Resilience and Sustainability in Tourism

Key Factors for Resilience and Sustainability in Tourism Businesses

(Updated on 19 Dec 2022) For organizations and businesses, resilience is a key part of what makes them stronger, and better prepared to respond to and recover from shocks, including - but NOT limited to - external shocks like a pandemic. To become resilient, businesses need both good planning and operational approaches ("hard factors"), and good people and relationship management approaches ("soft factors").
Antje Martins
Antje Martins

Researcher at University of Queensland Business School

Ayako Ezaki
Ayako Ezaki

Director of Training Strategy and Development at TrainingAid

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Resilience: What do we know?

The concept of resilience - defined as "the ability to become strong, healthy, or successful again after something bad happens" - is often associated with mental health, physical health, healing power of nature, knowledge and wisdom. It's what enables us, as individuals, to better respond to and bounce back from external shocks.

For organizations (such as tourism businesses), the concept of resilience is a key part of what makes them stronger, and better prepared to respond to and recover from shocks including - but NOT limited to - external shocks like a pandemic.

In short, organizational resilience refers to an organization’s ability to:

  • Persist and withstand external environmental changes (Preparation)
  • Mitigate and cope with negative effects caused by the changes (Response)
  • Bounce forward to a new state for better future performance (Recovery)

Source: "Building tourism organizational resilience to crises and disasters: A dynamic capabilities view" (Jiang, Ritchie & Vereynne, 2019)

Understanding, anticipating and preparing for various internal and external risks should be a core part of any organization's strategy and operational management. Knowing what changes can be expected, as well as understanding what responses are needed when those changes materialize, will help organizations better cope with and recover from changes, shocks and crises. 

Key Factors for Business Resilience

To become resilient, businesses need both good planning and operational approaches ("hard factors"), and good people and relationship management approaches ("soft factors").

The hard factors are those influencing business practices in a direct and fundamental way, and can be identified, measured, and analyzed:

  • Understanding available resources
  • Planning and processes

The soft factors are those elements that may be more complicated to define, because they involve people. These are what make an organization stronger in the long term, and better prepared to react to / recover from an external shock.

  • Culture and leadership
  • Human capital
  • Partnerships
  • Consistent information and communication
  • Flexibility in processes and resource use

While risk assessment, measurement and management are an important part of preparedness, resilience is not just about understanding and mitigating risks. Resilience also requires effectively responding to changes and adapting to new situations. So for ensuring long-term resilience, investing in "soft" factors is just as important as planning and preparation. 

Related to some of the key resilience factors, below are several ideas, examples and lessons for tourism businesses.

Culture and Leadership for Business Resilience

The culture of your organization is built through your efforts on a daily basis, not just in response to external shocks and crises. It's your leadership during the normal times that enables your team to be resilient in times of crisis.

  • Take care of your people! Make caring for each other a core part of how you run your business every day, not just when there is a crisis.
  • Practice inclusive leadership. Work with your team members to find suitable solutions, and empower them to innovate and adapt to different situations.
  • Know your (and your organization’s) strengths, and be ready to apply your skills in new ways.

And here is a great example of how a culture of inclusive, caring and compassionate leadership can help a business survive a crisis but also find a meaningful way of thriving through a difficult time. Ecolodges Indonesia, an accommodation and wildlife experience provider with a strong focus on conservation, like all tourism businesses in 2020, was forced to make tough decisions as the company's survival was at stake.

Source: Ecolodges Indonesia, June 2020

Instead of letting go of some of the staff members (who are all from local communities), the staff teams across different locations came together and decided to stick together as a whole family, "to remain one compact group [accepting] massive wages cuts and part-time employment." To support the staff's decision to weather the pandemic storm together, despite facing a prolonged period of uncertainty, the company also established two new activities to try and obtain additional income – Agriculture and Conservation.

While the staff's decision to accept pay cuts to preserve everyone's employment was a response to an extraordinary situation, what led to such a decision was not just an extraordinary crisis response, but also years of work developing and investing in a culture of caring for each other, and creating an inclusive organization where each staff member feel a sense of belonging.

