Purpose: This paper aims to analyse the most significant disruptive events affecting tourism during the twenty-first century, particularly the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic. Design/methodology/approach: Based on a thorough literature review, this study takes a complexity science approach to the field of tourism to shed light on the challenges of disruptive events in tourism systems. Findings: Focusing on the COVID-19 pandemic, in particular, this study acknowledges that disruptive events are complex and have tremendous impacts on several areas of society: people’s psychological well-being and the health-care system, as well as social, economic, cultural, technological, environmental and political dimensions. Whether they occur alone or interact, these dimensions add varying levels of complexity to the tourism system. In response, the tourism industry can adopt a resilience model as a crisis management tool to address disruptive events affecting this field. Research limitations/implications: As this paper is mainly theoretical, future empirical research will contribute to refining the findings and testing the usefulness of the proposed model. Practical implications: The paper looks at examples of successful and unsuccessful of COVID-19 outbreak management in various countries to analyse issues such as crisis management, resilience and tools for coping with the impacts of disruptive events. Originality/value: This theoretical paper proposes a first taxonomy of the multidimensional impacts of twenty-first-century disruptive events on tourism and dissects the phases of crisis management, with a corresponding conceptual model.