Friday, September 27, 2013

Preaching to the Converted

As I mentioned in some of my past postings, I am here in Nairobi to attend a conference, the Ecotourism and Sustainable Tourism Conference.  (Yes, I agree, the Department of Redundancy Department must have been responsible for the naming.) For the last several days I’ve been attending workshops, presentations and other networking events with both industry practitioners and academics.  Today as I was sitting in one of the sessions I began reflecting on the conference and feeling very Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

On the one hand I am definitely enjoying the conference.  I’ve certainly learned a lot, particularly about ecotourism efforts here in Africa.  If nothing else I have plenty of examples now which I can use in my teaching.  I always feel as if I don’t know enough about tourism here in Africa, and since I teach here I consider that a bit of a personal weakness.  But being here has exposed me to a lot of different industry approaches and ideas I haven’t seen before in the U.S. 
However, on the other end of the spectrum I have been looking at the research discussed here and think it leaves a lot to be desired.  If all the academic researchers were from Africa I would be a little more understanding, but most of them are from the U.S. Now, I should note there is only one conference attendee from the Hospitality and Tourism Management field. But he’s not presenting.  All the academic presenters are from Parks and Recreation departments.  Apparently the expectations are quite different between HTM and PR research, because nothing that I’ve seen thus far would ever get published in an HTM journal.  The research I’ve seen here has been a lot of participant observations and interviews, which is practically impossible to get published in top tier tourism journals. And many of these presentations don’t even address data collection or methodology, they are conceptual, or opinion pieces.  So, from where I stand the rigor seems to really be missing.

The other thing about the research is that many of these “studies” fail to provide managerial implications.  That is something we always emphasize with empirical research.  I guess after ten years of doing research if I don’t hear, “I found ABC which means hotel managers/ tour operators/ restaurants/ etc. should do XYZ” then I can’t quite comprehend the point of the study.  Yesterday I listened to an Associate Professor give a presentation on how nature is amazing and the chameleon’s ability to adapt and hide from predators is a miracle.  The entire time I was sitting there thinking, “So what? How does this help my bottom line if I am the Director of Tourism for a destination?”  Then again, maybe I have tunnel-vision.  But I frequently find myself listening to these presentations, and thinking that the speaker is preaching to the converted.  If the speaker really wanted to be helpful he would give people suggestions on how to help other properties become more ecofriendly and sustainable.  Sadly this topic has never been broached.
As I mentioned, there is one other HTM professor and he is from Hong Kong Polytechnic University.  I visited HKPU when I was in China in April.  That is the most amazing program I have ever seen.  The resources and faculty they have are top notch and the research they do can’t be duplicated.  I would consider them the absolute benchmark in Hospitality and Tourism programs worldwide.  The reason I mention this is because the HKPU professor is here as an observer, not a presenter.  This leads me to believe that perhaps HKPU is going to add an Ecotourism track, or at the very least, some Ecotourism classes to their curriculum.  I know for a fact this professor doesn’t do Ecotourism research and he is an administrator, which is why I suspect this.  HKPU tends to come up with good ideas and then other programs follow its lead, so I wonder if other hospitality programs may start offering Ecotourism courses soon.  I think doing so would certainly be beneficial, but at the same time more HTM academics will need to start doing rigorous Ecotourism research.  Perhaps the tides will start turning in that direction.  But either way, it will need to be approached from a different direction instead of attempting to preach to the converted.

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