Sunday, October 21, 2012

Creative Resilience: The Next Sustainability for Tourism?

by Alan A. Lew – this is a brief summary of a paper that I am working on

'Sustainable development' has really only been around as a popular conceptual framework since the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) issued its report to the United Nations in 1987 (Hall & Lew, 2009).  Also known as the Brundtland Report, its goal was to define a global agenda to deal with the deterioration of natural and social environments. 

Today, 24 years later, sustainable development and sustainable tourism are widely accepted as appropriate philosophies upon which to base policy decisions and behavioral practice. Their wide acceptance is due, in part, to the flexibility used to interpret their meaning.  Unfortunately, that flexibility may have made both sustainable development and sustainable tourism meaningless.
Evidence for the failure of sustainable development is seen in many of the major news headlines of the past couple of years, including:
  1. Increasingly extreme climate events related to increasing atmospheric green house gasses (GHG).
  2. Increasing global population (reaching seven billion in 2011) putting more pressure on natural resources. 
  3. Increasing extreme geologic events (earthquakes and tsunamis), in part due to growing populations in dangerous locations.
  4. Economic recession and financial crises, especially in the US, the Eurozone and Japan.
All of these changes, among others, are taking place despite widespread commitments to sustainable development across the globe.  It appears that sustainable development in general, and sustainable tourism as one of its forms, has failed to meet the demands of contemporary society, and are even being overwhelmed by them. 

Resilience theory offers an alternative to the sustainable development paradigm.  Community resilience is the ability of a place to maintain a normal level of service in the face of periodic or unpredictable external shocks or system failures.  One way to think of the difference is that sustainable development tries to prevent the shock event from occurring (by behaving more responsible toward the environment and society), whereas resilience planning focuses more on the response and recovering after the shock event.

From a human settlement of community perspective, three general approaches to resilience planning have been suggested (Davoudi 2012): Engineering, Ecological and Transformational.  Engineering resilience is the ability to return to a normal equilibrium after a disturbance and emphasizes the efficiency and predictability of bouncing back. 

Ecological resilience is the ability to learn from an adverse event so as to be better prepared for future shocks, which may involve an alternative form of normalcy. Such learning includes institutional capacity building and understanding individual social capital opportunities and needs.  For example, the SARS epidemic decimated tourist arrivals in many Asian countries in 2003 because they were caught unprepared to address this type of catastrophe. Similar disease issues have arisen since that time, but policies and practices adopted since 2003 have successfully kept them mostly under control, protecting the tourism industry.  These practices include isolating travelers who are severely ill and regularly disinfecting elevators and other strategic locations in public places.

Engineering and ecological resilience represent the traditional goals of community resilience planning and both assume that there is a normal level of social equilibrium that can be achieved.  Most the new interest in climate change resilience has tends to focus on these traditional approaches. However, as community resilience planning has become more widely examined by social scientists and community planners, a third form of resilience has emerged.  It is define as the capacity of a community to invoke whole systems changes, reflecting different timelines and geographical scales, that evolve and create new adaptive models of response to changes in their natural and social environment (Planning Theory & Practice). I call this Creative resilience because resilient societies are those that are able to continuously re-create themselves to successfully adapt to an ever changing world. 

Three basic tenets of Creative resilience are:
  1. Disturbances range from large, sudden shocks to gradual and consistent shifts, from the unpredictable to the expected, and from the undesired to those that are welcome.
  2. Communities and people build resilience by continuously responding to disturbances in creative and adaptive ways.
  3. Creative capacity building is occurs through effective leadership, individual social capital, and institutional social learning.
To me, a resilience approach makes a lot more sense in today's world, with today's challenges, than does a sustainability approach.  While much of sustainability also supports resiliency, resilience planning is more directly related to the immediate challenges of a community in a real and practical manner.  Creative resilience also offers a wider range of possible responses and visionary futures than does sustainability, which is more narrowly focused on conservation approaches.

For tourism, does this mean that we will replace green certifications (such as Green Globe) with resilient certifications, or at least incorporate resilience into the certification criteria?  I think that we may actually see this some day, though not in the near term as resilience is still an emerging approach.