Investing in Human Capital for Business Resilience

Ensuring the people who work in tourism are healthy and happy is a key part of a healthy recovery and development of our industry, and of making tourism more resilient.

Keeping these in mind, to become more resilient, tourism businesses should:

  • Acknowledge challenges and show compassion. Consider compassion, mindfulness and commitment to employee happiness as key requirements for those in leadership roles.
  • Help normalize talking about mental health. If the shared experience of COVID19 made it possible for many organizations to be more proactive in addressing mental health, let's make sure we keep this awareness post-pandemic.
  • Work with experts. As in many other aspects of sustainability, you can’t (and don’t need to) have all the answers and solutions on your own. Find mental health specialists and well-being experts to help strengthen your efforts in these areas.

The British Columbia Tourism Resiliency Network is a great example of tourism industry players facilitating connections and creating opportunities to support tourism businesses navigate various challenges, including mental health and well being, dealing with economic stress, and adapting to new and changing environments.

Source: British Columbia Tourism Resiliency Network (Dec, 2020)

In one of the Network’s programs, for example, an expert from the regional branch of the ​Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) provided free guidance on how tourism professionals may deal with stressful and potentially triggering situations, by understand how to look at any particular challenging situations and knowing what is and is not under one’s circle of control; re-evaluating goals and milestones in a way that realistically reflects the new situation; knowing how to safely reach out and seek help; and building personal resilience.

Foster Partnerships to Support Resilience 

Cultivating positive relationships with your community members and industry colleagues is a key part of working on the resilience "soft factors". As many people and organizations experienced during the pandemic, the goodwill of business partners, supporters, past and future clients, and other stakeholders can go a long way in supporting the health of your business, especially in times of need.

And as with the other “soft factors” of resilience, strong partnerships are not something you can create as a crisis response; you need a long-term commitment to fostering positive relationships and promoting collaboration.  

To work on building partnerships that support your business resilience:

  • Be a good partner to others (during good and bad times). Be ready to provide support when needed, and contribute your time, know-how, and connections to help uplift others. That’s what partners are for!
  • Build on the foundation of trusted networks of your partners and collaborators to prepare for and effectively respond to crisis situations.
  • Reimagine collaboration, and be creative about how partnerships can help support and enhance community values.

For more real-life examples and related resources, see the webinar recording: Resilience for Tourism Businesses (recorded Dec 2021).

What does it mean for tourism businesses to take concrete steps to become more resilient, strengthening both sustainability and competitiveness in the long term? Watch and learn more!

So What's Resilience Got To Do With Sustainability?

Resilience, in addition to immediate responses to particular crises, requires long-term commitment to a more sustainable way of doing business - through inclusive and compassionate leadership; through championing and health and happiness of the people we work with; and through commitment to positive relationships.

These resilience factors that are key to your business effectively preparing for, responding to and recovering from crises are also part of good sustainability management that ensures your sustainability efforts are successful and - aptly but unsurprisingly, sustainable.

A very good example that demonstrates this interconnected nature of resilience and sustainability can be found in the realm of regenerative agriculture, or agroecology (agricultural practices that prioritize working with nature). Holistic approaches to farming practices that take into account local ecological processes, natural and organic systems, and socio-cultural contexts are not only environmentally sustainable, but also much more resilient than conventional farming that relies on machines and chemicals.

In various locations around the world, climate change-induced extreme weather events (such as hurricanes and droughts) have devastated agricultural lands. In many such cases, conventional farming has failed to come back, while agroecology farms can be less likely to be destroyed by natural disasters and much more likely to be able to bounce back when affected by disasters.

So in agroecology, investing in the long-term health of the soil and ecosystems, and prioritizing them over short-term profit, pays off.  

For tourism businesses, similarly, investing in the long-term health of the organization and its communities (staff members, local communities, industry partners) can both help strengthen the business resilience and support sustainability objectives.

Having good management practices in place is critical to tourism businesses being sustainable and competitive. If you're interested in building a solid foundation of management practices at your own organization, learn how you can develop and implement a sustainability management system for your tourism business by taking our course, "Sustainability Management for Tourism Businesses".