Gary Haslam looks at the burgeoning area of travel and tourism in the second of our state of study series
Tourism is rarely off the front pages. This week, British Airways is licking its wounds after settling the swipe-card strike with its staff and announcing a £45 million loss in the three months to June. The industry was just beginning to recover from the knock-on effects of 9/11 when it was hit hard by the severe acute respiratory syndrome virus epidemic.
Nevertheless, tourism generates nearly 5 per cent of the UK's gross domestic product. So why does the government not take it more seriously?
Burgeoning travel and tourism departments say that a lack of central government funding is limiting research in the subject. In the previous research assessment exercise there was no category for tourism, so submissions were presented under nine or ten different units of assessment.
Robert Maitland, course leader at the University of Westminster, said: "What we do is not that expensive. What we need is time, not cyclotrons. But some people think it's candyfloss.
"There's not an obvious home for tourism research. We've had some research funding from the RAE, we do some work for the private sector and we get some support from the university."
Susanne Baker, head of tourism at Thames Valley University, said: "This is a subject that directly relates to the world's largest and most rapidly growing industry, but it does not appear to have the visibility it deserves."
According to Lesley Roberts, deputy course leader at the University of Northumbria's Centre for Travel and Tourism, public research funds are limited because tourism is a consumer product that not everyone can afford.
"Tourism is thought to be for the private sector, but I think we're slowly realising it is important for the economy as a whole," she said.
Travel and tourism is a broad topic. It covers sustainable tourism, ecological tourism, airline operations and destination management (the impact of tourism on locals). Some courses deal with the sociology of tourism and others focus on business and management.
Thea Sinclair, professor of the economics of tourism at the Christel DeHaan Tourism and Travel Research Institute at the University of Nottingham, said: "Not only does it have academic calibre but it also feeds directly into the business sector. So, it has intellectual interest and real practical use in the private industry and the public sector."
Courses range from HNDs to doctorates. Pre-degrees include GNVQs, and a tourism GCSE will be introduced next year.
John Fletcher, head of the International Centre for Tourism and Hospitality Research at Bournemouth University, said: "Tourism is seen as a subject that is a strong contender for rapid growth and with good opportunities for successful student recruitment, contract research and publications. This is true in most post-92 and many pre-92 universities."
Adrian Clark of the Tourism Society said that the industry had almost walked away from centralised contact with higher education. Instead, universities forged strong links with individual companies.
He said employers were involved in funding projects, providing placements to students and participating in course design and delivery.
Ian Thomson, associate dean of the faculty of leisure and tourism at Buckinghamshire Chilterns University, said: "The tourism industry itself is rather fragmented as a big centralised contributor, but if they wanted to commission a particular project, they would approach a department such as ours."
A spokesman for the holiday company Thomson said: "We do value the degree and contact those universities offering this degree as a source for potential employees. However, the degree itself will not ensure a particular career progression as it is up to the individual to prove themselves once in the organisation."
Nick Wrightman, director of specialist Tapestry Holidays, which is involved with courses at Northumbria, said: "Usually, it's the placements that lead to jobs. It's fantastic for that."
Student numbers have dipped after rapid expansion in the 1990s, but several universities are keen to develop new courses. Two-year foundation degrees are in the pipeline, but they do not provide the placement year. Small businesses make up the bulk of the UK's travel industry and they might not be able to release students during working hours.
There is some risk of oversupply. Beulah Cope, senior lecturer in tourism at the University of the West of England, said: "It is a niche and a lot of universities are looking at it. But we have to be careful because at graduate level there is a limit on the number of first-job opportunities."
John Swarbrooke, principal lecturer in tourism management at Sheffield Hallam University, said demand at undergraduate level had reached a plateau, so new courses would have to be high quality to attract the best students. "In future, universities will probably have to find niches."
Carol David, director of the new tourism degree at St Mary's College, University of Surrey, thought that travel and tourism studies would help attract more students to meet the government's target of 50 per cent of 18 to 30-year-olds in higher education by 2010. She said: "The only way higher education is going to meet that target is to make itself more market-led.
You've got to offer people what they want."
Postgraduate degrees can have as few as 10 per cent of their students from the UK. Recruitment often involves actively pitching for students in countries where they can benefit from research grants.
John Westlake, head of postgraduate studies at Bournemouth, said: "In some countries, travel and tourism is not present at all as a subject in universities. In some new universities in the UK, it is a shining star given its popularity in terms of recruitment, close links to industry and a good record of employment."
Lecturers think that travel and tourism, which was once seen as a poor relation to business studies, is now established.
Dr Swarbrooke said: "A few years ago, it was probably viewed as one of the lighter subjects. Today, the course has matured, grown confident, got stronger academically. That's meant other people have to take the area more seriously."
HOW THINGS STAND: TOURISM, TRANSPORT AND TRAVEL
For entry in 2003
1,111 courses have tourism in their title including: adventure tourism (9); adventure tourism management (5); ecotourism (10); European tourism (2); heritage tourism (2); international tourism (10); international tourism management (65); rural tourism (1); sport tourism (4); sport tourism management (59); tourism business management (3); tourism development studies (1); tourism management (375); tourism management studies (4); tourism operational (2); tourism resource management (2); and tourism studies (13)