Regenerative Tourism Invites Travelers to Get Their Hands Dirty

Vacations that allow tourists to participate in conservation activities, such as habitat restoration, are growing in popularity

First Nature Tours photo courtesy of Willamette Valley Visitors Association (WVVA).jpg
Participants in First Nature Tours help mitigate damages from wildfires in Central Oregon. Willamette Valley Visitors Association

Just before the Covid-19 pandemic, Jean Carideo from Chesapeake, Virginia, spent a week on Chincoteague Island, a seven-mile-long barrier island on the northeastern tip of the state’s Eastern Shore. She and other participants of a Road Scholar service program helped to remove barbed wire—a threat to the island’s famed wild horses—in salt marshes.

“It’s one thing to read, see, or hear about an ecological danger, but it’s another to physically do something about it, alongside others who want to do something, too,” Carideo notes.

Regenerative tourism projects such as this one on Chincoteague Island are growing in popularity. In June 2020, six international travel organizations, regrouping after the global pandemic all but halted leisure travel, formed the Future of Tourism Coalition with the goal of mitigating “extractive tourism”—that is, the destruction of regions due to visitor overcrowding—and transforming the tourism model to visibly benefit vulnerable places and people. Travelers eager to give back can sign up for vacations that allow them to participate in conservation activities, such as habitat restoration, while they learn about a region and its inhabitants.

Jeffrey Skibins, an associate professor in recreation and park management at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina, has witnessed many travelers actively seeking out ways to help with environmental restoration in areas affected by fires, floods and pollution—good news for nature, as well as small communities that rely on tourism. “The ability to link natural areas, the tourism industry, and individual tourists provides a powerful synergy that can produce long-term benefits for conservation,” Skibins says.

Regenerative tourism as a concept isn’t new. Sierra Club began offering volunteer service outings in the 1950s, and Earthwatch has paired researchers and volunteers on trips since 1971. However, tourists embarking on those adventures often sleep in huts or cabins with food cooked over a campfire. The new regenerative travel emerging from a global shutdown and responding to those regions of the world economically dependent on tourism combines service, education, and often, luxury accommodations.

Partaking in regenerative tourism has personal, as well as environmental, benefits.

“Many tourists report feelings of deep personal satisfaction and a stronger connection to nature following regenerative tourism experiences,” Skibins says. “Additionally, the ability to participate in conservation behaviors, such as habitat restoration or wildlife monitoring, can empower tourists to develop life-long learning around these issues and continue these behaviors at home.”

Back at home in Chesapeake, Carideo found herself missing the time spent on Chincoteague Island dirty and soaked. “I'm missing the work, the refuge, and the feeling of community I so quickly developed while working on meaningful tasks with the others,” she wrote in her post-trip evaluation. “I've returned more optimistic about people and more aware of the importance and satisfaction of doing some good in the world myself.”

Here are just a few of the options awaiting tourists in the U.S. who long to get their hands dirty in boots-on-the-ground adventure travel.

The Coral Restoration Foundation

Coral Restoration Foundation
Volunteers with the Coral Restoration Foundation help return corals to reefs threatened by extinction. Coral Restoration Foundation

Founded in 2007, the Coral Restoration Foundation has been working to revive Florida’s Coral Reef, a barrier reef stretching 360 miles from north of Miami to the southerly Dry Tortugas, and the only barrier reef in the continental U.S. The organization offers Florida-based diving programs with the opportunity to return corals to reefs threatened by extinction. Participants can head out to Carysfort Reef in the Florida Keys, where the Foundation has a showcase restoration site and their second largest Coral Tree™ Nursery—a forest of floating human-made structures on which fragments of staghorn, elkhorn and boulder corals are hung to grow until large enough to plant in the reef.

Visitors receive hands-on training in the morning, then go out for two dives with a dive operator to first help clean the Coral Trees in the nursery, and then outplant corals to their new home. Restoration tasks depend on level of experience, and the Foundation tailors the program to accommodate snorklers, as well as SCUBA divers. “You will join CRF divers in physically attaching young coral colonies to the reef,” says Alice Grainger, the Foundation’s communications director. “You will prepare the reef for the new corals by scraping algae off the limestone substrate [the skeletal remains of corals that used to thrive here] trying to avoid injury to curious blennies, before securing the corals in their new habitat with squishy blobs of non-toxic marine epoxy.”

