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.”

To his mind, the call for more practice-oriented research is “a reality we have to respond to by integrating social impact into our research deliberations from the very beginning, instead of theoretical contributions to knowledge.”

What might this look like? David Weaver:

So maybe the very first question we ask when composing grant applications is “What can I do in tourism research that will have the maximum benefit for the greatest number of people?” Even if our findings are measurable and tangible and demonstrably beneficial, we will have to work closely with relevant NGOs, community groups and government agencies to ensure that such a non-academic “champion” works with us on the implementation phase. Concurrently, universities will have to ease the pressure on us to produce high-tier academic outputs so that we can put more of our energy into communicating with stakeholders in layman terms and helping with implementation and monitoring.

Just like David Weaver, Xavier Font of Surrey University also calls for a change in tourism research priorities:

My concern is that research effort is not optimised, because it is driven by personal agendas rather than societal needs. So all too often, I fear that sustainability research is really going nowhere. At least nowhere that has an impact on society. Compare it with medical research, would you really start a project there that didn’t have a very specific, needs-based focus? We need fewer publications but with more substantial evidence and societal impact.

Martha Honey of CREST in the USA offers a similar view. She urges academics “to undertake research which will really help make a difference”:

Tourism sustainability is now an imperative, particularly in the age of climate change. We must change the way we travel and the way the tourism industry operates. Therefore academics should consciously undertake research which will give the tools and provide the evidence needed to support sustainable practices.

Whether all academics are comfortable with this change is questionable, though, judging by Geoffrey Wall’s thoughts on the issue:

I view myself as being a traditional academic whose main aims are to generate and share knowledge. I have not felt pressure to be relevant although I have always felt it important to point out the implications of my research. However, I have been involved in many planning exercises and international projects where recommendations must be made.

Perhaps the root of the problem is, as Richard Butler admits, that “many of us teaching in tourism have had no experience of the operational side of the industry.”

Also within academia, there is ample potential for researchers and institutions to work together more closely, tells us David Weaver:

It would be logical for university-clusters of excellence to work together internally, and then with other clusters to further this agenda. Examples include southeast Queensland (Griffith, UQ, Southern Cross), southern England (Surrey, Bournemouth, Portsmouth), Beijing and Shanghai.

In his view, “the problem with working with individual universities is that tourism is often given low priority, and status as a sustainability leader may be dependent on one or two individuals who could leave or retire.” For him, the benefit of clusters is that those tend to be more resilient and durable.

Hot topics in tourism research

The need for more collaboration across and beyond disciplines is reflected by the answer of Susanne Becken of the GIFT Institute at Griffith University, on the question where she sees sustainable tourism research headed:

What I like to see happen more – and it is starting – is to link more systematically with other core research areas, for example systems dynamics, political sciences, architecture etc. Tourism researchers can learn a lot from leading researchers in those areas, and vice versa I believe that those with expertise in tourism can successfully cross-fertilise into these disciplines by providing interesting real-world applications.

In terms of key topics tourism researchers should focus on, David Weaver suggests to find ways for identifying and changing the behaviour of consumers, since this still represents a major challenge for a more sustainable tourism:

Some work has been done in the area of transformative interpretation, and there is promising research into the relationship between peak experiences and emotions on one hand, and behavioural change on the other.

Dagmar Lund-Durlacher of MODUL University in Vienna observes a growing importance of social aspects in tourism research linked to sustainability:

Besides environmental aspects, there are more and more social aspects included in the sustainable tourism research agenda. Climate change, negative environmental impacts, resource scarcity, and mobility issues are still seen as important topics, but social issues such as integration, poverty alleviation, work force related aspects, and social well-being gain importance. In recent years also the concept of social entrepreneurship entered the research agenda.

Reporting from Sri Lanka, Professor Sheikh Md Monzurul Huq observes that “political ecology issues associated with tourism have become an important topic of research.”

For Martha Honey, tourism researchers should “nail down the economic costs and benefits of different types of tourism”. As she has learned through her work at CREST, “numbers speak to policy makers and business leaders and therefore can help them in making key choices about what types of tourism to pursue and permute.”

Lastly, the travel phase is likely to receive more research attention in the near future. As Geoffrey Wall notes, compared to studies on destinations, the impacts of the travel phase have received much less attention”. As he further writes, “more full accounting of the impacts of different types of tourism is required and, if done, may give rise to some surprises”.

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Sustainable Tourism Research: 2017 Trends, Priorities and Challenges