a message of hope while the world remained on lockdown.

A couple touch heads during a Maori hongi greeting
Regenerative tourism will play a critical role in our understanding of New Zealand's rich cultural heritage © Frans Lemmens/Getty Images

New Zealand policy successes 

The ethos of "guardianship over the country" (tiaki), originating from Aotearoa-New Zealand’s Māori population, infuses the whole country and underpins the idea of regenerative tourism. Visitors to Aeotearoa are asked to take the Tiaki Promise and share this on their social media. It is a declaration that "While traveling in New Zealand I will care for land, sea and nature, treading lightly and leaving no trace. I will travel safely, showing care and consideration for all. I will respect culture, traveling with an open heart and mind". 

Read more: Learn some te reo Māori for your trip to New Zealand, Aotearoa

Of course, promising to be a good traveler is one thing – visitors need now how to do this. Driving carefully, following the road rules and paying attention to local driving conditions are essential. But travelers are also told they must ‘be prepared’, particularly when going on walks in New Zealand’s beautiful but often remote wilderness. And the message to keep Aotearoa-New Zealand clean by never littering, disposing of all waste properly and leaving no trace when camping are all integral to the Tiaki promise. Rather than rage at people for doing the wrong thing, New Zealanders help make it easier for them to do the right thing. 

Wellington Cable Car, the landmark of New Zealand
There are many eco-friendly ways to explore New Zealand © Robert CHG/Shutterstock

When nature was overrun at certain sites, a problem apparently accelerated by geotagging on social media, New Zealanders simply closed them to the public to allow for regeneration. Additionally, a 2021 advertising campaign anticipating the return of international visitors light-heartedly implores them not to follow the herd by chasing the same copy-cat images. The funneling of large visitor numbers to specific places, unnecessary when so much of New Zealand is breathtakingly beautiful, was a clear cause of localized environmental damage. 

New Zealand has shown it can not only lead the way when it comes to dealing with a global crisis, from responding to the horrors of terrorism to dealing with the global pandemic. As the world re-opens and tourism slowly recovers from the decimation wrought by COVID-19, it may be wise to look to this little country for direction on how to rebuild.  

A passenger reacts upon arrival from New Zealand at Sydney International Airport
The COVID-19 pandemic has given New Zealand time to rethink tourism so that it can do it better when its borders reopen © David Gray/AFP/ Getty Images

As Zurab Pololikashvili, Secretary-General of the UN’s World Tourism Organisation says, ‘This crisis is an opportunity to rethink the tourism sector and its contribution to the people and planet; an opportunity to build back better towards a more sustainable, inclusive and resilient tourism sector that ensures the benefits of tourism are enjoyed widely and fairly." 

Thanks to this forward-thinking ethos of regenerative tourism, New Zealand is already on the road to a better future for the industry, allowing travelers to not only have life-changing experiences, but to leave having made a positive impact on this gorgeous country.

You might also like:

New Zealand's 11 best beaches
New Zealand's most scenic day hikes
Ten stunning New Zealand cycle rides

Buy New Zealand

Lonely Planet’s New Zealand is your passport to the most relevant, up-to-date advice on what to see and skip, and what hidden discoveries await you. Hit the slopes in Queenstown, experience Maori culture, and explore the Bay of Islands; all with your trusted travel companion.

Buy New Zealand

Explore related stories