Making sense of multiple worlds
We are living in multiple worlds. This week's IPPC Synthesis report makes it clear that this is our last warning. Conditions are deteriorating. Deep, rapid and sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions are urgent. The planet's ecological tipping points - the critical thresholds beyond which a system reorganises, often abruptly and/or irreversibly - loom large. According to the IPCC Synthesis Report, "with further warming, every region is projected to increasingly experience concurrent and multiple changes in climatic impact-drivers. Compound heatwaves and droughts are projected to become more frequent, including concurrent events across multiple locations". In other words, buckle-up. It has become clear that while there is a sense of agency within international agencies and national governments, the will to take action varies widely.
In an alternative tourism world, there is wilful blindness to the challenges of the ecological world. While other agencies and sectors are confronting (to various degrees) climate change and its cascading effects, in tourism there is only support for the recovery and long-term growth of the visitor economy, progress on the implementation of growth strategies, and alleviating chronic workforce shortages that are seen as holding the sector back. As far as the eye can see, initiatives and funding are directed towards opening up new markets, breaking down barriers to growth, and iconic attraction/experience development. There is a drive for 'sustainable growth'  and a return to business as usual, which seems totally at odds with the ecological world.
Then there is the world of policy-makers and government - the world of political bureaucracy. In this world, a key challenge is what innovation and governance researchers call 'institutional thickness' . There are layers upon layers of established processes and protocols, embedded interest structures, and pay-to-play access that stymies new entrants, innovation and new approaches. As the (wicked) complexity of the world in which tourism exists is increasingly recognised, it is comforting to fall back on a narrowly defined mission "to build the resilience and competitiveness of the tourism industry and to grow its economic contribution". In other words, the boundaries around the t-silo are strengthening around historical boundaries that are probably not fit-for-purpose in the future. Even so, the policy world doubles down on old ideals.
Public-private partnership approaches have been locked in and have metastasized. It becomes a tango where much of the public resourcing for tourism goes back into reinforcing established players, priorities, and practices. Governments pay for the kind of futures research they wish to see. Internal industry mentoring and capacity-building programs reinforce the existing growth paradigm, showering participants with awards and recognition that elevate dopamine levels. In turn, this encourages more of the same. In the process, the system becomes self-reinforcing by mentoring as many new entrants as possible. Even university researchers fall over themselves to grab a small slice of the funding pie to write papers that reinforce the system's values and priorities. Their metrics depend on it and their bosses warn them against political research. Thinking outside the box is discouraged, and processes of enculturation become locked-in. Comedies are written about it... and fewer and fewer critical policy analysis research papers see the light of day.
Conscious and caring world
But this is not a tale of doom and gloom. It's the tale of fragility and decline, but also the rise of something new and hopeful. This is a conscious world where some are experimenting with mindfulness, evolving levels of consciousness, and connecting to the ecologies of our existence as part of (and not dominant over) nature. When we can step outside those embedded neural pathways to imagine what tourism would be like if we didn't have industrial tourism. then this returns us to the awe and wonder of travel as discovery, connection, reciprocity, and well-being. This is a conscious, caring and intentional world where clear-eyed responsibility is taken for human impacts.
This world is expanding. A growing body of research suggests there are important shifts taking place in consumer attitudes towards travel. Issues such as climate change, business ethics, social and environmental justice and positive impact are becoming more important in travel decision-making. At the same time, conscious consumers are becoming more and more critical of 'green' claims and in some jurisdictions there are now penalties for false claims. The rise in demand for conscious and ethical choices is now evident, and the increased awareness and emphasis on integrated intelligence and alternative ways of knowing can only propel conscious human development.
For those aware they are living between these complex, ambiguous, and conflicting worlds, there is splintering, turmoil and potential. It's unsettling and hopeful; it can produce anxiety, dysregulation, and inspiration all at once. In what follows, and drawing upon deep and sustained dialogue from local to national over the last five weeks, I try to make sense of the tensions and challenges, the bright spots and inspiration I have witnessed. It's long and cross-cutting and draws from diverse bodies of literature and insight accumulated over time. It reflects meta-thinking, patterning, interdisciplinarity, and a curiosity for sitting in the mess. The use of [ ] is to draw attention to a deeper level of intentionality - to [un]do, [un]think and [un]design our future, and to distinguish from unintentional expressions like 'reimagining tourism'.
Splintering, turmoil, and innovation
Photo: Benjamin davies, Unsplash.
