food / travel

Regenerative Travel: Will The Pandemic End Mass Tourism?

A global pandemic and weariness in many places of cheap, mass tourism may hasten a real paradigm shift in the travel sector. Or not.

Norway wants to make its fjords emissions-free by 2026
Norway wants to make its fjords emissions-free by 2026
Antonio Orti

BARCELONA — While some airlines, as bizarre as it may seem, continue to offer "flights to nowhere" — on planes that take off and land in the same airport, just to assuage the need for certain tourists to fly — others in the tourism sector are embracing a concept that goes in the complete opposite direction.

The trend is called "regenerative travel," and its aim, says Silvia Grünig, a city planning specialist at Paris University and lecturer in sustainability at Catalonia's Open University, is not only that visitors take care not to degrade, in any way, the places they visit, but that they actually improve conditions there. They should make things better, in other words, and not just for the sector, but for locals, the environment and travel in the future.

It may sound idealistic.

It may sound overly idealistic — the New York Times used the term "unicorn" to describe the quest — but some tourism operators really are trying to promote an approach to travel that is respectful of ecosystems and the social fabric of destinations, while also being economically viable.

"The key is to recover the concept of doing things well," says José Maria de Juan, vice-president of the European Alliance of Responsible Tourism and Hospitality and a partner in Koan Consulting. "The name doesn't matter so much. The important thing is for a destination to be able to choose its visitors.

Low-cost tourism, he explains, goes against sustainability. "That doesn't mean we shouldn't aim for maximum cost efficiency," De Juan adds. "But if the model is traveling to Morocco because it's cheap and staying there in an Airbnb, perhaps owned by a Californian, then buying a souvenir made in China before returning, clearly that is not sustainable and probably not even tourism."

While sustainability has been a policymaking buzzword since the 1990s, it has not impeded tourism's relentless growth and ever-increasing impact on the environment. In this sector, sustainability efforts have focused mainly on technology to maximize efficiency and reduce the negative effects of its activities. Regenerative tourism wants to take this sustainability beyond environmental concerns, and ensure locals do not see tourists as threatening, but beneficial.

"It's nice if everyone could travel, but not if others have to pay for it. That is neo-colonialism," says De Juan. "Low cost traveling ensures the cheapest deals for customers, but you also have to ask, why are they so cheap?" Part of the answer, he suggests, is in the low wages and scant qualifications of those working at this end of the sector.

Regenerative travel may be the latest in a long list of labels the sector has chosen to embellish itself, and aid its survival, since the 1990s. Keep in mind too that the sector is on pace to have shed nearly 200 million jobs by year's end. Other such labels include "inclusive," responsible, fair or communitarian tourism, and often, they ended up as mere marketing gimmicks.

But as Silvia Grünig explains: "Sustainable tourism is not a particular form of tourism. All forms of tourism and all human activities must tend toward sustainability in three areas, simultaneously: social, economic and environmental."

For now, it's a medley of ideas

Regenerative tourism is for now a medley of ideas. With the world on pause for the pandemic, some countries have started making plans for a more sustainable restart. The Visit Flanders tourism office in northern Belgium is, for example, redirecting offers to boost domestic visitors. Its marketing chief, Elke Dens, says that people can have fun without traveling to the other end of the globe, and they may soon replace one of their annual trips abroad with a local one.

"Everyone wants to see the world these days," Dens says. "But for that to happen, we should all do it a bit less frequently, and that, in turn, should make the experience more profound."

One Visit Flanders initiative is to link visitors to locals with a passion for their past and history. These can create a shared experience through visits to emblematic places, like the battlefields of World War I.

On a beach in Andalusia, Spain — Photo: Album via ZUMA Press

Regenerative is not a new idea. Indeed, it's already used in economics, farming and architecture to create self-sufficiency and boost prosperity around circular economy principles. "It means new patterns of thinking, based on observing how nature, rather than machines, works," says Elke Dens.

Another country exploring regenerative tourism is New Zealand. Its slogan "Do Something New This Winter" wants to promote a slower travel experience (like walking) and spending more time in one place. Certain analysts are even proposing the idea of taxing short-term stays and rewarding those who prolong their stays in a place.

