As tourism gets complicated, your guide is more likely to have a graduate degree

REYKJAVIK, Iceland — Snowy landscapes. Glaciers. Magma left by fiery volcanoes. Puppy-eyed harbor seals.

The real things aren’t far away, but these are photographs, equal parts study aids and inspiration, on the wall of a room at the University of Iceland whose windows look out at a just-as-picturesque panorama of downtown Reykjavik and Mount Esja behind it.

Here, ranks of future tourism industry workers are being put through their paces in not only marketing and accounting but geography, history, cultural and environmental studies, social responsibility, literature, and a whole course catalog of other subjects.

The university’s interdisciplinary tourism studies curriculum is among a small but growing number of educational programs sprouting up worldwide alongside traditional hospitality and culinary offerings as the tourism industry becomes increasingly sophisticated, and the challenges it faces call for a wider breadth of knowledge.

Tourism workers today “need to know so much more than how to set the plates,” said Magnús Haukur Ásgeirsson, a member of the faculty who has just come from teaching a class in marketing and market analysis for tourism. “We try to draw forth that tourism doesn’t just happen. It needs to be planned and looked after.”

Though it generates an estimated 10 percent of world GDP, the tourism sector hasn’t historically required such a high level of professionalization; someone with a bus, a microphone, some local knowledge and a pointing finger could put on a tour. Managers, guides, and planners didn’t need undergraduate, never mind graduate, degrees.

Sea-level rise, extreme weather, massive natural disasters, overtourism, migration, political division, and other momentous challenges have abruptly changed that.

“All of these are things that people in this industry need to know about,” said Caroline Scarles, professor of technology in society in the University of Surrey School of Hospitality and Tourism Management in England.

For travelers, who are also increasingly knowledgeable and curious, this means having better-educated hosts who can competently anticipate their questions.

“What we’re seeing now is the rise of the active tourist, people who want to know more, they want to understand,” said Scarles, coeditor of the academic journal Tourist Studies. “It’s important that we reflect that range of things that people are looking for.”

International associations are encouraging this trend, including the UN World Tourism Organization, which certifies tourism education, training, and research standards.

The University of Icelandy’s interdisciplinary tourism studies curriculum is among a small but growing number of similar programs around the world.
The University of Iceland’s interdisciplinary tourism studies curriculum is among a small but growing number of similar programs around the world.KRISTINN INGVARSSON/LJÓSMYND

So are employers, said Amir Eylon, president and CEO of Longwoods International, a research firm whose customers are travel and tourism companies.

“I talk to my clients every day, and there’s always some discussion about the growing demands for the training” of their employees, Eylon said.

“There’s an expectation on the part of the traveler that those guiding them through the experience are knowledgeable about what they’re sharing,” he said. “We’re becoming less shy, as travelers, about asking for that extra information. People are collecting those experiences now, more than material things, when they travel, and tourism businesses that want to have an edge are demanding that level of knowledge from their workforce.”

Nowhere is this more on display than in Iceland, a geologically, environmentally, and historically complex place that attracted 2.3 million visitors last year — almost seven times the number of residents.

“We need people who can think creatively” to keep up with this demand, said Gunnar Þór Jóhannesson, a geographer and anthropologist at the University of Iceland and its head of geography and tourism studies.

Many of those people take an entrepreneurial approach. Tourism has more than quadrupled here since 2011, yet because of the speed of this, most tourism providers are still small startups with handfuls of employees — not huge global corporations.

That includes Daði Már Steinsson, who cofounded Nordic Green Travel two years ago with a classmate from the tourism studies program at the university. The company carbon-neutralizes all of its tours by planting trees, which are sparse in Iceland; the number of trees planted is calculated by the distance covered by the tour.

“It’s more than just a bus and some knowledge of the area,” said Steinsson. “We have to have knowledge about the whole sector. When it comes to sustainability, our education was a lot about environmental issues, and that’s something our guests think a lot about. For a small company to try to specialize in something and get an edge, you have to have that education.”

Steinsson also has now earned master’s degrees in innovation and business development.

“A lot of companies are people that just drive buses,” he said. “With the education I have, I can market my own products and I know what people are looking for, and they don’t. That’s a huge advantage.”

Academic research is also becoming more common in tourism and travel; the University of Iceland is part of a collaboration with Scandinavian and Canadian universities studying Arctic tourism and sustainability, for example.

So are advanced degrees. The George Washington University School of Business now offers a master’s degree in tourism administration.

“There has always been a recognition that tourism is more than hospitality,” said Seleni Matus, executive director of the business school’s International Institute of Tourism Studies. “While hospitality is a core part of the industry, it takes much more to be successful at it.”

The campus at the University of Iceland.
The campus at the University of Iceland.KRISTINN INGVARSSON/LJÓSMYND

She attributes this to not just the many challenges tourism faces, but to its sustained growth — “this attention on, wow, there’s a lot of tourism happening, and tourism is changing these places.”

Today, said Matus, “There’s a deeper understanding of the intersection of tourism with development and the need to take a more holistic approach. Tourism touches on so many aspects of a place. There is a need to look beyond business as usual and integrate sustainability into the DNA of the tourism industry,” for instance. “This includes addressing impacts of changing climate on places and tourism.”

But it’s not just about one aspect, such as climate change, said Steinsson.

“We’re seeing tourism becoming the subject of more of a social science interest in general,” he said. “There’s increasing attention given to this more critical side to tourism studies — that it’s not only a business, but also a cultural phenomenon.”

Full story here.