We have entered into a period of massive disruption and transformation in tourism. It's a paradigm change. Yet, despite the multitudes of reports, white papers and strategies emerging about the future of tourism, it has been common to position the current situation as a bump in the business-as-usual road. This post addresses the elephant in the room that many seem to want to ignore: that this is not just a bump in the road but symptomatic of deeper societal shifts taking place.
The truth is, no one really knows how the massive structural changes occurring across different related sectors will play out nor what the future of tourism will look like. Most of these reports are commissioned by governments and are drafted by the big four consultants to provide a sense of certainty in an otherwise chaotic context. But, subtle as they may be, there are profound, long-term shifts taking place that are radically redrawing how we think the world works and our role in it. The implications for a complex sector like tourism are enormous. Understanding, communicating and addressing these shifts would go a long way to helping build resilience over the long term.
Bounce back to crisis
If you have been in this sector as long as I have, then you will recognise that tourism is a sector built upon a cycle of crisis and recovery. In Australia, and particularly Queensland where I started my tourism journey, a few of the crises from the last 30 years include:
2003 Avian flu
2006 Cyclone Larry (Severe tropical cyclone, central Queensland)
2011 Cyclone Yasi (Severe tropical cyclone, central Queensland)
2017 Cyclone Debbie (Severe tropical cyclone, central Queensland)
2019 Covid-19 global pandemic supports
Given this history, it's probably fair to say that the tourism sector is characterised by a cycle of crisis and taxpayer-funded recovery with the objective of bouncing back until the next crisis. But it is not the purpose of this post to assess public support for tourism (which, by the way, is likely to be much less than the $10.3 billion in government subsidies for fossil fuels in 20/21). Rather, we seek to draw attention to the cycle of crisis and recovery and to suggest we need to take a good hard look at the sector, the assumptions that underpin how it's organised and what it delivers. But the current government appears to be more about spin than substance.
Truth be known, during Covid, many destinations have been innovating, adopting inspiring pivots and reinventing themselves. But this ground up innovation does not appear to have gained sufficient momentum for the 'top' to notice, at least in Australia. Other national Tourism Organisations, like Destination Canada, have recognised the big shifts taking place and are grappling with the consequences for tourism.
Exiting the cycle
Let's be clear, we have always travelled and we always will. Being mobile is part of the human condition. Travel brings with it learning, connection and empowerment. But how we travel, how we organise the sector, and how we value it, and how we address its impacts should be open to discussion. Anything less, like resisting genuine discussion, would be anti-innovation. Put simply, if tourism were a small or micro-business, your business advisor would be telling you to address the crisis-recovery cycle by:
Finding your purpose, something that delivers different kinds of value that can help you to sustain your business through disruptions.
Examining your business model and approach, and redesign with resilience and adaption in mind.
Examining how to reduce the impact of these cycles and dependence on government handouts.
Evaluate supply chains, assess your vulnerability to market shifts, and build stronger closer ties with easy to reach, loyal customers with lower impact.
The question has to be asked: What if all these crises above were a practice run for something bigger, deeper, and even more disruptive? The news of the omicron variant suggests that the disruption is not over yet. Are we listening? And what can we do about it?
Zooming out, what is really going on?
Those who take an interest in deep, prolonged patterns of change (beyond the election cycle) observe that we have entered into the early stages of paradigmatic shift. This shift will be every bit as dramatic and transformational in size, scope and impact as the shift that took place between the European Dark Ages and Enlightenment. Just wrap your head around that for a moment. We are talking about a comprehensive rewiring of humankind and the restructuring of the way we think, value, relate and act in the world. It is so big that it only happens every few centuries.
During the shift from the European Dark Ages into the scientific revolution, there was a move away from blind faith in the church and feudal power structures towards one where people put their trust in science, democracy, capitalism, and the role of government as protector of public interests. Over the last century, this evolved further to embrace blind faith in strategic management and neoliberal economic ideologies as the main forces shaping our economic-social-environmental relations. This belief system shaped our relationship with the natural environment. We began to see it as a source of free resources to power production, consumerism and to build individual wealth. It shaped attitudes to labour as a cost to drive down in order to maximise profit. It shaped the roles of government and business, and the dominant values and beliefs that we live by today. In other words, we have had centuries of indoctrination into these ways of things, so it has become difficult to think outside them.
While questions about the impacts of the modern scientific paradigm were being raised prior to Covid, during the pandemic these questions got louder. Out of necessity, large swathes of the population were forced to re-examine their values, ways of life and work, and started to take action. Things needed to change. We looked towards indigenous knowledge, indigenous connections to land and culture, and there was some awakening that the western system had somehow lost its way.
It's not as though people woke up one day and said "We need paradigm change". Instead, people started to shift their thinking, re-evaluate what was important, and they started to make different choices.
They found new connections with themselves, with each other, and with nature, making the Wellness market one of the most rapidly expanding sectors over the last two years, according to McKinsey.
