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The importance of social and cross-cultural skills for tourism and hospitality

Social and cross-cultural skills, often called ‘soft skills’, are among the skills seen as most important for the tourism and hospitality workforce (Wilks & Hemsworth 2011, Sisson & Adams 2013, Weber et al 2009). These skills are highly appreciated by employers in the sector and are also transferable skills that could be easily adapted to different working environments. With the growth of AI and emerging discussions about the displacement of the workforce, social skills are regaining importance with the recognition that many workers in the future will need more complex problem-solving, adaptability and creativity skills. But how can we define these skills?

What are social and cross-cultural skills?

Social skills can be defined as a ‘set of learned abilities that enable an individual to interact competently and appropriately in a given social context’ (American Psychologist Association 2022). Social skills are also related to social competencies, which are considered the ability to evaluate social situations and determine what is required (American Psychologist Association- b 2022). Social skills include, for example, active listening, empathy, conflict resolution, and verbal and non-verbal communication.

Also considered social skills are non-cognitive skills and competencies. The non-cognitive skills are also called ‘socio-emotional skills’ or ‘intrapersonal skills’. These skills are usually associated with the personal abilities of an individual to undertake tasks or develop attitudes related to five longitudinal and latitudinal personality traits: openness to experience, consciousness, extraversion, agreeableness and emotional stability (OECD 2014). Examples of these sets of skills are perseverance, ethics, adaptability, emotional intelligence and self-efficacy. 

Cross-cultural skills, also known as intercultural skills, are considered skill sets related to the development of an understanding of different cultures and the ability to reflect on diversity (Barrow 2011). In recent decades, globalisation has increased connectivity among groups. However, as behaviours and values affect a society’s culture, living in a culturally diverse environment may be challenging. Intercultural awareness, therefore, is an important skill as it brings the ability to build empathy with those of different cultural backgrounds. Examples of cross-cultural skills are adaptability and openness to different cultures, empathy and respect towards different cultures, intercultural awareness and demonstrating cultural sensitivity. Appreciating that cultural differences exist and having the ability to critically understand and be open about these differences are essential skills related to tourism and hospitality.

The Importance of social and cross-cultural Skills for the future workforce


Different reports on skills explore how these skills are essential for the future workforce (OECD 2019, OECD 2020, Deloitte Australia 2017, WEF 2020). An OECD study from 2020 explores, for example, how the advancement of artificial intelligence has created a new skill set demand on meta-cognitive skills, creative thinking and problem-solving skills. These skills will be key skills in the workplace because they are related to the ability to learn, or ‘learn how to learn’, and reflect, plan, monitor, evaluate or critically assess information and create solutions. Although AI’s abilities are increasing, AI systems still can’t respond to causalities in the way that humans do, as machine learning systems have a limited ability to infer what will result from a given action and to assess information critically (MIT Technology Review 2020). Technologies may have already displaced routine tasks but, in doing so, they have created opportunities for workers to develop other skills.

Social skills are also seen as increasingly essential in the workplace. Many demographic and societal changes in Europe such as the ageing of the population, the increase of diversity with the different flows of migration, and the increasing digital connectivity require skills such as empathy and openness, respect for others and inclusiveness. These skills are also associated with global competencies, defined as competencies or knowledge of global issues and intercultural issues. Cross-cultural skills seen as essential for the future include respect for cultural differences and intercultural communication, as the workplace is also becoming increasingly diverse.

There are also non-cognitive skills which can be used in a variety of situations and are considered prerequisites for successful careers: curiosity, perseverance, self-control, responsibility and emotional stability (OECD 2019). These are also called transversal or transferable skills. To keep up to date with the fast changes in the world of work and mobility of workers, there will be a requirement for staff to develop those skills, and new trends in recruitment are already in place, with an assessment of these competencies for potential candidates.

The UN Sustainable Development Goals and the importance of social and cross-cultural skills in tourism

Social and cross-cultural skills are considered highly relevant in the tourism and hospitality sectors (O’Leary and Mottiar 2019, Carlisle et al 2021, Silva et al 2019, and Tankovic et al 2021), as the industry relies strongly on customer services, and it also has multiples activities that need inter-personal skills. With the increasing connectivity in the world, diversity and cross-cultural understanding are also essential skills to work in the sector.