There has been much written about the way that bureaucracy erodes moral agency and creates a maze of conflicting touchpoints for both policy actors and the public. The politicisation of policy, and its capture by industry interests, make collaborative action and real-time learning difficult. What is happening on the ground, in communities, and 'in the wild' is only relevant in as much as policymakers can slot it into the existing interest structures, programs and actions that bind them.
Herein lies the seeds of splintering, a kind of creative destruction, that will [re]define tourism. Joseph Schumpeter coined the term “creative destruction” the idea that old entrenched ways of doing things get destroyed and replaced by newer, better alternatives. In essence, he argued that creative destruction is the way that innovation is introduced through turmoil.
Schumpeter argued that the system is not stationary. He warned that the success of a sector [generally through a boom period] would eventually lead to corporatism and policy capture focused on playing it safe. In the process, the established system becomes hostile to the innovation offered by entrepreneurs and businesses at the edge .
So why is all this relevant to tourism?
From the perspective of policymakers, these conditions make drawing from and learning from different sources of information and lived and local experiences very problematic, especially if these sources are not 'paying to play' in the established system. Yet these are often the people, coalitions, collectives, and businesses at the innovative edge - the outliers, free thinkers and do-ers - who are working to go around the barriers and obstacles to [un]think, [un]design, and [re]invent.
As a result, there is a widening gap between what is happening on the ground, in communities, in the wild, and what is happening in the curated tourism system and in policy bureaucracy. A creative remaking of tourism is already happening at the edge. It's also untied to existing priorities, processes, metrics, and protocols.
Smaller regions and collectives of free-thinking individuals tied of knocking on closed doors are undoing tourism. Idealistic, community-minded, climate-concerned individuals can make a difference. Those communities living with the effects of climate change, environmental decline, economic insecurity, and marginalisation are among some of the most resilient of people.
Those living on Islands, and in regional and remote locations, are said to be some of the most creative problem-solvers. In these communities, individuals are banding together to [un]design their local economies, and create alternative income streams and exchange practices. In the process are [re]inventing local economies. They are [re]imaging social support structures, establishing collectives, and building the connective tissue necessary for resilience.
In the world that I inhabit, many of these communities indicate that they have given up on a system that feels distant, inaccessible, and out of touch. They are [re]designing tourism through the lens of regeneration, although this word is not often used. Tourism is being [re]moved from its framing as an industrial sector and instead is being [re]framed around well-being, resilience, and self-determination. For many inhabiting the tourism world or the policy world, this is uncomfortable and unknown. It's implausible to even consider given the locked-in interest structures and missions described above. The immediate reaction can be to discredit, criticise, or ignore that these other worlds exist or have value:
"It's a long way off."
"There are steps in between like implementing sustainability across the industry."
"We need to address the industry's pain of the recent pandemic years."
...are paraphrased responses. Yet that very reaction feeds creative destruction. Communities and collectives that are [re]thinking travel is growing, connecting, and creating new pathways. The authentic and transformative visitor experiences, the hospitality and welcome offered by locals, and the ecosystems of connectivity that are developing have no interest in traditional distribution channels where fragility is found. Sooner or later, a tipping point will emerge where the majority of genuine and transformative travel experiences will be generated by those kept on the outside of the tourism sector. There may well be other tipping points but that lie outside a simple blog post.
[Un]tourism: growth of a movement
In the remainder of this post, five key shifts associated with [un]tourism and the [re]generative approach that underpins it are explored. While the brief explorations below are hopelessly insufficient to convey the significance of each shift, they are offered as an introduction for further reflection:
1. The beauty of travel
Travel is part of the human condition. It always has been, and always will. It's how we travel that is changing. The act of travel, in its most genuine sense, is the process of connecting, respecting, learning, and transforming ourselves so that we can be better humans and act responsibly in all our relationships (i.e., people, planet and place). This interpretation of travel is not aligned with an industry perspective, nor does it adopt the growth mantra. Instead, it speaks to a deeper sense of humanity, well-being, and an awareness of the deeper systemic impacts we have on people, places and nature when we travel. It's a deeper commitment to understanding that we are all connected and that moral commitment is to regenerate that which gives us life, joy, and meaning.
