Thinking of Next Generation Tourism Managers
The digital revolution is having a profound impact on tourist behaviour, business models and destinations at large (Femenia-Serra, Neuhofer, & Ivars-Baidal, 2019). Lately, the growing generation of big data by all components of the tourism ecosystem forces every single tourism organisation to adapt to a complex reality in which new types of professionals are required. Consequently, higher education needs to prepare future tourism practitioners who can face an increasingly complex scenario in which digital technology and data management skills will be crucial. However, in order to take action in this field, it is first required to assess whether and to what extent the higher education system is actually providing the needed knowledge and practical skills for tomorrow’s tourism workforce. This blog summarises the findings from a study in Spain examining this issue (see Femenia-Serra, 2018).
Smart destinations and the tourism curriculum challenge
Destinations are multi-layered physical and digital spaces where stakeholders coexist, cooperate and compete. Destination management is complex as a result of a high number of involved agents, divergent interests and the open nature of the tourism system. In line with the technological revolution, destination management is evolving towards a new approach in which data is the foundation for decisions, and technologies are utilised as a powerful tool to enhance tourist experiences. This new understanding of destinations has been encapsulated in the ‘smart destination’ concept (Ivars-Baidal et al., 2017) and has attracted the attention of academics, media and governments. However, the smart paradigm requires consistent investment, a novel mindset, and above all prepared professionals to avoid becoming another bluff.
In tourism education programmes, digital technologies have been traditionally observed as a tool for learning instead of an object of study themselves (Munar & Bødker, 2015), so their social and managerial potential and implications are frequently overlooked. Using a national survey and curricula content analysis, Femenia-Serra (2018) confirmed this and indicated that the 38 Spanish universities offering tourism programmes rarely include in their syllabuses subjects related to new digital technologies. Most ICT courses are devoted to office software and basic database management, while a much lower number of courses focus on big data, social media, GIS or intelligent systems. Moreover, the relative weight of technology subjects is low in all cases. Mean compulsory ICT courses per programme is 1,08 and 0,7 in the case of optional courses. This makes a global mean of 1,78 technology-related subjects per programme. There are even five programmes without any training in ICTs at all.
In line with this, the survey results indicate that only around 25% of students report that they consider their training in ICTs to be ‘good’ or ‘very good’ (Figure 1). This reality contrasts with the fact that more than 60% of participants acknowledge technologies as the most important factor shaping the future of tourism.
Figure 1: Tourism students assessment of their ICT training in % (n=407)
These shocking figures indicate there seems to be a gap between student perception of the importance of technologies for tourism and destination management and current performance in delivering the required knowledge and skills by Spanish universities. ICTs are driving change in the sector but this is not met for the moment with a rich training in the field. Similarly, syllabus analysis revealed that no specific effort has been made during recent years to adapt content to technological evolution and the advent of ‘smartness’ in tourism. Therefore higher education tourism programmes seem to be partly obsolete in this regard.
Adapting to the needs of the fast-changing tourism industry is not an easy mission for recently graduated professionals. Likewise, public universities find many bureaucratic barriers and conflicting interests when trying to adapt their programmes to new economic and societal needs. In some cases, this results in outdated syllabuses which means future professionals cannot meet current market necessities. Tourism management is an increasingly digitalised and data-driven activity in which specialised practitioners are needed. To overcome these challenges, higher education institutions and governments need to rethink tourism education and give more space to courses aimed at providing the knowledge and skills necessary to face the advent of the digital revolution. Using the ‘smart tourism’ umbrella could be a first step in building this future together with the implementation of complementary workshops, seminars and online activities. Finally, training in digital technologies needs to be also considered from a reflective perspective, analysing ICT as a transformation tool having great power in shaping contemporary societies. Critical reflection on the impacts of technology on tourism processes, labour conditions, tourist experiences and privacy are necessary for students to fully understand a sector which is increasingly dependent on technology providers and data owners.
Author: Francisco Femenia-Serra
Researcher at the Tourism Research Institute, Alicante University (Spain)
Femenia-Serra, F. (2018). Smart Tourism Destinations and Higher Tourism Education in Spain. Are We Ready for This New Management Approach? In B. Stangl & J. Pesonen (Eds.), Information and Communication Technologies in Tourism 2018 (pp. 437–449). Cham: Springer. http://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-72923-7_33
Femenia-Serra, F., Neuhofer, B., & Ivars-Baidal, J. A. (2019). Towards a conceptualisation of smart tourists and their role within the smart destination scenario. The Service Industries Journal, 39(2), 109–133. http://doi.org/10.1080/02642069.2018.1508458
Ivars-Baidal, J. A., Celdrán-Bernabeu, M. A., Mazón, J.-N., & Perles-Ivars, Á. F. (2017). Smart destinations and the evolution of ICTs: a new scenario for destination management? Current Issues in Tourism, In press, 1–20. http://doi.org/10.1080/13683500.2017.1388771
Munar, A. M., & Bødker, M. (2015). Information technologies and tourism. The critical turn in curriculum development. In D. Airey, D. Dredge, & M. J. Gross (Eds.), The Routledge Handbook of Tourism and Hospitality Education (pp. 105–117). Abingdon: Routledge.