Dear women tourism researchers of the future,
Tourism has been my life – literally – for 50 years since I was still in high school when I decided this is what I wanted to study. At the time, there was not a single university program in tourism in Canada (the closest was Recreation and Leisure Studies, which I pursued) and everyone thought I wanted to be a travel agent! Turns out I was actually the first Canadian to hold a doctoral degree in tourism, although I had to go abroad to obtain it. Blame my parents, who were inveterate travellers, and exposed me early to different countries and cultures, awakening a desire to learn about destination policy and planning, as we would call it today. I did not have the words in those early years and hence no clear path to achieve what I wanted. The result was a lot of twists and turns in my career path, none of which I regret. Moving through positions in the travel trade, financial institutions and government – always centered on tourism – has given me a breadth and depth of understanding this phenomenon from different perspectives that has made me a better teacher and researcher, even if many academics would consider this as having wasted time as I did not enter academia until 12 years after having completed the PhD. It is this experience that leads to the four pieces of advice I have to give you:
- Seize every opportunity to gain international experience. There is no better way to understand the global phenomenon of tourism than by spending time in different countries, whether in academia or in the industry. Holidays are nice but much too short to gain any type of appreciation of the local realities, how tourism is experienced and what the potentialities for improving the quality of life of the local population might be. This requires time and immersion in the local culture. If you can, take at least one advanced degree on another continent to get you out of your comfort zone and see your field of study through a different lens. But be prepared that, depending on the culture, being a woman can come with many challenges. Sometimes you will be treated as someone fragile that needs protecting, other times you will be (politely) ignored or sidelined. Travelling on your own can also lead to unwanted attention, so be smart about the choices you make. Ultimately, what you gain will far outweigh these negatives.
- Appreciate the value of industry experience. Unless you have your heart set on senior administration in academia or teaching in the social sciences, industry experience is invaluable in an applied field like tourism. It doesn’t matter very much which branch you choose as long as you’re willing to observe customers, peers and managers and reflect on what you are seeing. Even the most mundane job can provide great insights that help you understand consumer behaviour as well as how workplaces can be improved while still generating profits for the organization. It allows you to reflect how well the business is integrated into the local economy and to what extent the local population benefits from its activity. Having worked in the industry will also give you credibility with students and stand you in good stead with alumni and industry members. The lived reality hardly ever corresponds to the theoretical perspectives described in the literature which are often formulated based on rather privileged positions. Working in the industry will also humble you as you realize just how difficult the emotional labour of even the lowliest of workers can be and how little appreciation they receive for the care they take in making guest experiences memorable.
- Learn about different regions in the world and follow the news on a global level. We may talk about tourism being the world’s largest industry and that signs of tourism activity can be found in every corner of the globe, but we rarely understand the complexities of the geopolitical, social, cultural, economic, technological and environmental realities in other parts of the world that drive the demand for experiences to ever higher levels. Yet the responses to this growing demand by industry and government are what shapes its ebbs and flows with very real consequences at the local level. Developments on the other side of the world can have unforeseen consequences for the industry in our own country, and so we must stay abreast of them to anticipate the responses by the various stakeholders. If nothing else, the pandemic will have taught us that tourism is a secondary concern, no matter how important it is for a country’s economy. Airlines and cruise companies also have the ability to redirect tourism demand very quickly and do not hesitate to do so at the slightest sign of possible risk to their clientele or bottom line. The fallout of these actions at the local level are rarely documented and yet the impact on livelihoods that have come to depend directly or indirectly on tourism can be substantial.
- Go beyond the rhetoric of sustainability and look for tourism’s regenerative capabilities. Tourism presents immense possibilities precisely because it can take place in contexts where few other options to earn a living exist. If properly designed and managed, tourism can enhance the quality of life of residents and the health of the ecosystem. To see communities share in the benefits that can be derived from tourism and protect their natural spaces and culture is very rewarding. In turn, when these stories are shared with visitors it makes their experiences that much more meaningful and hopefully enhances their lives as well. Working at that level is very different from sitting in an office writing yet another journal article or grant proposal.
You have received a lot of advice in these “Letters”, some of it even quite contradictory. Which pieces resonate with you will depend on the direction you are choosing. As you can see, mine comes from a very non-traditional academic. However, one theme that is expressed in some way in all the letters is “passion”: passion for what you do will see you through the tough times and set-backs – and yes, as unpleasant as these are, we do learn from them. So don’t be afraid to grab opportunities that take you in different directions. Tourism as a field of study presents you with endless paths that can nourish your passion in the most surprising ways. And remember that all of these wonderful women who have written letters for you are there if you need a sounding board or to help guide you, an incredible luxury that simply was not available to those of us in the early days of the unfolding phenomenon called tourism.
I wish you much success, however you define it, and a brilliant future.
Yours in tourism
University of Guelph, Canada