They connected with their inner sources of creativity, found pivots, and new meaning, which ironically makes arts and culture one of the hardest hit but most important levers for the next economy according to the OECD.
The big shift is only just beginning and all these above changes will have some impact on tourism, work, home, travel and mobile living. More and more people are expected to make choices and take actions that will create continuing challenges for any return to business as usual.
Disruption and uncertainty as the future
The paradigm that is unfolding, like all major paradigmatic shifts, starts with the unravelling of our assumptions and our beliefs about how the world works. Individuals and communities start to question the existing system, they start to push back, uncover their own agency, and demand change. Citizen movements and demonstrations happening across the globe, whether it's vaccine mandates, human rights, or climate change, illustrate rising discontent.
This period ahead is one of enormous upheaval. Neoliberalism and trickle-down economics, core beliefs from the last century, for example, have been well and truly debunked. Individuals and communities have started to question the existing system. They started to push back, to activate collectively, and to demand change. They are demanding ground-up, community-driven change, more control over their lives, and are pushing back on what they perceive is being 'done' to them.
Adding to the complexity, education systems driven by the progressive implementation of neoliberal management objectives, have failed to teach people how to think or take responsibility as active and engaged citizens in democracy. Not only has this resulted in a decline in active interest and participation in government and policymaking, but the void has quickly been filled with fake news, bullshit and conspiracy theories. It started in the US but we can see its ugly tentacles emerging in Australia and elsewhere.
According to Futurist James Cascio, we have moved beyond the VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Uncertain) world to a BANI - Brittle, Anxious, Non-linear and Incomprehensible world. It's a shift already being recognised in some sectors, and there are calls to build the resilience to navigate the disruption and change ahead. But it is not all plain sailing... Social change theorist, de la Sablonnière has divided social change into four broad overlapping and looping stages: Stability, Inertia, Incremental Social Change and, finally, Disruptive Social Change.
Doubling down on old ways and resistance to change
Change is never straight-forward or easy
For some time we have been in a state of incremental social change. New ideas emerge and grow. However, under pressure, the dominant system pushes back to reinforce its old beliefs and values. The recent proliferation of the business-as-usual narrative in tourism policies and marketing campaigns illustrates the resistance of governments and some parts of the industry to embrace new thinking and to change.
But that doesn't change the fact that the transition to a new paradigm involves the old system dying and the emergence of a new paradigm with fundamentally different values and social-economic-environment relations. Stalwarts from the old system will block change, strengthen their interdependence (making it harder for individuals to leave), while also trying to squeeze out its last benefits. Progressively, when they are free to do so, individuals will drop the old paradigm and join, experiment, and eventually embrace the new thinking. Currently, the local ground up innovations that we are seeing in tourism illustrate the ingenuity and creativity that is emerging.
Source: Berkana Institute. The two loops model has been a fundamental piece of The Berkana Institute’s theory of change. it is useful background to explain what is currently happening in tourism.
Paradigm change is never a smooth, linear transition. Among the ecosystem of actors, there is a vast difference in our human capacity to think, understand, evolve our thinking, to move beyond fear, and lean in to change. History has shown that those who saw this shift in times past were labelled heretics, thrown in jail, or worse... Today the ways of silencing are no less violent depending on where you are in the world, and have included anything from assassination, isolation, manipulating board structures and gaslighting.
Why is it so hard to think differently?
The belief systems associated with the scientific paradigm, including strategic management and neoliberal economic management, have become so deeply ingrained over the course of the 20th century that a period of stability and inertia set in. Under these conditions, alternative worldviews were neither encouraged nor sought out. As a result, those within established institutions and organisational structures, such as international organisations, governments, and universities will find it most difficult to adapt. They have been indoctrinated, incentivised, and trained to think in certain ways and to achieve certain ends aligned with the old belief system.
Disruptive Social Change, the period we are now moving into, is characterised by, among other things, increasing cynicism of government and declining trust in elected representatives, a questioning of authority, rejection of research, and the rise of disinformation. Expertise is now increasingly questioned and the old template solutions are no longer enough. Ironically, the relevance of institutions that we have traditionally looked towards for ideas and solutions, such as international organisations, governments and universities, has started to wane. Just take a look at any week in politics to realise that this is happening... the disruptive change, a questioning of fundamental values and beliefs is here and not just theory!
There is nothing new about questioning the traditional, boosterist growth narrative in tourism. Tourism is often organised to facilitate access by those that ascribe to the dominant paradigm. It becomes a self-reinforcing system. For example, boards of tourism organisations are often weighted with industry representatives and the voices of nature and the communities on which tourism relies are diminished or not present at all. While this way of organising tourism has worked to support industry and investment facing objectives until now, the disruption ahead means that nothing is guaranteed.
