The impact of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami on coastal tourism communities highlights the vulnerability of tourism destinations to external shocks. Based on fieldwork conducted in Thailand in the wake of this disaster, this paper addresses one fundamental question: what sociopolitical and environmental conditions contributed to the vulnerability of the affected tourism community of Khao Lak in the southern Phang Nga Province. We argue that an understanding of the root causes of destination vulnerability is vital not only for the successful implementation of regional recovery plans, but also for building long-term resilience against future shocks. In the absence of an appropriate tourism vulnerability framework, this paper analyzes Khao Lak's vulnerability through an innovative theoretical framework comprised of the sustainability vulnerability framework, relational scale and place. The findings reveal that Khao Lak's vulnerability is shaped by 13 interlinked factors. These are the complex outcomes of social norms and developmental and dynamic governance processes driven by the competing agendas and scaled actions of key government and industry stakeholders. The identification and understanding of the drivers of Khao Lak's vulnerability and a strong vulnerability framework have significant implications for the wider tourism community. First, the empirical findings provide tourism communities with a blueprint for understanding the foundations of their vulnerability to external shocks. Second, the tourism vulnerability framework presented here provides destination communities and government stakeholders with an analytical tool through which to analyze their unique sociopolitical conditions. Together, these empirical and theoretical contributions bring us closer to securing sustainable livelihood futures for tourism dependent communities.