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The future of tourism is education - but not as you know it

Education is not preparation for life, education is life itself --John Dewey.

Re-imagining the future of tourism

It's a common catch cry these days that we have to re-imagine tourism. It's the tagline on hundreds of visitor economy strategies and tourism recovery plans across the world. But did you know the top jargon nonsense word for 2019 was "reimagine"? According to this opinion piece, every noun and verb from A to Z has been reimagined. It doesn't mean better, different, or improved. It is like by saying 'it's the same, but different'. It's nonsensical, but at the same time it has clearly proven to be a useful phrase to pretend something is being done while doing nothing. The problem is that we either don't want to make a change or we simply don't know how to truly unleash a new imaginative path for tourism.

But where is the imagination?

So how can we reimagine tourism if we don't have an imagination or we don't know how to think in fresh and innovative ways? How can we unleash our imagination if our thinking is bounded by the structures, assumptions, barriers, and blindspots that got us here in the first place? Put simply, if we cannot think it or see it, then we cannot be the change. So where are we right now? I suggest we are stuck.

We are inside a vacuum-sealed jar, where we are only able to access the same thoughts and ideas that continue to circulate. We do not have access to the oxygen, the creativity, the alternative ways of knowing needed for new ideas to emerge. We can only imagine from inside the belly of the decaying education system that holds up capitalism, growth and competition as our only reason for being.

Getty Images: Reimagining the tourism system can't happen within a vacuum-sealed glass jar

Challenging assumptions

Humans have always travelled and they will continue to do so. The desire to see, explore, connect, experience, and learn are key motivations for travel and so it's not hard to make the case that travel is part of the human condition. At its most basic, travel is simply the act of being humanly mobile, but it all started to change when travel started to be framed as an economic sector, a tool for growth, and a driver of capitalist activity. That changed everything.

The system is breaking

Travel is a complex dynamic, multi-layered phenomenon that can feed our souls and contribute to our human development. Over decades we have witnessed the rise of industrial tourism, year-on-year growth, where the business proposition has been to take natural resources, labour, and other community resources, extracting its value and turning it into profit which is then distributed elsewhere. This exploitation has been exponential, fractal, and left communities feeling taken advantage of and depleted. Not surprisingly, communities are starting to withdraw their social licence for traditional industrial tourism just as labour (i.e. willing workers) are also leaving the tourism sector.

Over the last few hundred years, the exploitation of communities, individuals and their labour have fed capitalism. It is complex and little understood. For many, 'capitalism' is a dirty word, and we should not challenge that hand that feeds us. But Covid crystallised the way that capitalism has created winners and losers, and has created significant vulnerabilities, especially for rural, remote, and regional populations. It was happening before Covid, but 'opting out' has gained momentum since the pandemic.

Opting out

Many don't want to be part of the machinery of capitalism, running on a treadmill, and destined to spend their time beholden to work in the system while health and wellbeing are in decline. The system is breaking and being redefined. The WEF's Future of Jobs paints a picture of the restructuring of the workforce, the decline in real wages, and the shift in skills in demand. Some will look away, especially if they are 'winners'. Others will recognise that it is happening. Zoom out to a higher level and we see the meta-shifts that are happening. Industries like tourism, have traditionally been based on cheap labour, free access to natural resources. The pressure to reform them will only increase as resource scarcity and concerns over climate and environmental health increase. Communities are taking back their social licence and wishing to redefine and redesign tourism for a future that builds health, wellbeing and happiness.

This is where it gets interesting!

Industrial education is complicit

Our education systems have been industrialised. New public management has shredded its integrity as a place to learn, think, reflect and contribute to our human development. Education is now predicated on the idea that it will contribute to economic growth and produce the skills and mindsets that industry needs to reproduce the system. In other words, our education systems that been co-opted into the industrial-capitalist complex.

Learning how to think and grow as humans has been replaced with how to improve the bottom line, compete, build reputations, and dominate markets. This mindset is threaded through the system from the goals of education systems themselves, to the motivations of staff. Students have become customers buying their qualifications. At the same time, thinkers and people with practical experience have left the system in droves, leaving process workers fulfilling metrics. It's clear, industrialised education systems are reinforcing the industrial complex and will not be able to produce the leaders we need for an increasingly disrupted and uncertain world.

