Litoral storm (Lluís Rovira Barenys/

Background and hypothesis

Some important info about the project background, initial hypothesis and overall aims, and bibliography.


The main achievement of our previous research project funded by the Spanish Research Plan (POLITUR CSO2017-82156-R – was to understand the role of mobilities as a generative cause for societal, urban and environmental change in tourism destinations. Until the COVID-19 disruption, tourism has grown at an unprecedented pace. Factors such as the intensification of economic globalisation, market de-regulation and financialisation of economies, as well as the rise of low-cost travel, short-term rental digital platforms, and the extensive adoption of tourism as a strategy for economic growth since the 2008 global financial crisis all constitute evidence that nowadays, tourism is a fundamental dimension of practically every kind of place, with a significant part of the population in many countries and regions living in so-called tourism destinations (Coles & Hall, 2006). Nonetheless, as a component of global corporate capitalism and as a complex system with multiple highly interconnected and interdependent social and technical elements co-evolving, recent tourism development has created dynamic economic processes while intensifying new global and local challenges in spheres such as social and gender exclusion, inequalities, mobility patterns and climate emergency also contributing extensively to carbon emissions (Gössling & Higham, 2020).

Additionally, tourism travel and tourism destinations are facing the transformations caused by climate change and resulting effects on markets, operations and mobilities of the increasing transition towards a low carbon productive system. Destinations are also impacted and will be even more affected by the generalised erosion of living standards in many parts of the world after the last financial global crisis, currently exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the persistence of long-term trends in inequalities (socio-economic, gender, spatial, ethnic or others). These topics all relate to the general issue of sustainability of tourism destinations and their vulnerability, adaptability and resilience.

The UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development sets a series of sustainable development goals (SDGs) “to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all” by 2030. Even though the Agenda only mentions tourism three times (Hall, 2019), to address such issues it is essential to design the project highlighting its notable interest for the SDG11 for sustainable, resilient, inclusive and safe cities (destinations). Nevertheless, six additional SDGs are addressed within ADAPTOUR proposal: SDG3 -Good Health and Well-being, SDG5-Gender Equality, SDG8-Decent Work and Economic Growth, SDG10-Reducing Inequality, SDG12-Responsible Consumption and Production and SDG13-Climate Action.

Analysis of destination transformations, vulnerability, adaptability and resilience requires conceptual and analytically complex, non-linear and non-deterministic models. One such fertile approach is provided by evolutionary economics geography (EEG) (Boschma & Lambooy, 1999). Key concepts in EEG, especially path dependence/creation and institutional inertia/innovation are useful in understanding the co-evolution of destinations as complex places, where paths emerge interacting in a complex environment at the regional and global level (Sanz & Anton Clavé, 2014). As a result, every destination, framed by its specific geographical, socioeconomic and cultural conditions, the negotiation power of the local community and the subgroups within them; the physical and social morphology, the quality and degree of penetration of enabling technologies, and the extent of public leadership in governance regimes develop and implement specific policy responses as solutions to challenges such as the current global change and economic transition (Bornioli et al., 2020).

Complexity theory is one of the three theoretical pillars on which EEG has developed, together with path dependence and generalized Darwinism. Martin and Sunley (2015) argue that to understand the development places fully, analyses must be multi-scalar, not restricted to self-contained industry and interdependent character. Complexity is about open systems, which means that a system should be understood within its environment and the complex relations that give it context including vulnerability, adaptability and resilience (Colchester, 2016).

As clearly evidenced by the COVID-19 pandemics, the link between resilience and tourism is a significant issue, because disruptions are multiple, ranging from climate and natural environment to political crises, sanitary disasters, terrorist attacks, and industrial risks (Fabry & Zeghni, 2019). In the context of evolutionary research, resilience, a concept derived from disaster studies challenging the approach based on sustainability in the analysis of the transformation of socio-economic systems (Vale & Campanella, 2005, Mehmood, 2016), is particularly adequate as a conceptual framework for the analysis of how complex destinations can face the challenges of the present era of social, economic and environmental transformations.

Moreover, a resilience framework is a solid way to embrace the political dimension of complex destinations transformations: firstly, because resilience studies are progressively turning from the bounce-back-ability of the examined system to its capacity for ‘bouncing forward’ to a more sustainable state (Shaw, 2012), questioning and challenging the “profound inequality” on which the previous state was built upon (Vale, 2014), and, secondly, because the hegemonic struggle between different groups for the definition of resilience criteria (Paidakaki & Moullaert 2017) nuances a ‘politics of resilience’, in which it is key to unravel implicit answers to questions such as “resilience for whom and against what?” (Vale, 2014, 191).