First Nature Tours

Regenerative Tourism Invites Travelers to Get Their Hands Dirty
First Nature Tours' participants build bicycle maintenance stations and help with reforestation. Willamette Valley Visitors Association

This Portland-based outfitter offers luxury weekend travel and adventure near Central Oregon’s McKenzie River. Much of hilly, forested region burned during the 2020 Holiday Farm Fire, which burned 173,000 acres and destroyed the town of Blue River along with popular hiking and biking trails and a beloved campground. Participants eat Friday lunch at a local restaurant, then explore and learn about the area before enjoying a group dinner and a campfire with storytelling by a community organization. Saturday morning, guests restore small, vulnerable trails degraded by overuse after the fire closed the robust McKenzie River Trail, build bicycle maintenance stations or help with reforestation.

“In the spring, we have a little window where we can do actual plantings, which are really rewarding for people” says Kieron Wilde, who founded First Nature in 2013. “You get that long-term connection when you have a tree that might be there for a good 50 years plus—a tree you can come back and see.”

After a morning spent volunteering, participants take a guided mountain bike tour or go river rafting. A second group dinner gives guests the opportunity to hear from the region’s business owners about the impacts of fire on this region—information that becomes all the more tangible after a second morning of helping to mitigate the damages from wildfire. “It’s about engaging with the local community on a deep level and fostering a sense of stewardship,” Wilde explains.

Global Family Travels

Global Family Travels
Volunteers help plant trees to restore salmon habitat with the North Olympic Salmon Coalition on a property along Washington’s Dungeness River owned by the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe. Charles Espey

This Seattle-based organization offers trips all over the world—tours guided by the principles of “Learn, Serve, and Immerse.” In the U.S., Global Family Travels hosts a three-day “Regenerative Adventure” on the North Olympic Peninsula in Washington.

Participants enjoy a Northwest-inspired dinner focused on locally caught salmon at a luxury hotel before completing four hours of salmon habitat recovery work on the Elwha or Dungeness River the next day. Dam removal means the return of salmon to these waterways, but it also necessitates manufactured log jams and re-vegetation on riverbanks to make the area more hospitable. Volunteers help with both projects. Community partners lead discussions about the recovery work, focusing on the stories of local citizens and organizations working towards restoring vitality to the region. Guests spend the afternoon learning about the culture of the Jamestown S'Klallam tribe, which has historically depended on salmon as a major food source, then take a guided hike.

“We work with two non-profit organizations on the Olympic Peninsula, North Olympic Salmon Coalition (NOSC) and the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe River Restoration,” explains Jennifer Spatz, Global Family Travels’ founder and CEO. “Depending on which dates you register for, we will either plant trees on the Dungeness River with NOSC, or pull invasive species on the Elwha River and learn firsthand about the natural habitat of salmon and its importance in the Native culture.”

Hands Up Holidays

Regenerative Tourism Invites Travelers to Get Their Hands Dirty
Volunteers haul wood for project in the Presidio of San Francisco. Vivian Reed

For 16 years, Hands Up Holidays has been offering eco-luxury vacations that combine volunteering and sightseeing all over the world. On their eight-day San Francisco adventure, visitors stay at Cavallo Point Lodge at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge. They receive a private, guided tour of both San Francisco and either Napa Valley or Sonoma, and explore native coastal ecosystems, including sand dunes and prairies. On days three through five, participants help restore unique San Francisco coastal habitat. They plant, weed, maintain trails and collect seeds.

Founder Christopher Hill says there’s always something interesting to see and learn in this region. “You can work with rare and endangered plants including dune tansy, San Francisco wallflower, and San Francisco gum plant,” he notes. “Watch a brown pelican diving in the surf or train your ears to catch the songbirds nesting in the native scrub. Over 100,000 plants have been planted, and plenty of work remains to be done to restore and maintain the native coastal ecosystems of this fabulous city.”

Road Scholar

Regenerative Tourism Invites Travelers to Get Their Hands Dirty
An instructor at the Chincoteague Bay Field Station speaks to Road Scholar volunteers. Road Scholar

Road Scholar, a leader in educational travel since 1975, offers the “Chincoteague Service Learning: Preserving Barrier Island Environments” program that Carideo attended, inviting travelers to spend a week on the Virginia islands of Chincoteague and Assateague to assist with a variety of projects. Participants can repair and clear woodland trails and walkways and clean up undeveloped beaches; they may also help to preserve historic sites and work among the collection of artifacts and records at the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge.

Travelers can also volunteer with the Museum of Chincoteague Island, Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company, or Beebe Ranch to help conserve the islands’ wildlife habitats, medical facilities, history and culture. Get an up-close look at barrier island waterfowl and other wildlife, including the famed herds of wild Chincoteague ponies. Carideo describes the hours she spent standing in a marsh helping to remove rusty barbed wire as birds flew by and wild horses stood nearby. “In photos, you can see how genuinely happy we are,” she notes, “even though our waders are leaking, we smell like the marsh and we’re at the end of our day.”

Get the latest Travel & Culture stories in your inbox.