A return to being human

Communities at the edge are experimenting with new ways of working and being in the world. The vulnerabilities of the pandemic, and the time to reassess values, hopes and dreams, have created a movement from within. Despite the isolation, during the pandemic, communities came together to cross boundaries, connect and support each other. The realisation started to emerge that the focus on 'things' - money, reputation, achievements, growth - were not the source of happiness. Connections, flows on information, energy and resources are what kept communities going. A ground-up intelligence, an alternative way of knowing and being in the world is emerging, and there is so much that those communities on the edge can show the 'urban centre' about how to build resilience for the future.

Reinventing tourism from the outside

The task in front of us is how to reinvent and reimagine tourism from the outside. Travel has always been part of the human condition, and will continue to be, so how can we reframe it? Generative questions that we have no answer for, but that push us to the edge of our imagination, are useful in reclaiming tourism:

"If there was no tourism, but travel is part of the human condition, what would there be?"

"How might travellers give back and contribute to the places they visit?"

"How might we design a type and style of tourism that respects our planetary boundaries, our communities, our special places, and the nature that sustains and energises us?"

" How might travel contribute to the human development we need to confront the change, disruption and uncertainty ahead?"

These questions require that we revisit our assumptions, reframe what the value proposition for 'tourism' is, and then build a new theory of change for the future.

Let's be clear, this is not an anti-tourism agenda, but rather a call to action to gather all our different kinds of intelligence and to imagine, ideate, and co-create a better, more resilient and sustainable travel and hosting for people, places, and the planet. This is precisely what education should be engaged with, instead of working to blindly sustain the system. How might we look to the future, unlock our creativity and optimism, and live well?

Thinking differently

In order to create this new tourism future, we need to learn to think differently. We need to learn to think more creatively. The thinking of the past created these current challenges, so we need new thinking and new ways of working. The scientific method has trained us to think in a certain way, to see all our challenges through the lens of the solutions we are familiar with or already have in mind. It's called path dependence and it locks in familiar and comfortable solutions. It's deeply embedded in our education systems, organisational cultures, and personal mindsets. So what is holding us back from unlocking new thinking and reinventing tourism?

Photo: Path dependency and embedded ways of thinking and approaching problems impedes innovation (source: ddredge)

Fear of change

It's fear. Fear of change, fear of not understanding. Fear for what it might mean because new ideas can lead to disruption, uncertainty, and change! We have created a system where the closer one is to the comfortable centre, the more risk averse people are. By corollary, those who live with uncertainty and disruption, are more likely to be open to new ideas and experiment with change. Innovation always happens at the edge, not the centre!

This is why we need to look towards individuals and communities who are innovating, doing things differently and learn from them!

Thinking outside and outside thinking

Over the last few years, running both online courses, and facilitating a range of workshops, our post-session debriefs have identified the difficulty of thinking creatively in order to unlock innovation and new ways of looking at the future. For good reason, most businesses have a razor-sharp focus on the bottom line, on alternative income streams, and on reducing costs and liabilities. It doesn't leave much room for thinking differently. However, creative thinking is essential to see the challenges differently, reframe problems, and unlock innovation. Ecological thinking is required to better understand oure relationship with the planet and to live within our environmental limits.

The ability to think differently can be learned, but it does require a commitment to reflect, be open, and the courage to rewire our thinking if necessary. Developing this level of meta-cognition is a gift that will keep on giving. It contributes to systems thinking, resilience and problem solving ingenuity.

Trouble is, how many of us have ever thought about how we think, how we solve problems, and how we might bring new ways of thinking into our problem-solving? And where do we find the guides, the support group, and the opportunity to learn these skills?

It's time to look outside! We need new education models, new ways of thinking, new approaches to education that are not designed to fit into the industrial education model, but to break it. Living systems suggests that diversity is good. Diversity contributes to resilience and adaptation. We need to develop and offer alternative future-fit education that provide the skills and training for the leaders of tomorrow. There are fewer and fewer education opportunities and professional development trainings available that are not designed to pursue industry interests. Mentoring programs aligned with industry associations lock us into the system, and with this homogenisation we become more and more fragile.

So how are you addressing this need to diverse, creative and ecological thinking in your organisation, business, community or institution?


About The Tourism CoLab

The Tourism CoLab is on online education and innovation lighthouse for the regenerative future of travel and hosting. We are a social enterprise and our mission is to challenge traditional thinking, replacing it with creative collaborative approaches that build new relationships between communities, nature, and places. We are engaged in advocacy and systems change through the provision of policy advice, research, change-making strategies, keynote speaking engagements, workshops and organisational change.

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