If tourism is going to make the planet better, argues Thierry Teyssier, it has to stop putting guests’ needs first.

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(Bloomberg) — Welcome to the Better Travel Bureau, where we dive into the business of making tourism more equitable, more inclusive and less harmful to the environment—who’s transforming the industry, what’s changing and is it actually possible?

Thierry Teyssier is a hotelier who sells experiences rather than rooms. 

Take Tizkmoudine, a new luxury destination within a 14th century Moroccan Berber community four hours south of Marrakesh. Only 150 families reside around its palm-lined oasis, with the “hotel” occupying three restored stone houses.

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The guest rooms are elegantly decorated in Moroccan crafts, with candles or lanterns for lighting and a gas stove for heat. There’s no front desk, no room keys, no set check-in and no television. Instead of a restaurant, the staff delivers custom meals in surprise locations anytime you wish. Most of them are village residents, who can also teach you to make traditional tafarnout bread or weave Berber baskets.

All this is emblematic of Teyssier’s avant-garde style, which he’s refined in the 22 years since he opened Dar Ahlam in Ouazarzate, Morocco. Through his company 700,000 Heures, he’s earned a devoted fan base that follows him to each new location, be it in Cambodia or Brazil. 

Until recently the premise was straightforward: 700,000 Heures would pop up somewhere for six months, then close shop and create magic elsewhere. But in 2022, Teyssier decided to switch gears. He renamed the company 700,000 Heures Impact and gave it a new mission: to create permanent resorts rather than ephemeral camps as a way to kick-start micro-tourism economies in rural but culturally rich communities. 

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Before Tizkmoudine, he says, “I was focused on hospitality. But hospitality shouldn’t be the goal, it should be a tool for communities to become independent.” Now, he says, “the impact is more important than the stay.”

The tourism industry, Teyssier says, has for too long prioritized service to guests rather than community empowerment. But a single resort, he argues, can do much more than surprise and delight travelers while creating resort jobs. It can jump-start small enterprises, restore the local environment and preserve culture for future generations wherever it operates. 

Take a new 700,000 Heures Impact location that opened on June 1 in Peru, set deep in the Amazon in a jungle-shrouded village called Progreso. There, chocolate-making classes will use pods from a revived cacao plantation, and forest treks will double as conservation missions, with guests and environmentalists placing wildlife-tracking cameras along the way. 

All its activities will be conceived and led by local residents based on what they think visitors should learn about. Five percent of lodging revenue and 10% of the net profit from the hotel’s all-inclusive rates will fund the creation of these types of locally owned enterprises, as well as others that won’t be connected to tourism.  

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Even the pricing structure is meant to be disruptive: While rooms at any 700,000 Heures Impact hotel will cost from $1,000 to $2,000 per night, guests are required to donate to a specific community fund before gaining access to the reservations portal. Give too little, and you may hear that the trip is “sold out.” (Teyssier recommends donations around $1,000.)

It’s a test of your mindset, he explains. The question is: How much are you willing to give to a place before taking anything from it?

Regenerative Travel’s Opportunity

What Teyssier is building with 700,000 Heures Impact may be the North Star of “regenerative travel,” which leverages tourism to safeguard ecosystems and traditions so they can be perpetuated for future generations. The term has become increasingly adopted ever since pandemic closures brought to light how destructive tourism can be; as with some previous sustainability-oriented trends, however, it’s dominated by empty claims.

“Regenerative tourism says that it is not enough to just simply sustain the ecosystems and the communities,” says Bobbie Chew Bigby, an Oklahoma-based postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Waterloo in Canada, who focuses on tourism as a tool for Indigenous communities like her own Cherokee Nation. “We have to push further than sustainable.” 

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But regenerative tourism follows an entirely different business model than traditional hotel development. It doesn’t fit into urban centers as neatly as it does rural communities, and expanding these systems requires the buy-in of government partners, nonprofit groups and community leaders. Even identifying the right destinations is a challenge: It’s not just about where you think travelers want to go, but also where they are wanted.