The withdrawal of tourism's social licence to operate and the push back from an increasing number of communities is just the beginning of this disruption. Imagine if, in the future, tourism was seen as a dirty industry, like coal, contributing to carbon emissions or food and water insecurity, or an industry with dubious links to modern slavery. Some communities are already starting to resent that their taxes are supporting services and infrastructure and that no discernable benefit (i.e. that the community values) flows back to the wider community. Pushback is already happening where communities are tired of having tourism done to them instead of with and for them.
The importance of building resilience over bounce-back
Prior to Covid, tourism was a major sector that touched the lives of just about everyone. The truth is that no one knows if or how the sector will emerge after the pandemic. Yet it is clear that the range of reports and strategies from upper levels of government appearing in the last 18 months have not addressed the roots of the transformative change taking place. Instead, most reports have reinforced the old system, old thinking, old values, and ignored the harder questions of the Brittle, Anxious, Non-linear and Incomprehensible world which we now inhabit.
Our responsibility now is to face up to the reality that tourism has, in the past, been reliant on a crisis-recovery model funded by the public purse. Drawing on public revenue is unsustainable and cannot continue indefinitely. We need the courage to evolve our thinking and be clear-eyed about the weaknesses of the old system. This is not to say tourism is dead, but from the old system, a holistic, transformative and meaningful form of tourism (or whatever it might be called in the future) can and will emerge. We have always travelled and we will continue to do so. But the question we need to answer is what might that future look like?
A regenerative mindset has the potential to strengthen local communities, build stronger connections with agriculture and food supply systems, implement circular economy principles, and contribute to human health and wellbeing by embracing our creativity and higher-order thinking. By making tourism regenerative, we can also care for our natural ecosystems, consolidate and grow local supply chains, and reduce our reliance on external markets. This approach makes plain good business sense.
In sum, I am calling for a clear-eyed approach to dealing with the widespread disruption ahead. The disruption will be uneven, deep and it will spread its tentacles around all that is related to tourism. It will inevitably impact all that we know and think about how tourism works in the world. Ultimately, our goal should be to build resilience, the capacity to deal with a brittle, anxious, non-linear and incomprehensible world that lies ahead.
How do we build resilience for the disruption ahead?
To answer this question we first need to acknowledge that the challenges today cannot be solved with the same mindset, ideologies, and tools that we used to create the problems in the first place. The paradigm shift requires that we evolve our individual and collective thinking. Put simply, the innovation that we need to navigate this disruption is not digital nor technological. It is the evolution of our individual and collective human intelligence that will drive the innovation of the future.
The first steps on this journey are to:
Reassess the blind faith we have placed in ideologies such as strategic management, marketing-led growth and neoliberalism; to awaken to the blindspots that prevented us from seeing alternative worldviews; and to honestly question the relevance of our existing value and belief systems in this new future.
Take personal responsibility for our individual choices and actions, and commit to doing no harm to others, human and nature.
Have an earnest conversation with ourselves about how we want to show up in the world, and how we relate to others, both humans and nature.
Let go of fixed, simple and certain strategy making such as best practice models, recipe approaches, templates, certification criteria and the like. While these are useful tools, by themselves they do not guarantee that we are moving in the right direction. They provide us with a brief sense of accomplishment, a dopamine rush that we are doing good, but these come from the same instrumental, scientific mindset. They over-simplify the challenge and remove tourism from the complex social-economic-environment system in which it is woven.
Lean into an emergent approach where we need to work together to effect positive regenerative change. New thinking, sensing, understanding and actions will be needed so we need to invest time and courage to think differently, reorganise and collectivise.
These points represent a new way of thinking and working in tourism. It requires new skill sets and an understanding of our cognitive, psycho-social, emotional and conversational intelligence.
About the Author: Dianne Dredge, PhD is Founder and Director of an Australian-based social enterprise, The Tourism CoLab, a global tourism education and capacity building initiative seeking to re-invent tourism as a social and environmental sector that connects and transforms destinations for good. Along with the delivery of online courses, innovative thinking, leadership, organisational change, research and mentoring, the CoLab is currently delivering a place-based, community-led and environment-centred regenerative tourism living lab on Flinders Island, Tasmania. Originally trained as an environmental and urban planner, her career has focused on tourism, community engagement, delivering policy advice to all levels of government and the OECD and the European Commission. During her 18 years as a professor in higher education, she also authored several destination management plans, stakeholder audits, organisational change management strategies, state-wide policies, delivered over 35 international keynote addresses, and has written 8 books and 200+ papers. But, at the end of the day, her passion lies in taking change making journeys with local communities.
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About The Tourism CoLab At the Tourism CoLab, we believe in a future that is regenerative, purpose-led and inclusive. We believe in thought leadership, provocation and doing things differently by disrupting traditional ways of thinking, working and learning in tourism. To navigate the change ahead, we need to ask tough questions, unleash courage and creativity, and re-invent our ways of working. This means new knowledge, new skill sets, and new approaches. In 2022 we will be expanding our course offerings, workshops and introduce a journey into change. If have a question just drop us an email!