For tourism destinations, however, the question arises as to what is the more important and effective policy for local and regional funding and political support: sustainability or resilience? Instead of sustainable tourism, should we be promoting resilient tourism?  And what would resilient tourism look like?  

My own fieldwork in Asia indicates that the answer to this last question is very much dependent on the context and needs of the tourism entities involved.  Figure 1 shows how four generalized types of tourism settings based on the degree of disturbance (from gradual shift to sudden shock) and the scale of tourism (from private entrepreneurs to shared public interests) that are involved. 

 Figure 1

The Change Rate axis recognizes that people perceive and manage slow, but still significant, changes in the environment, culture and society than they do with sudden shocks to these systems.  In addition, the model recognizes that rates of change can be highly variable over time and at different social and geographic scales, which can require different modes of response.

Given the complexity of contemporary social challenges, a fully comprehensive approach to resilience planning is best approached from a creative resilience because it is the only approach that acknowledges and accepts the range of changes that a community faces.  From the perspective of the tourism industry, this means:
  • 1-      All tourism destinations face a range of change pressures, including environmental (changing natural resources), social (changing cultural resources) and economic (changing economic conditions).
  • 2-      Some pressures for change are apparent and predictable, while others are opaque and unpredictable.
  • 3-      Pressures for change occur at a variety of time lines (speeds) -- some are slow and gradual, while others require urgent responses.
  • 4-      Traditional sustainable tourism planning mostly addresses slow change issues. Engineering resilience planning mostly addresses major disruptions.
  • 5-      Pressures for change occur at a variety of geographic scales -- some only impact an individual entrepreneur, while others impact an entire community or cultural group.
  • 6-      Lower geographic scale issues need to be incorporated into resilience planning that occurs at higher geographic scales.
  • 7-      Common change issues in tourism destinations include the modification, deterioration or complete loss of: (1) tourism facilities and services; (2) environmental and cultural tourism resources; (3) tourist markets; and (4) skilled employees
  • 8-      A slow change pressures may be transformed into a sudden shock event if it passes a tolerance threshold (or breaking point).
  • 9-      Comprehensive resilience planning should incorporate the full range of change pressures that a community faces, and encourage creative and flexible response.
  • 10-   The tourism industry needs to be included in community resilience planning.

Reference Cited

Davoudi, S. (2012) Resilience: A Bridging Concept of a Dead End? Planning Theory & Practice, Vol. 13, No. 2, 299–333, June 2012 - 

Hall, C.M. and Lew, A.A. (2009). Understanding and Managing Tourism Impacts: An Integrated Approach. London: Routledge.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Easy and Hard Sustainability: Sustainable Tourism and Sustainable Cities

While almost everything I research and write about is tourism related, the classes that I actually teach at Northern Arizona University are mostly not tourism related, but are in urban and regional planning.  I have a master degree in urban planning and am a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners.  I also follow email lists for practicing planners, academic planners and tourism academics.

I try to bring my urban planning background to my tourism work, with my book Understanding and Managing Tourism Impacts: An Integrated Approach (Routledge, 2009) being the place where I have done that the most.  There is also a commentary that I wrote in 2007 on planning theory and tourism planning that you can download from the link below.  This blog post is based on that commentary, which was updated in a keynote presentation that I gave a few months ago at a conference on "Sustainable Urban Tourism" that was held in Hong Kong (2012) and which is also linked below.

My personal opinion is that urban planners have a much better understanding of the breadth of issues related to sustainable development than do tourism people.  In tourism, the main focus of sustainable development is on green certifications.  This checklist approach is what planners call a "functional" or "tame" problem. They tend to have clear goals, quantifiable results, and are not threatening in their implementation.  They are the easy challenges of sustainability, and include low carbon energy use, water conservation, waste recycling, open space protection, and low impact building practices.