2. The fragility of tourism is clear
The existing tourism industry is fragile. It is heavily subsidised, both directly and indirectly, and its resilience is only as good as the next government and its willingness to financially support it. The depth and breadth of public funding are invisible, but just to garner an appreciation, just consider:
Cooperative marketing that takes place at all scales from local to national
Base grants supporting tourism organisations
Direct and indirect infrastructure provision
Trade missions and other activities to identify and open up new/alternative markets to address the decline in 'traditional' markets (where 'traditional' is ever-changing)
The subsidisation of large and mega events
Investment in industry capacity building
Destination management and planning cycles
Frequent and regular rescue packages for all nature of 'unanticipated' events, e.g. economic crises, downturns, aviation disruption, pandemics, weather events, global monetary policy shifts, terrorism, etc.
Investment in formal education aimed at training workers to support the system
In many countries, and notably Australia, the fossil fuels sector attract the highest level of government subsidies. One argument for this is that these subsidies are necessary in order to make a smooth transition to renewables. In tourism, there has been no such talk of 'transition' to the next phase, and no real acknowledgement of the paradigm shift already on its way. Words like 'reimagine' are used only to mark a renewed focus on the same imagining and how to return to pre-pandemic levels. These conditions maintain the fragility of the industrial tourism sector.
3. The question of social licence is lurking
Government funds to support and hold up the tourism sector can also be eroded when social licence comes into question. According to the WTTC, the transport sector is responsible for contributing close to 50% of GHG emissions. With climate change becoming of increasing concern and with the predicted disruption ahead, the fact that much of the industry is silent on a deep sustained commitment to climate change opens up the question of social licence. Europe is already grappling with limiting short-haul flights while other continents and countries with less well-developed alternatives are staying quiet.
In a recent post, we highlight that it is the responsibility of the sector, operators, and businesses to secure their social licence to operate. Sufficient attention must therefore be placed on anticipating future scenarios where the sector's GHG emissions and wider impacts are called into question. Suggesting that tourism is a victim of the broadening narrative around climate change, as has recently been suggested in a private conversation, does not hold weight. It suggests avoidance, the shifting of responsibility, or just 'kicking the can down the road a little further' for someone else to deal with.
4. A new language, new skills, new literacies are emerging
One of the joys of the CoLab's work is an embedded approach where the commitment is to journey with the local community. It's an approach that brings a deeper level of understanding, a sense of connection, and at a personal level, brings a sense of gratitude and humility because the sharing of lived experience and local knowledge can be quite intimate.
Facilitating discussions about the challenge of [un]designing tourism for a very different future (see the IPCC Synthesis Report) has brought a deeper appreciation for a different kind of language, the shifting of mindsets, and the different levers of change available in these communities and coalitions.
In the last three years, there has been a notable consistency in the observation that the industrial language of tourism sits uncomfortably with local communities. People don't want tourism, but they are happy to host visitors who are seen to connect, respect, and give back. Destinations are industrial constructs, but in reality, they are places layered with meaning and relationships. Destinations exist in a silo whereas places have soul, and essence, and are bound together by meaningful stories. Flows of energy, matter, and information extend well beyond tourism into lives well-lived, resilience, and connection. Locals are willing to walk in conversation, connect over birdsong, and share their understanding of nature with regenerative-minded travellers. It's a different pace, mindset, language and motivation.
5. Self-organising is agency
Self-organisation is the basis of cell biology and living systems theory. It refers to the emergence of an overall order of a given system that results from the collective interactions of its individual components. This self-organisation occurs through vast networks of communications, which can often lie outside our human comprehension. In the human world, systems can either be self-organising or have an order imposed upon them (e.g. through policies that incentivise, pay-to-play, operate to include/exclude, etc.). Self-organisation relies on complex adaptive patterning, while externally organised systems are the result of human intervention. Systems that are externally organised are generally less robust because human-centredness tends to reflect the limitations of our understanding. Moreover, humans are only partially autonomous, so human systems never be completely self-organised.
That said, self-organisation appears to be an increasing driver of change, with the caveat that it may result in both good and bad outcomes. One of the rationales for tourism industrial policy is that the sector is fragmented due to the high proportion of solo, micro and small businesses: they need to be organised in order to operate for the collective benefit of the sector. This organisation tends to exclude the interests of communities, cultures, places, and nature, (which are framed as resources not contributors with rights). This has led to a siloed approach. Moreover, it is typically assumed that there is a deficit of capacity, leadership, and organisational capability in the broader community and that 'industry knows best'.
