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

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

Imagining the future of tourism

Now more than ever, education is the key to reinventing the tourism of the future. We are all in different stages of the process of becoming what we seek to be. Since change is not linear and happens in an exponential fractal kind of way, this change is happening all around us in businesses, destinations, in our networks and in ourselves. The process takes time, moves at different speeds for different organisations and businesses and individuals, and it takes energy and resources. But most of all it takes courage to let go of fear, to sit in the mess created by Covid-19 (even though you may not be comfortable with the mess), to learn from it, to recognise our blind spots and barriers to our thinking, and to lead out with a courageous and more sustainable and resilient future.

So, despite the impacts of Covid-19 on the travel sector, humans have always travelled, and they will again. The question is how, where, and why we will travel. What do we want this future to be? do we want to project the past on to the future, or do we want a new future?

Can we learn from this pandemic and correct the overreach created by mass tourism? Or can 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?

Can we flip the thinking and create a type and style of tourism that is in service to local communities and nature? This vision would stand in contrast to the 'old tourism' where communities and nature were focused exclusively on servicing the tourism machine?

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 tourism for people and the planet.

The role of 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. Truth is, we have been trained 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's deeply embedded in our organisational cultures and personal mindsets.

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

Over the last few months, running both online courses and facilitating a range of workshops, our post-session debriefs have identified the difficulty of encouraging participants to think more creatively in order to unlock innovation, new pivots and positioning towards the future. For good reason, most businesses have a razor-sharp focus on the bottom line at the moment, 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. I am convinced that this 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 metacognition is a gift that will keep on giving.

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?

Skills for the future

The World Economic Forum back in 2018 identified a range of skills that were needed for the jobs of the future. Covid-19 has highlighted the need for the skills of 2022 below. These skills are not just trending but now essential!

So if we need the think creatively, and we need to develop and hone skills in analytical thinking, innovation, active learning, creativity, technology, critical thinking, complex problem solving, leadership, emotional intelligence, reasoning and systems analysis and evaluation, where can we do this? A couple of decades ago, higher education was at the frontier, but times have changed.

For the last two decades now higher education has been under attack (to a more or lesser extent depending on the country) by governments seeking to encourage universities to find alternative sources of income and new market-driven operating models. Teaching and research budgets have shrunk, and with massive redundancies, there has been a decline in the capacity of universities to deliver quality programs let alone stay abreast of the rapidly changing environment. Rankings and metrics might give 'bragging rights' to 'top' institutions, but let's make no mistake that these are designed as promotional tools and do not reflect the current internal challenges that junior and casual staff currently face in gluing together programs that have largely been gutted.

In sum, the old industrial model of higher education is struggling to keep up with the changing needs of information, knowledge and skill development. At the same time, online education by private and independent education providers is booming. The need for skill development in situ, for learning and applying new knowledge within context, and at a time and place that meets learners' needs has never been more acute. Additionally, the learning and knowledge needs of professionals within and connected to tourism and visitor economies has never been more diverse.

The challenge for tourism education providers

Photo: Educational opportunities used to bring stories of stakeholders to light, build empathy and develop deep listening (source: ddredge)

Once a rapidly growing component of university enrolments in the 1980s and 1990s, over the last 10 years, tourism education has been scaled back within higher education institutions across the world. In the vast majority of institutions, if it continues to exist, it is often positioned as a specialism within a business degree. Content has been paired back and generalised. Student satisfaction is declining. Teaching staff are less likely to have real world experience, a weakness that is addressed through guest lecture invitations and casualised labour, which does not often filter back into curriculum design and skill development. The remaining higher education staff are doing the best they can, but realistically, the restructuring and repositioning of higher education is not yet over yet and more change is to come.

In the early 2010s universities started to experiment in their delivery of education with many jumping onto the MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) bandwagon as an opportunity to democratise access and mass produce education. According to a large MIT study of MOOCs, rates of completion are declining, and one of the key criticisms is that they have not assisted learners convert their time and financial investment into labour market value. In tourism, because learner's needs are often specific to the system, country or context, generic content is only somewhat valuable, and a more targeted learning experience is needed.

Learning platforms like Udemy and Skill Share offer skills develop in diverse skills such as hotel management systems, destination marketing, instagram for beginners, google analytics, marketing, poster design and so on. These courses are designed for specific step-by-step instruction and supplemented the learning landscape.

With the rise of commercial learning platforms such as Teachable, Podia and Thinkific in the last few years, a range of private unaligned private providers has emerged that brings another level of learning opportunity into the space. These platforms offer the opportunity for a small cohort based classes and the blending of learning, training and mentoring. These developments are opening up and reshaping the nature of tourism education and providing a world of learning, skill development that can be more responsive and bespoke than ever before. Moreover, with the declining pool of human assets and knowledge base in higher education, there appears a world of opportunities for innovative partnerships with small bespoke and independent providers.