There’s a sort of serendipity to how Teyssier identifies new projects. Leads often come to him via a vast network of contacts who work around the world in nonprofits and development. Every project is unique, and even the most successful ones have to be kept small so they don’t encroach on local resources.

And though they’re profitable enterprises given the price point, they’re built to make money for the community—not shareholders. None of this would befit a large corporation such as Marriott Hotels International Inc. or Hilton Worldwide Holdings Inc., for example. 

“What we want is to create autonomy and not dependency on hospitality,” says Diane Binder, an international development expert who advises Teyssier and is his business partner on 700,000 Heures Impact. She’s previously worked on environmental projects in more than 15 African countries.

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Creating New Metrics

If 700,000 Heures Impact projects are meant to prop up a whole local economy, they have to consider everything: carbon footprint, energy usage, long-term employment prospects, even the local government’s provision of health care and social security.

Gauging the success of these regenerative hospitality projects is another major challenge: “Even though it’s a big buzzword right now, I don’t know that really consistent metrics have been identified,” Bigby explains.

For 700,000 Heures Impact, Binder has developed customized performance indicators for each project, including climate impact, biodiversity and the population’s quality of life. Another metric—financial effectiveness—calculates a project’s profitability over three to five years. “There are some intangible indicators that are as important, such as a renewed sense of dignity,” says Binder. Questionnaires are used to get those answers. 

In less than two years, she adds, Tizkmoudine has created jobs for more than 200 residents who are now directly involved in 15 new cooperatives, of whom more than two-thirds are women. These include a wood factory, a hospitality-services cooperative offering tours and a children’s activity group.

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A total of 35 co-op leaders have also been registered for access to social security, indicating improved quality of life. And young people are coming back to the village, Binder says. It used to be impossible to get a job at all in Tizkmoudine, but now they’re drawn to new opportunities for income. 

So far, 700,000 Heures Impact hasn’t published any impact reports or audits, which would help would-be donors and travelers understand how much it costs to operate the hotels and how much is allocated to community projects. It also declined to answer questions about whether it would do so in the future.

Bigby, the research fellow and regenerative travel expert, would usually consider this a red flag. Her best advice to travelers looking for regenerative options is to parse impact reports, annual reports, information on websites or 990 forms (in the case of US nonprofits) to understand how funding is allocated and whether locals are sitting on the board of the company itself. 

The Future of 700,000 Heures Impact

It will take a committed traveler to arrive at the 700,000 Heures Impact location in Peru. To get there, guests will fly from Lima to Tarapoto Airport in the north, then drive 45 minutes through cloud forests and Amazon jungles. But when they arrive, they’ll find 247 acres of wilderness, with thatch-roofed bamboo structures that are open to the elements. The whole thing could easily have been pulled straight out of Bali. 

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Stays here will help fund a number of newly created cooperatives to employ locals and preserve the surrounding land, whose biodiversity will generate long-term income for Peruvian entrepreneurs, including a factory producing recyclable paper from forest plants. 

And, also important, that will all be fun for visitors, too: They can spend their days hiking, canoeing, birdwatching or swimming in waterfalls. (Rooms will be bookable until September, when the rainy season begins; then the hotel will close until next the dry season begins again next May. The cooperative projects are intended to stay open all year.)

In October a third destination will open in Mexico, located in Pueblo del Sol, south of Oaxaca. There, regenerative projects will focus on the production of coffee, vanilla, agave and pottery, all of which lend themselves to workshops and special experiences. “It’s always about how to support a local economy,” says Binder. 

Teyssier recognizes regenerative hospitality has become a trendy concept that’s prone to be viewed with skepticism. But he chooses to see the buzz in a positive light. If others replicate his company’s model, all the better.

Future locations for 700,000 Heures Impact include Rwanda, Oman and Mongolia, with plans to open two projects a year.

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