That may be why more New Zealand firms are working to create emotional bonds with places through memorable experiences that could then encourage return visits. Ziptrek Ecotours, based in Queenstown in southern New Zealand, offers the opportunity to plant trees, and takes pride in the native concept of tiaki, or caring for people and a place. Kohutapu Lodge offers jobs to locals and supplies local schools with meals. Rotorua Canopy Tours has pledged to eliminate forest pests as its business expands. And Dive Tutukaka has pledged, with every service hire, to save marine habitats.

Leaders in Hawaii are also reconsidering tourism's role in the islands. The impetus was a 2018 poll indicating that most Hawaiians believe their lives have become a second priority to tourism. The state wants to shed the hotels-and-beach tag and seek new forms of tourism there, already mindful that post-pandemic travel may change for good.

These are not isolated cases. Norway wants to make its fjords emissions-free by 2026, which would force changes on cruise operators. And in Europe as a whole, 22 travel groups are signing onto 13 new guidelines that include a fairer distribution of revenues and placing quality over quantity.

But while the travel press is starting to write about regenerative travel, its success remains to be seen, as mass tourism is itching to get back on its feet. As Josep Ivars, professor of geography and tourism at Alicante University, warns: "Regenerative tourism runs the risk of becoming another label, like sustainable or ecotourism in the 1990s, or basically more greenwashing."

Tourism mustn't be demonized

He says tourism mustn't be demonized but certain types of tourism will "massify the urban environment, displace the local population, saturate infrastructures and destroy" heritage. This is precisely what happened in places like Torrevieja and Calpe, on the Spanish levantine coast. "I always ask my students what seems an absurd question," says Ivars. "Why do we plan? To attract tourists or for the benefit of the local population?"

The pandemic must end before we can know if this will be tourism's new form. Grünig says the sector suffers from a "paralysis of the imagination," as termed by the Austrian thinker Iván Illich referring to an inability to conceive of alternatives to the capitalist logic.

"People just want to go back to whatever there was before, because they cannot imagine other ways of doing things," she says. "But now we have an opportunity, because the model we had before has reached its limit and is starting to sink. The question now is to think of ways of coming out of the binds we've gotten into thanks to our yearning for constant growth."

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

Harder Time: How Egypt Cuts Prisoner Communication With Loved Ones

Letters from inmates provide a crucial link with the outside world, and yet the process of sending and receiving them in Egyptian prisons is both arduous and arbitrary as an extra means of control.

Relatives speak with defendants during a trial in a Cairo court.

Nada Arafat

CAIRO – Abdelrahman ElGendy says letters were a crucial lifeline for him during the time he spent locked up in five different prisons between 2013 and 2020. "Letters were not only important, they literally saved my life," he says. "I was only living because I was looking forward to them from one visit to the next, and I would read them over until the paper became worn and torn."

Last month, the family of imprisoned software engineer and activist Alaa Abd El Fattah — who had been held in remand detention for over two years until his referral to emergency trial last week — announced it would take legal steps to ensure that Abd El Fattah is able to send letters to them following a period when prison authorities refused to allow him any correspondence.

According to the family, besides prison visits once a month, Abd El Fattah's letters are the only way they can gain assurance of his condition, and when his letters are denied, that in itself is an indicator that his treatment in detention is worsening. The numerous legal requests and official complaints by the family have been met only with silence by authorities.

While letters provide a crucial link between prisoners and the outside world, the process of sending and receiving them in Egyptian prisons is an arduous one as a result of arbitrary restrictions put in place by authorities.

Mada Masr spoke with a number of former prisoners about their relationship to letters during their incarceration and the way prison administrators constrained their right to send and receive correspondence.

Two letters per month

The law regulating Egypt's prisons and the Interior Ministry's prison bylaws stipulate that prisoners have a right to send out two letters per month and that prison administrators may allow more than two at their discretion. Prisoners are also legally entitled to receive letters.

Those sentenced to hard labor — a type of sentence that in practice usually entitles prisoners to fewer visits — are allowed to send one letter a week, and prisoners in remand detention technically have the right to exchange letters with family and friends at any time. However, in all cases, prison bylaws grant prison authorities the right to monitor, censor and refuse any correspondence sent and received , a power the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights deems a "violation to the personal freedom of prisoners, as it intrudes on their privacy."

