Sustainable tourism research: current trends and challenges

Running a successful tourism business or destination can be exhausting, with little time for staying up to date on sustainable tourism research and academia. For the Sustainability Leaders Project, we made it part of our mission to enable practitioners and researchers to learn from each other.

Based on our interview series with tourism professionals, in this post we offer you a snapshot of current thinking, trends and challenges linked to the research and study of tourism and sustainability.

Learn about:

  • Tourism sustainability as university subject;
  • Societal impact and relevance of tourism research;
  • Hot topics in tourism research.

Tourism sustainability as university subject

Feedback on sustainable tourism as study focus is mixed. On the one hand, Alan Wong of Hong Kong Polytechnic University observes growing interest in sustainability and sustainable tourism among his students in China.

On the other hand, Geoffrey Wall, Emeritus Professor at the University of Waterloo in Canada laments that “tourism education and research has become increasingly inward looking, as young scholars read and are encouraged to publish in specialized journals to the neglect of engagement with other disciplines.”

Richard Butler, Emeritus Professor at Strathclyde University in Scotland, shares this view. For him, it is unfortunate that most tourism students “have a limited background in terms of deep knowledge in any traditional discipline.”

According to Jafar Jafari, the danger is that “some students and researchers, as they zoom on their research topics, lose sight of the essence of tourism which is inherently a sociocultural phenomenon and that this must be kept in mind no matter how afield research take them.”

Taking into account those rather pessimistic viewpoints by some of the most eminent tourism and geography scholars, on tourism as a valid university subject in its own right, it hardly surprises that opinions about the actual impact and relevance of tourism research are mixed at best.

Social impact and relevance of tourism research

For David Weaver of Griffith University in Queensland, Australia, the main challenge for sustainable tourism research is the continuing disconnect between practitioners and academics:

The debates we have within our universities are almost completely unknown and ineffectual within industry. At first I thought that there would be mutual benefit from sharing our ideas and knowledge, but now I am more and more thinking that industry will progress just fine without any input at all from academic research. I say this because businesses that survive have to be resilient, and ‘organic’ solutions to sustainability-related problems are emerging all the time, based on responsiveness to market and other circumstances.

But why is it so difficult for tourism researchers to engage with practitioners and thus make academic research more relevant and beneficial for businesses and destinations? David Weaver sees the reason for this in “that we have been trained to acquire knowledge and publish this in peer-reviewed journals; positive social impacts were an unanticipated and serendipitous outcome of such labour.”

Sustainable Tourism Research: 2017 Trends, Priorities and Challenges
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