There is, as you might suspect, another group of sustainable development problems that are much harder to resolve.  Planners refer to these as "substantive" or "wicked" problems, and they tend to involve vague goals, subjective attitudes, and political decisions that threaten particular interest groups.  Examples of wicked sustainability issues that relate to tourism development include changing human behavior to improve air and water quality, increasing quality of life opportunities and political empowerment for low income communities, and protecting living cultures without destroying their sense of place through commodification and museumization.

Urban planners have developed tools to use with communities to address wicked problems.  These mostly center on citizen participation techniques, and there are many substantive approaches that may be employed.  A big difference between tourism and urban planning, of course, is that tourism tends to be more private sector and business oriented, while urban planning tends to be more public welfare oriented. 

However, these orientations are not exclusive, as tourism is often seen as an economic development opportunity for both private businesses and communities in general, as well as having potential positive impacts on environmental and cultural conservation.  Just how tourism can do that in a truly sustainable manner, beyond the easy sustainability of green certifications, requires a greater awareness on the part of tourism industry leaders and managers, as well as many tourism researchers, of how this is  being done in disciplines outside of tourism itself.


Lew, Alan A. (2007Tourism Planning and Traditional Urban Planning Theory: Planners as Agents of Social Change. Leisure/Loisir: Journal of the Canadian Association of Leisure Studies 31(2):383-392. (pre-publication version)

Lew, Alan A. (2012) Planning Theory, Sustainable Cities and Sustainable Tourism. Keynote presenation at the Sustainable Tourism in Urban Environments Conference, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, 20-22 April 2012. DRAFT Pre-Conference Working Copy (.pdf)

Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Challenge of Benchmarking Tourism's Global Economic Value

In 2008, I posted on this blog: "Tourism is Not the World's Largest Industry" -- which actually came from my book: Understanding and Managing Tourism Impacts: An Integrated Approach (with C.Michael Hall, 2009, Routledge, UK).  That post has been one of the most visited on my blog.

I see today that the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) has recently commissioned a study to, yet again, prove to policy makers that tourism is a really big deal (see their press release here: Travel and tourism larger industry than automotive manufacturing; and on more on the website here - they have a couple of ppt files on their site that details their findings, though as usual, the methodology is fuzzy, at best).

The problem is that the co-called "tourism industry" is so diverse that almost any activity remotely related to travel and hospitality can be considered all or part of it.  The WTTC tends to use the Tourism Satellite Accounting System to "guestimate" how much each sector of an economy contributes to tourism -- and this really is just a guess!  In addition, the Tourism Satellite Accounting System is inherently unsuitable for comparison across political boundaries (beyond a single country) and across different industries.  Each of those transgressions involves exponentially greater guesswork.  Also, comparing service industries to manufacturing is wrought with challenges and is not recommended by the WTO (World Trade Organization), which compiles most of the international trade data for the world.  (I know, I did make this last transgression myself in my original blog post on the topic, but at least I admit that it is a fundamental flaw in my analysis.) 

Anyway ... yes, I fully agree that tourism is a huge global economic activity that just continues to grow despite economic upheavals across the globe.  However, I caution everyone to be careful in accepting the illusion of hard number results from any study that tries to compare tourism economic activities with other industries at a global or even regional scale. 

(Cross-posted at

Saturday, April 07, 2012

The Top 10 Dive Destinations in the World -- Really!

I just finished writing a book chapter on the World Geography of Scuba Diving for a book that a friend is putting together on recreation dive tourism. One of the things that I did for that chapter was to look at 15 online lists of "the top ten dive sites in the world".

Taken at Pulau Sapi (Sapi Island) very close to Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia.

Here is my list of the World's Top 10 Dive Destinations that comes from my combining 15 lists created by other people. (A longer version of this list will appear in the book when it comes out.)