Historically, an externally organised system was thought to make sense, where:
Meaning is shared among agents
Internal tension is reduced
Actions of agents and sub-systems are aligned with system-wide intentionality
Patterns are repeated across scales and in different parts of the system
A minimum amount of energy of the system is dissipated through internal interactions.
Parts of the system function in complementary ways .
Clearly, this self-organisation and its consolidation over time mean that relationships, priorities, and processes become baked-in and difficult to shift. But change is happening in other parts of the system. But communities and nature also have agency and are self-organising in spite of the top down organisation.
Agency - that feeling like you can take action, that you have within your reach a lever to change the world - is critical for those concerned about the future and that are working towards a better community, place, or planet. For communities living with the effects of climate change, biodiversity loss, challenges to livelihoods from broader economic restructuring, food insecurity, energy and waste issues, self-organisation, and addressing challenges locally, is the only way forward. The larger systems of support have metastasised and the boundaries they draw around their remit or domain of action do not reflect the complexity of the challenge. Moreover, pipelines of funding and support are leaky at best, or dry up completely, before they have reached where support is needed.
So why is all this relevant to the rise of the [un]tourism movement? Let's be clear, the desire to travel is a human desire and the joy of genuine hosting is part of this yin and yang. But the long-held narrative that tourism, as an industrial sector, can deliver benefits to such places and communities is now well and truly challenged. The idea that commodified visitor experiences and the reliance that tourists will come from external distribution channels creates vulnerability and dependence. This is fragile tourism.
Instead, regional and remote communities are looking to [re]invent travel through a [re]generative lens, and to [re]plenish and [re]juvenate their places, communities, cultures and livelihoods. This means [un]designing visitor experiences and [un]doing vulnerable business supply chains and distribution channels, with localism and [re]generation in mind.
Put simply, there is a need to go around the blockages and to [un]design traditional ways of working and expectations that 'government should'. Some government agencies are, at least tacitly, starting to acknowledge that they don't have the capacity, skills or knowledge to address the complex challenges communities and micro and small businesses face. Empowering communities, by holding up their creative processes, and acknowledging their lived experience and local knowledge may be a better approach. This, however, remains a distant idea in tourism, and many policymakers and peak organisations are eager to acknowledge that this falls outside their remit as guardians of the industrial sector.
Perhaps inadvertently, this post may have rendered the above worlds as some kind of dystopian theme park! This was not my intention. There are also other worlds that I have experienced or witnessed but are not to be shared. The point is that how we move forward in tourism is messy. There is a splintering, disruption, and growth of a new [un]tourism movement. It's born out of a desire to flip thinking, reverse what is not working, and to genuinely [re]imagine travel as if tourism didn't exist. Here we call it [un]tourism to denote its intentionality. It's community-led, place-based, and nature-based. It is respectful and acknowledges that we are all connected and interdependent and that the artificial boundaries around tourism and its short-term challenges are unhelpful. It requires that we think in complexity and that we turn our attention to developing new ways of thinking and doing skills with a wider range of individuals, groups and collectives with lived and local experience and have access to other ways of knowing.
Thank you for reading this far! My intention in this post is to explore the mess. These are my own thoughts and reflections. Paraphrased quotes are my own, based on conversations, and are not intended to ascribe a particular viewpoint to any person or organisation. This exploration can never be complete or inclusive, and is only a partial insight given the limitations of my human brain and the connections it can make! That said, it is increasingly difficult to find conversations about these complex challenges and how to cope in a world that appears to be increasingly bounded and siloed. My hope is that others who also live with this complexity can find insights, agency, and inspiration for the journey.
 Noted economist and Nobel Prize winner, Herman Daly, argued that sustainable growth is an oxymoron since we cannot grow our way out of ecological decline. Instead, in Beyond Growth: The economics of sustainable development, he argued in favour of an economy where the goal is qualitative development, not quantitative growth.
 The impact and intricacies of institutional thickness in tourism has been a thread of research and policy engagement for 20 years. See Local versus State-Driven Production of ‘The Region’ in New Regionalism in Australia; and Destination place identity and regional tourism policy.
 To be sure, there are criticisms of Shumpeter's work written over 80 years ago. He tended to oversimplify where innovation happens (it can happen in leading-edge companies not just in outliers). He also predicted that bureaucracy would squeeze out the individual entrepreneur and make innovation routine and subject to centralised management. Innovation theory and research have much to say about the shortfalls in Shumpeter's thinking, but it remains outside our post to summarise this body of work.