A form of punishment

Prison authorities often restrict prisoner letters as a form of punishment, a measure that came under the spotlight when correspondence from Abd El Fattah to his family was arbitrarily cut off for an extended period last month.

Mohamed Fathy, a lawyer, says that Abd El Fattah's family pursued all possible legal procedures to push for allowing the exchange of letters with him, the last of which was a report submitted by the family to the Maadi District Court. This was preceded by an official notice through a court bailiff to the head of the Prisons Authority and telegraphs to the interior minister, Prisons Authority director and the superintendent of Maximum Security Wing 2 of Tora Prison Complex. Abd El Fattah's mother, Laila Soueif, also sent official requests to the superintendent on a daily basis.

Outside the gates of Tora Prison

Aside from the legal procedures, Soueif spent over a week waiting at the gates of Tora Prison Complex in the hope of receiving a letter from her son, a circumstance that gained particular urgency after Abd El Fattah signaled he was contemplating suicide during a detention renewal session in September.

This marked the second time that Abd El Fattah's family has embarked on a legal campaign in order to be granted their right to exchange letters with him. As the coronavirus pandemic first gripped the world in early 2020, the family went through a similar struggle after authorities halted all prison visitations as part of its COVID-19 restrictions.

During this period, letters became the principal form of communication between prisoners and the outside world. The Interior Ministry halted all prison visits from March until it reinstated them again in August 2020, though they were restricted to once a month.

Gendy, who was released from prison in January 2020, one month before the outbreak of the coronavirus in Egypt was officially announced, says that even in ordinary circumstances, letters were of vital importance since only direct family members are allowed visitation rights.

He says he used to give his family around 10 letters during every visit, addressed both to family and friends. "I used to keep an open letter to write to my mother about everything that was happening because the visitation time did not allow me to tell her all the details," he says.

Arbitrary restrictions

Even though the right to correspondence for prisoners is enshrined in the law, in reality, the process is an arduous one for both prisoners and their families due to the conditions of Egyptian prisons and arbitrary restrictions put in place by authorities, according to the accounts of several former prisoners.

It typically begins when the prison warden announces the visitation schedule for the following day. Prisoners hurry to pen letters before lights out, though some continue to write in the darkness. A prisoner who has a scheduled visit then gathers all the letters from his cellmates and hands them over to his visiting family members, who in turn give them to the rest of the prisoners' families outside, either in person or via WhatsApp if the family lives in another governorate.

In parallel, the families of prisoners who share a cell often create a WhatApp group to inform each other about visitation times. "Some families in nearby governorates send physical letters inside with the families that have scheduled visits. But those who live in remote governorates and who cannot afford to travel to the prison simply write letters and send pictures of them to the WhatsApp group," says Amgad Samir*, who was imprisoned for two years in Tora Prison Complex and was the facilitator for letter exchanges in his cell.

Marked in red

According to Samir, families would print out the letters sent via WhatsApp to deliver them to the prisoners, but the prison administration would sometimes not allow the entry of printed letters, so some families would volunteer to rewrite them by hand. "The sister of one of the detainees in Alexandria would rewrite dozens of letters in one day and would ask the children of some of the families to help her," Samir says. "Some families would send their letters with more than one person to make sure that at least one version made it inside."

Any letter being sent or received from prison is required to first be reviewed by the National Security Agency (NSA) officer stationed in the prison, who usually delegates a subordinate officer to read the letters before allowing them through or to "mark them in red," at which point the officer reads the letters himself to approve or deny them, according to Samir. After this screening phase is over, explains Samir, the officer hands over the letters to the mail facilitator, a designated prisoner, who then hands them out in the cell. "I would look at the faces of those who had letters sent to them, it was as if they had just been released," Samir says.

Khaled Dawoud, a journalist and the former head of the Dostour Party who was released from prison in April after nearly one and a half years behind bars, says that prison authorities tightly restrict prison correspondence. "Everything in prison is cracked down upon: food, clothes and even letters," Dawoud says.