1) Australia (S Pacific) -10- Great Barrier Reef, Heron Island
1) Indonesia (SE Asia) -10- Sulawesi, Raja Ampat
1) Mexico (M America) -10- Baja California, Riviera Maya and Cozumel
1) Thailand (SE Asia) -10- Koh Tao Island, Phuket Island

5) Malaysia (SE Asia) -9- Sipadan Island, Mabul Island
5) Egypt (Africa/M East) -9- Ras Mohammed Nat. Park, Red Sea (south)

7) Belize (M America) -8- Barrier Reef Reserve, Great Blue Hole
8) Fiji (S Pacific) -7-
9) Ecuador (S America) -6- Galapagos Islands

10) USA - Hawaii (C Pacific) -5- Kona Coast
10) Maldives (Indian Ocean) -5-
10) Micronesia, F.S (S Pacific) -5- Chuuk (Truk) Lagoon

OK. So my list is more than 10, due to so many ties.  But let me explain it.

The top four countries that tied for first place were each listed on 10 of the 15 lists that I looked at.  No country appeared on more than 10 of the lists, indicating how variable these lists are.  Malaysia, which is where I am currently living, appeared on 9 of the lists, as did Egypt.

To the right of the listings number are any specific sites that might have been mentioned more than once.  Lists tend to combine countries (like the Maldives and Fiji) and destinations (such as the Kona Coast or Sipidan).   My list is based on countries.  Dive destinations are shown only if they appeared on two different lists or more.  So Maui, which appeared on only one of the 15 lists, did not make it onto the list above.

I took this photo of a pregnant pygmy seahorse at Lembeh Strait, near Manado on Sulawesi Island, Indonesia.

Personally, even though I included top dive destinations from both the US and UK, I think the results are a bit biased.  Based on other data I used for the book chapter, I believe that Australia, Indonesia, Mexico and Belize may be ranked a little too high and Pacific Island countries area little too low.

Australia, Indonesia and Mexico are all far larger in land area and coastlines than any of the other countries on this top ten list. (The mainland US and Canada were in the top 25, but not the top 10.)  This gives them an advantage in that they have many more dive sites, as well as dive sites from widely different parts of their country.  Mexico and Belize are boosted by their close proximity to the very large US diver market, which puts them on more top dive lists than they otherwise might be.  On the other hand, the Pacific island countries may be a bit lower because they are so remote from both North America and Europe (the second largest dive market).  Many, but not all, of the top 10 dive spot lists are written for specific diver markets, such as the US, the UK or Australia.

In addition, I doubt that very many Americans get to Egypt's Red Sea to dive, as I almost never see it in articles or advertisements in the dive magazines in the US.  However, it still ranked quite high on this list.  I believe that this is because it is such an important dive destinations for the UK and Europe in general.  The Red Sea is the closest tropical-like coral reef destination for Europe.

All of these destinations are in warm water regions of the world.  Europe does not appear at all, not even on the full list of  25 countries that I ended up with.  Colder water dive sites, in general, only occasionally appear on top 10 diving lists that I reviewed. I wonder why? ;-)

I have personally dived at five of the places on this list, and snorkeled at one more of them.  One of the problems is that any one dive spot, no matter how fantastic it is, may not be that great on the day that you are there due to water and weather conditions.  Thus, my one day diving experience at the Great Barrier Reef was not very memorable, in part because a large cyclone a couple of months earlier had covered a lot of the coral with muck.

Still, I love scuba diving, and I love the Asia-Pacific region -- and I now have a (growing) list of places that I need to visit!!!

You can read how I got lost on my last dive just last week at :  

Monday, March 26, 2012

Memorable Places: Hanoi

This was recently posting on my Travelography blog, where I talk about my personal travels.  I thought it might be of interest to readers here, as well....

Hanoi: How to Make a Place Memorable

... We left Hanoi feeling really good.  We thoroughly enjoyed the city and felt like it was a place that we both wanted to visit again some day.  Part of that was the great walking and exploring opportunities of the Hanoi's Old Quarter.  Being able to "explore", "discover" and be "surprised" is a really important part of a good tourist experience.

The other key to our very positive experience of Hanoi, however, was the friendliness and hospitality of the people we encountered.  Not just one person, though Mr. Anh really stood out, but also so many of the other people we encountered.   Homer was so right when he wrote that “A guest never forgets the host who had treated him kindly.”

For more, go to:

Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi, at night

Saturday, March 03, 2012

Travel Hungry? Look at this....