Tourism education is the future

Photo: Educational famils designed to flip thinking, create conversation and highlight opportunities for collaborations outside the office. (source: ddredge)

Under these circumstances, and given the enormity of the challenges in re-imagining the future of tourism and visitor economies, the demand for good quality, responsive, knowledge and skill development in tourism is needed now more than ever. While competition is healthy and leading to creative and innovative learning opportunities, there is still plenty of opportunities to build innovative, practical and intellectually fertile partnerships.


So what does the future of tourism education look like? Taking stock of global discussions, shifts in consumer sentiment, destination and business trendsetters, we ignore at our own peril important conversations around 5 key pillars of tourism futures:

  1. Regenerative tourism (including, but not limited to, net zero emissions tourism design, circular economy, net-positive impact on biodiversity)

  2. Purpose-led economies (quality work, happiness, inclusivity)

  3. Business model innovation

  4. Digital transitions

  5. Partnerships and co-design for the SDGs


So what kind of literacies do we need to target in this future of tourism education? In the past, I have proposed six key pillars of tourism education which would appear to have stood the test of time:

1. Technical literacies – To understand how our problem solving is informed by theories, concepts and frameworks, and what we know and don't know. We need technical knowledge related to sustainable, regenerative and inclusive tourism. We must take care to think about how tourism connected with other relevant areas of knowledge - place design, planning, policy, environmental management, climate resilience, circular economy and encourage stronger disciplinary linkages.

2. Analytical literacies - To assess the skills, techniques and personal qualities necessary to engage in issue identification, ideation, problem-solving and critical inquiry. For example, to be able to critically examine and evaluate what is really going on, what are the values at play, the different forms of knowledge being used (or ignored) such as academic, scientific, local and indigenous knowledge, and what kind of additional knowledge could usefully be integrated.

3. Ecological literacies – In its broadest sense ecological literacy refers to an awareness of the interconnections and inter-dependencies between people and nature, and the impacts and consequences of decisions and actions upon these relationships. These connections extend beyond ecological relationships to community, social and cultural connections to nature.

4. Multi-cultural and empathy literacies – An appreciation of the different cultures, values, interests and power relations that exist between stakeholders with an interest in sustainable tourism. Of particular consideration here are voices, values, and knowledge of ethnic minority, marginalised groups or individuals who are discriminated against for reasons of ethnicity, gender or other. Such technical knowledge includes not only information contained in traditional academic sources, but also an appreciation of other forms of knowledge (local, indigenous/traditional and so on).

5. Policy and political literacies – The creation of an appreciation for the way in which sustainable tourism is planned and managed, how decisions are made and how implementation occurs, as well as the profile, and how the influence and power of stakeholders become drivers are paramount to education. Planning, policy and politics are intertwined such that students need to build literacies about how policy is made and planning is conducted. Collaboration, networks and partnerships, community participation and decision making, as well as related issues of power, influence and trust, are important to understand.

6. Ethical literacies – Refers to the development of values and ethical positions of learners' and the way they think of and engage with change-making. These values may be heightened not only through different kinds of learning experiences, but also through application, reflection, and the development of practical wisdom [phronesis] through collaborative learning.

The salience of these six points has been heightened as a result of Covid-19, but upon reflecting on my post-academic journey I add a seventh essential literacy:

7. Thinking about thinking. Learning to reflect upon and understand how we think, to recognise the barriers and blind spots in the way that we view the world, and to rise to the challenge of thinking outside our comfort zones would appear to be an important bridge across all of the above literacies.


Alongside new and reimagined content that addresses emerging knowledge needs, and the different literacies we need to enable complex problem solving, new learning experiences are needed. Over 20 years, we have experimented with a range of embedded, experiential learning opportunities that have unleashed transformational learning in professional development contexts, in community settings, in business settings and in higher education.

Under Covid-19, there are enormous opportunities to bring these learning opportunities closer to home, and to develop and amplify hyper-local learning opportunities so that we can re-imagine and experience the future of tourism.

In sum, education is the future of tourism, but not as we currently know it. Tourism education will be vastly different brought about by the declining funding and the gutting of the human assets and knowledge base in many universities, but also the rise of innovative, agile private providers with different and complementary skills and knowledge sets. How we navigate this change, think creatively, and our courage to depart from old ways and assumptions will define where we go.

Collaboration between players is essential and innovative partnerships await. Education is all around us, and it is how we choose to frame and engage that will define our future directions. Our contribution here has been to map out:

  • the role of education in imagining the future

  • the skills that need to be developed

  • emerging content areas that will become increasingly important

  • diverse ways of delivering the kind of education that will transform our thinking

  • an invitation to rethink the role of traditional education players and the need for innovative public-private partnerships.

Let's hear your thoughts and identify the opportunities!

About The Tourism CoLab

The Tourism CoLab is a capacity-building social enterprise that adopts design thinking and creative collaborative methodologies to help co-design the future of tourism. We deliver workshops, online courses, walking workshops, and unique professional development and learning experiences where even the most seasoned veterans learn something new and come away transformed. We are engaged in advocacy and systems change through the provision of policy advice, white papers, keynote speaking engagement, workshops and working with organisations ranging from the European Commission to the OECD to local government.

Website: or contact us.

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