Whereas in the specific field of tourism studies the concept of resilience has largely focused on the capacity of recovery of the tourism industry in the aftermath of catastrophic events or long-term incremental shifts (Lew, 2013), the ADAPTOUR interest in evolutionary complex destination resilience extends to its capacity to evolve towards and be resilient with fair conditions of socio-spatial justice and prosperity, healthy mobilities, climate emergency mitigation, low carbon engagement and social and gender equality. This is at stake in the context of the lock-ins that many complex destinations are facing, because of either internal processes of over-specialisation or external dynamics of social, economic and environmental transformation. By extension, ADAPTOUR understands resilience as to the ability of a complex destination to shape sustainable change via constant innovation and learning (Hudson, 2010) in order to gain capacity of adjustment and adaptation to overcome vulnerability and increase adaptability (Simmie & Martin, 2010).

As stated by Colchester (2016), “adaptive systems are those that are governed by some control or regulatory mechanism that allows them to change their state in response to changes within their environment”. They are interconnected and interdependent, creating a continuously changing environment including reactive and proactive capacities that generate a continuous trade-off between stability and flexibility. In regional studies, this means “the ability of a region to anticipate, prepare for, respond to and recover from a disturbance” (Foster, 2012, 29). The challenge for a destination is, thus, to set up governance tools in a context of constant change and learning, becoming resilience-oriented when thinking, preparing, acting, governing and performing (Fabry & Zeghni, 2019). As such, adaptability is a continuous process that from an evolutionary perspective must continually involve all destination stakeholders in a complex dynamic that includes societal change.

According to Hall (2019) this situation brings the need “to rethink human–environment relations given the mistaken belief that the exertion of more effort and greater efficiency will alone solve problems of sustainable tourism”. Following Brouder (2000) “a path that leads to transformation in tourism can be realized if sufficient institutional innovation occurs on both the demand and supply side of tourism that can foster the emergence of new paths.” To do so, there is the need to investigate how tourism and especially, tourism destinations, are able to adapt (or in which cases they are not) to the present era of social, economic and environmental transformations. To advance in this direction, an important question to reflect on is how tourism destinations could respond to this global, intense and transversal transformation clearly driven by the new low-carbon imperative. Tourism destinations are, in fact, in the forefront of the challenge (Prideaux et al, 2020) either as generators of carbon footprint and as places affected by the social, economic and entrepreneurial change trends deriving from the low carbon transition. Following Gösling et al (2020), then, this project analyses challenges, vulnerabilities, adaptability and transformations in particular tourism destinations and explores the foremost role that agency-driven tools in digital technology, communication and governance domains may play in building sustainable, prosperous and resilient tourism destinations.

Initial Hypothesis and overall aims

ADAPTOUR adopts the hypothesis that global processes generate new vulnerabilities in tourism destinations stimulating new co-evolutionary local human agency processes related to the current global urban transition, the transformation of mobility systems, the effects of climate change and emerging new social exclusion dynamics in order to stimulate their resilience. As previously mentioned, this is situated within the context of the digitalisation of spatial destination management and intelligence tools, the renewal of strategic destination positioning and the design of new models of governance with enhanced social responsibility awareness.

When dealing with vulnerability and adaptability, ADAPTOUR analyses, mostly in Work Package One, the extent to which alternative approaches to development will have specific implications for tourism destinations and will define how those destinations would contribute to it. These alternative approaches should be understood in the emerging context of accelerated societal transformation, behavioural changes and transformations in investment patterns as well as concerns over climate change and transition towards low carbon economy (Sharpley, 2020).

Emergence is a key concept in complex adaptive systems as it describes how global patterns can emerge from local level interaction and, most importantly, how can result in novel and unpredictable phenomena as the system evolves overtime (Colchester, 2016). Significantly, within this evolutionary dynamics, each destination develops its own evolutionary process, providing complexity at a larger scale. In this vein, the previously cited global challenges are generating huge impacts in the dynamics of local complex destinations including urban transformations, mobilities pattern reconfiguration, environmental problems due to the climate emergency and social and gender effects, inducing new policies and actions. Therefore, Work Package Two will deal with complex destination transformations in the continuous reconfiguration of the urban condition (e.g. López Gay et al, 2020), the shift towards new mobilities regimes (Cresswell, 2006), the adoption of adaptive and mitigation strategies facing the climate emergency (e.g. Santos, 2019) and the destinations’ social transitions, with a spatial emphasis on the current role of tourism in stimulating both prosperity and social exclusion or even ‘invisibilisation’ (Manderscheid, 2009).

The institutional environment and, by extension, the overall political orientation of the destination will thus influence its social dynamics and productive, social, and ideological relationships. This necessitates a nuanced understanding of the agency tools that destinations put in place in the technological, communication and governance domains that may produce substantial variations as regards its vulnerability and resilience. It is for this reason that Work Package Three will analyse smart tools for a systemic resilience agenda, communication and branding strategies and responsible and resilient destination governance regimes (Gretzel & Scarpino Johns, 2018; Vale & Campanella, 2005). All in all, in so doing, the ADAPTOUR project seeks to stimulate new important questions regarding the present and the future of tourism destinations and the role of tourism in our contemporary society and space. Empirical observations, theoretical discussions, critical insights and practical expertise could assist a responsible transition towards a sustainable transformation and increase resilience of destinations in the current social, economic and environmental scenario.


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