Recovery to Resilience: Sustainable Pathways for Transforming Tourism Conference
In mid-September 2023, the conference "Recovery to Resilience in Tourism: Sustainable Pathways for Transforming Tourism" took place in Johannesburg, South Africa. The late spring climate provided an optimistic backdrop, creating an ideal setting for discussions on renewal and transformation in the tourism sector after its recent global setbacks. Organised by the School of Tourism and Hospitality at the University of Johannesburg and the University of Oulu, the event aimed to explore strategies for building resilience and sustainability, while also critically examining the meanings of these often nebulous concepts within both academia and industry. This dual focus added a layer of complexity and depth to the conversations.
Tourism has been historically recognised as a resilient economic sector, showing consistent growth since the 1950s and significantly contributing to global economies. For example, in 2019 alone, the industry employed 1.5 million individuals in South Africa. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the sector's vulnerabilities, drawing attention to additional challenges such as climate change and geopolitical instabilities. The conference, therefore, served as a clarion call for innovative thinking across multiple dimensions: research methodologies, educational curricula, policy formulation, and governance models, all aimed at bolstering resilience and encouraging sustainability.
Spanning two days, the conference featured four keynotes, 16 sessions, and over 70 presentations. It provided a comprehensive platform for academic discourse, including robust discussions on a wide array of issues. Prior to the main event, a PhD workshop titled "Thinking Theories and Methodologies in Tourism and Hospitality Research" was led by Professors Robin Nunkoo and Jarkko Saarinen. Hosted in the great facilities of the Bunting Road Campus, personally, the workshop offered not only a preparatory and contextual framework but also an invaluable opportunity for recently graduated PhD researchers and current PhD students. Participants were able to present their work, receiving constructive feedback and benefiting from a supportive peer network, all aimed at fostering academic growth and collaboration.
During the conference, a range of topics aimed at dissecting and fortifying resilience and sustainability within the tourism sector were explored. Prominent themes included the impacts of climate and environmental changes, as well as niche areas like eco-, adventure-, and nature-based tourism. Community-centric models, resilience, and recovery strategies for the tourism sector were also examined. Additionally, the conference dealt with technological advancements for sustainable tourism, the relationship between food and tourism, and governance models. There were also enriching discussions around pedagogical frameworks for nurturing a more sustainable and resilient future within the industry.
My three key takeaways from the conference centred around distinct yet interconnected themes. Firstly, what could be described as a "geographies of resilience" theme encapsulated the idea of spatial inequality in resilience across various tourist destinations—an idea vividly elaborated on by Gustav Visser’s keynote on the second day of the conference. His keynote underscored the resilience of the industry, particularly its rapid recovery post-COVID and enduring relevance amid broader socio-environmental challenges. Secondly, the conference highlighted what might be considered as a relevant post-COVID afterthought: the need for southern Africa to invest in domestic tourism products to offset the imbalance created by an overreliance on international tourism. Lastly, the conference illustrated the varied and sometimes ambiguous interpretations of "resilience" within the tourism field. Discussions underscored that tourism does not function in isolation; it is inextricably linked to larger societal and environmental challenges, notably climate change.
In this vein, there is an urgent need for a more integrated and operational approach to sustainability within the industry. This is a point that resonates in both South African and Finnish contexts. Therefore, there is significant work ahead, both in the Global South and the North, to clarify the essence of resilience and how it can contribute to a more sustainable tourism sector, destinations, and societies in the face of ongoing environmental challenges. Perhaps, a standout outcome of the conference was the palpable consensus on the need for more multidisciplinary research in tourism. This shared understanding underscored the importance of learning from, translating, and developing new ideas outside traditional neighbour disciplines of tourism studies. Indeed, such a holistic approach is essential for addressing the intricate challenges facing the industry today, and for driving it toward greater sustainability enhancing resilience of the tourism sector.