The UNWTO report on the future of work and skills development in tourism also provides an important overview of future needs and trends in skills. With the development of transformative changes in the world of work, tourism has been one of the sectors most affected by social and technological transformations, shaping new business models, consumer patterns and value chain structures in demand and supply. Among global trends, the UNWTO lists as examples the emergence of exponential organizations, the regulated innovation, with the adaptation to new contexts by governments and legislators in tourism operations, lifetime reinventions, with a focus on skills and competencies rather than theoretical knowledge; and talent and transformation, with ‘reallocation of complex tasks for more skilled labour’. In relation to the most demanded skills for tourism and hospitality in the coming years, the following skills are seen as important:

  • Students: customer orientation and creativity and innovation skills
  • Private companies: focus on clients (customer services skills), and commitment to work
  • Public sector: customer services skills and creativity and innovation skills
  • Educational institutions: creativity and innovation and customer services skills (UNWTO, 2019, p.36-37)

One interesting aspect of this research, based on surveys, is that for all stakeholders technological and digital capabilities were considered less important than social skills, which shows that social skills are still seen as fundamental in facing future technological changes.

Social and cross-cultural skills are also necessary to develop sustainability in the industry, as they also play an important part in changing the future for a fairer, more resilient and more equitable world. But how social skills may help to achieve this?

Source: https://www.greenkey.global/stories-news-1/2019/12/19/major-new-study-to-assess-tourisms-growing-commitment-to-sustainable-development

The UN Sustainable Development Goals were established in 2015 with 17 objectives designed to bring prosperity to the people and the planet. Among the goals, is Sustainable Goal 11, Sustainable Cities and Communities, which aims to create ‘intelligent urban planning that creates safe, affordable and resilient cities with green and culturally inspiring conditions’. Among the needs for achieving this goal are providing sustainable transport, housing, inclusive urbanisation, protecting the cultural heritage, supporting community development and building inclusive public spaces.
These actions require important social skills to be developed, such as demonstrating empathy, promoting inclusiveness and accessibility, promoting intercultural awareness, respect and intercultural inclusivity. Creative thinking and problem-solution are also important social skills to create new solutions for cities’ mobility problems; building inclusivity with local communities benefiting the local economy and adaptability and resilience in facing new problems are also important skills to achieve that goal. In tourism, they can be developed through several actions, in partnership with local authorities and the private sector, such as:

  • Building accessibility in local parks, libraries, and museums in the visitor’s attraction sector, as developing skills related to inclusivity and accessibility
  • Promoting intercultural awareness actions by developing training and education related to respecting differences in all tourism sectors
  • Preserving cultural heritage with cultural awareness education material for local residents and tourists
  • Developing sustainable transportation solutions for tourists, such as cycling, walking tours, and the use of energy-efficient transport models, with problem-solving and adaptability skills 

Another example is the UN’s Sustainable Goal 13, Climate Action, which aims to make necessary changes to protect the planet through education, innovation and adherence to climate change. Among the needs to achieve that goal are strengthening resilience to climate disasters, building capacity and knowledge to meet climate change, and promoting mechanisms for raising capacity for effective climate change. Usually associated with green skills, these actions also require important social and cross-cultural skills, such as resilience, adaptability, critical and analytical thinking, creativity, problem-solving and grit. As examples of actions that can be made in the tourism industry to achieve those goals are:

  • Communication actions to tackle climate changes, building consciousness, sustainable practices and resilience among tourists and local residents on changes necessary that affect the whole community
  • Build empathy towards the needs of the local community, with sustainable practices such as waste management, water management and energy efficiency solutions in touristic destinations
  • Strengthen resilience through adapting business in climate crisis situations, providing for example the necessary guidance for tourism small and medium-sized businesses
  • Improve awareness-raising and institutional capacity on climate change mitigation with tourism and hospitality companies, which requires decision-making, problem-solving and creating thinking
  • Working in collaboration with different stakeholders to mitigate climate changes and strengthen knowledge and awareness in climate changes mitigation

In summary, social and cross-cultural skills are essential skills for future workers in tourism and hospitality, as those skills foster a transformational mindset and encourage the development of fundamental changes to achieve sustainability in the sector.

(Please check the Tourism for SDGs platform developed by UNWTO to discover tools and initiatives to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals in the tourism sector).

This blog has highlighted sustainable social and cross-cultural skills, aligned with the UN Sustainable Development Goals and is written by Fernanda Rabelo, Postdoctoral Researcher, School of Culinary Arts and Food Technology, Technological University Dublin.

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