Climate change drives tourism studies to chart a new course

Some traditional marketing-focused courses replaced by programmes emphasising environmental studies and social responsibility

December 18, 2019
University of Iceland tourism students
University of Iceland tourism students

Busloads of tourists disembark along the Reynisfjara black sand beach to watch as ocean waves crash against the otherworldly rock formations.

Most have travelled here from Reykjavik, stopping along the two-hour drive to view stunning waterfalls and other exotic scenery, including glaciers that are receding as the climate warms.

That leads some to wonder about the carbon footprint of their buses, the retreat of those glaciers and other issues that transcend the rather more limited interests of previous generations of tourists.

The tourism industry on this geologically, environmentally and historically complex island each year takes in almost seven times as many visitors as Iceland has residents, and has expanded so fast that it faces a demand for individuals with the expertise to handle such a wide diversity of enquiries.

Historically, tourism education has been dominated by culinary and hospitality schools that are broadly vocational. Now, however, more sophisticated interdisciplinary tourism studies programmes are cropping up here and in other places to produce the graduates the modern industry needs.

Tourism companies “are realising this more and more, that it’s valuable to have somebody who is critical and can crunch data, make decisions and be creative. It’s all those skills and competencies that are important,” said Gunnar Þór Jóhannesson, an anthropologist and head of geography and tourism studies at the University of Iceland.

Students in its programme are immersed in not only such traditional subjects as marketing and accounting but also geography, history, cultural and environmental studies, social responsibility and literature, up to the doctoral level. There is a tourism research centre on the Reykjavik campus, and its walls are decorated with maps and photos of the island’s extraordinary natural beauty.

All this is part of a slow but noteworthy evolution, worldwide, in tourism education.

“We expect our hospitality managers to understand sustainability [and] gender equity. I think a lot of that will definitely have to be part of the future of hospitality,” said Nigel Morgan, head of the School of Hospitality and Tourism Management at the University of Surrey. “It isn’t just about how to manage a spreadsheet and balance an account.”

Much of this is driven by the size of the tourism industry, which accounts for 10 per cent of global gross domestic product. But the changes also reflect the challenges the sector increasingly faces, including sea level rise, extreme weather, “over-tourism”, and economic and political disruption.

“Tourism is a microcosm of what’s going on in the world, a great Petri dish in which you can experiment with methodologies and philosophical approaches,” Professor Morgan said.

Still, there remains some tension among academics and employers about how to teach it.

Some tourism businesses criticise the social sciences approach for being too theoretical, Professor Jóhannesson said. They want “more focus or continuing focus on the kind of vocational, technical or material side of tourism” – the more traditional applied approach.

“On the one hand, academics are encouraged to do some basic research; but, on the other hand, there’s also an emphasis on co-creating value with businesses,” he said.

It can also be difficult to persuade students of the value of the more abstract approach, said Bryan Grimwood, associate professor of recreation and leisure studies at Canada’s University of Waterloo, who studies social justice and sustainability in tourism.

“Often, the most common question is: ‘What kind of a job am I going to get from this degree?’” said Dr Grimwood. And to students, a social sciences-oriented tourism education “is not a direct path to one particular career like a professional degree might be”.

That is one reason why many programmes continue to follow the older model. In the US in particular, “Programmes are still hospitality- and culinary-focused, when in fact we need so much more,” said Seleni Matus, a former director of tourism in her native country of Belize who is now executive director of the International Institute of Tourism Studies at George Washington University.

Other US tourism programmes, which are often housed in business schools, have incorporated new subjects into their general education requirements, said Richard Perdue, professor of hospitality and tourism management in the business school at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, and former president of the Travel and Tourism Research Association.

“I don’t think we’re going to see changes in the titles of the courses students take, but we’re seeing pretty dramatic changes in the content of the courses as they become more concerned about climate change, sustainability and the human condition,” Professor Perdue said.

It is still easier to emphasise the job outcomes from tourism programmes, said Kellee Caton, professor of adventure, culinary arts and tourism at Thompson Rivers University in British Columbia, Canada, where the bachelor’s degree requires courses in communication and new media, statistics, economics, law, culture, history, geography and environmental stewardship.

“There’s a lot of debate about it when you talk with colleagues from around the world. It has [changed], and it still is changing,” Professor Caton said. But as the industry evolves, she said, “the message I’m getting is that employers want people who can think and can be creative.”

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Print headline: Tourism studies shifts gear as climate changes

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