According to Dawoud, the NSA officer in Tora Liman Prison, another maximum security facility in the complex, would sometimes force prisoners to rewrite their letters after redacting sections describing things like prison conditions, for example, to avoid them making it into the press or being circulated on social media.

Disseminating information about prison conditions can even lead to further prosecution, as was the case with imprisoned attorney Mohamed Ramadan in December 2020, when he was rotated into another case by the State Security Prosecution after he was ordered released on charges of "sending letters from prison with the intention of destabilization."

Photo of three women speaking with imprisoned defendants at a Cairo court

Relatives speaking with defendants at a Cairo court

Stringer/APA Images/ZUMA

Fear of being forgotten

Banning letters is a form of punishment and pressure that authorities deploy arbitrarily against prisoners, according to lawyer former detainee Mahienour al-Massry, who has spent time in prisons. She tells Mada Masr that following the reinstatement of prison visitations in August 2020, after they had been halted amid the coronavirus outbreak, the National Security officer in Qanater Women's Prison told her she had to choose between visitations and letter correspondence, but that she couldn't have both. Massry refused the ultimatum, and after negotiating with the officer, was eventually granted "exceptional" approval for both under the condition that she only send two letters a month.

"Even though letter correspondence from prison is a legal right that is non-negotiable, there were always negotiations and struggles about sending and receiving them, about how many letters were allowed, and about their content," she says. "Prisoners inside for criminal offenses were in a different situation from political prisoners. The latter had a chance to talk and negotiate, whereas the former did not."

Massry recalls a situation when the NSA officer in Qanater took back some letters that she had initially been allowed to receive. "He said, 'I don't have a reason. This was an order from the National Security Agency. You could try next time, maybe they will go through.' They are moody like that," Masry says. The letters were returned to the family, who then delivered them to Mahienour in a subsequent visit without any objections from the officer. Another time, a letter was confiscated because it had the term "son of a bitch," which the officer deemed "foul language."

Looking for something to say

During an earlier stint in prison in 2016 in Damanhour, Massry did not receive any letters for a month. When she went to the officer to inquire after them, she found that he had a pile of letters addressed to her on his desk. She says the officer simply told her: "Sorry, I didn't have time to go through them all."

After the coronavirus outbreak in March 2020, letters to and from prison were banned for two months in Tora Prison Complex while visitations continued to be suspended until August. During this period the prison was overwhelmed with letters, as they were often the only form of communication with detainees. According to Dawoud, the National Security officer was unable to go through hundreds of letters a day, even with the help of another officer. After long negotiations, the officer finally approved the sending of letters to and from prison under the condition they did not exceed two passages.

Dawoud says that he used his letters to simply reassure his family with brief sentences. "Sometimes I couldn't find anything to say because on the one hand, I can't speak about prison conditions, otherwise the letter would be confiscated; and on the other hand I couldn't talk about personal issues," he says.

Despite that, the short letters were enough for Dawoud to check in on his father, who was battling cancer and eventually died. "One sentence was enough for me to know that he was okay. It was enough for me to be reassured," he says.

News about COVID-19

In certain cases, letters have taken on additional importance beyond allowing families and prisoners to check in on each other.

Samir says he was able to help out a foreign cellmate who was charged in a criminal case without the authorities ever informing his consulate or assigning him a lawyer. Samir was able to tell his wife about this prisoner in a letter, but he made sure to use coded language in order to evade surveillance.

Samir would also use coded language to pass on information about COVID-19 in prison that would otherwise be flagged and confiscated by the NSA officer. "We replaced the word 'corona' with 'mosquitoes.' I would write that someone had been bitten by mosquitoes yesterday, and my sister would understand what that meant," he says.

Using this simple code, Samir was able to communicate the prison's coronavirus situation to the outside world until the officer realized that someone was passing along information and pressured him to confess. "I had two choices: either lie and say that there was a mobile phone in the room, or tell him the truth. I told the truth," he says. As punishment, he was not permitted to exchange letters for a period before the officer finally allowed it again.

"The importance of letters does not just lie in their content," Gendy says. "They are also a testament that people outside still remember you, because the fear of being forgotten is every prisoner's worst nightmare."


Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!