I have long felt that a lot of the research coming out of the neurosciences these days can inform our understanding of tourism and tourist behavior.  I also know that a lot of that research is controversial with results that are probably overstated.  With that caveat, though, I saw a recent article in 'Science Daily' that discussed research on how "what's going on inside our head affects our senses. For example, poorer children think coins are larger than they are, and hungry people think pictures of food are brighter." (Science Daily, 3 March 2012)

Here's looking at you -- at a morning wet market in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia. (photo by Alan A. Lew)
The research found that when words were flashed very fast on a screen (too fast to read, but slow enough to imprint on the brain), "Hungry people saw the food-related words as brighter and were better at identifying [the] food-related words" when shown on a list after they were flashed.

So what this research shows is that our perceptions increase toward items that our body wants or needs.  How does this relate to tourism?

Tourism scholars have long pondered what motivates people to want to travel, and especially what motivates them to travel to certain types of destinations.  Coastal and island destinations, for example, hold particular attraction as travel destinations for a broad spectrum of people.  Culinary diversity, family kinships, ethnic and national identities, and architectural wonders are among the many other attraction types that we want to see and experience.

So if food hunger enhances our senses toward food, what does our selection of attractions tell us about what we are lacking, or hungry for, in our day to day lives?  Because that is what is guiding our attention to travel magazine, tv shows and advertisements.

And while we are on a trip, what do the things we do, the photos we take (I will take several hundred photos of an interesting place), and the many other choices that we make say about our motivations and needs?

And finally, why are these so different from one person to the next?

These are the kinds of questions that get tourism researchers excited. ... Wow, look at that!


Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Have Blog, Will Travel

I have been “on the road” for just over a month now. I received a Fulbright research grant to spend six months in Malaysia studying coastal tourism development. The first month was a whirlwind tour that included about a week each in Kuala Lumpur, Kota Kinabalu (mostly house hunting), Singapore (for Chinese New Year), and a road trip from Johor Bahru to Kuala Terengganu (one of my research sites). We have had some amazing experiences and living a life that makes many of my friends quite envious (though not in a bad way).

A few friends have asked me if I was going to post photos or blog. As usual, I have been taking a lot of photos. I average about 200 photos a day that I keep (out of the many more that I take) when I am visiting new places. Normally, I do try to post some photos and blog some about my experiences. However, that does take time, and for me, that time usually comes at the expense of sleep. This time, my wife has a request from her friends to post photos of our trip on Facebook, so I have been letting her do that. Occasionally I will share those so that my friends can see them, as well.

Now that I am settled into my semi-permanent home in Kota Kinabalu, I guess I do not have any more excuses for not blogging about our trip – and trying to get a few photos posted. Which raises a question in my mind about why — why do I feel the compulsion to blog, or two write in general. During this past month I gave two presentations on researching, writing and publishing tourism research (at two universities). And, as usual, I mention my passion for writing, and how much I enjoy writing. Not everyone has that passion, though most people in academia these days are under pressure to write and publish.

I think the desire to write, whether it be an book, journal article or blog post, meets to important human needs. The first is the desire to connect with other people – the people who read our writings. Even if we do not know them, we still get satisfaction from reaching out, with a degree of trust and optimism that someone will listen and be appreciative. The second is the desire for introspection. Writing requires thinking through thoughts and exploring ideas that would otherwise lie dormant in one’s mind. Putting them on paper makes them more concrete, forges new thought connections, and gives a sense of self discovery and existential creativity.

Travel also gives the potential for discovery and existential creative experiences. Writing about our travels, therefore, brings us full circle in a journey of understanding that includes both the outside world and our inside world. Writing about our travels also brings us full circle in connecting our known home (and friends) to our new places (and new friends).

Not everyone has the need to do this, but a lot of people do, resulting in the popularity of Facebook, Twitter, and specialty travel blogging and comment websites. It may also have to something to do with the proliferation of academic journals on tourism – over 160 of which currently exist!

You can follow my escapades in Malaysia by going to :

This blog is cross-posted at: