Degrees in Travel and Tourism: Going on holiday can be a serious business

Courses in the travel business cover everything from finance to ethics, says Steve McCormack
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The Independent Online

In the 18th and 19th centuries, tourism was used by the English upper classes as a vehicle for education. Young men and chaperoned women embarking on a grand tour would head for the museums of France and Italy, imbibing lung-fulls of Alpine air, and returning healthier in body and mind.

Now, the situations are reversed. The higher education system is being used to transport today's twentysomethings into the world of tourism.

The first tourism degrees appeared in the late 1980s, and the following decade saw rapid expansion as more higher education institutions created courses with as much vocational content as academic.

Now, around 60 universities offer some type of tourism degree, and there are more than 1,000 individual courses on offer. A sign of the maturity of tourism as a university subject is the existence of the Association for Tourism in Higher Education (ATHE), which monitors the content of, and participants in, degree programmes.

The ATHE's communications officer, Dr Marion Stuart-Hoyle, who lectures in tourism at Canterbury Christ Church University in Kent, says that courses are suitable for one broad category of student. "A tourism degree is a programme for students who want to work in a supervisory or managerial role for tourism organisations in the public or private sectors," she explains.

All courses contain a core curriculum, developed in the 1990s, and featuring the business aspects of tourism, including marketing, finance and human resources, enhanced more recently by strengthened components on the environmental impacts of tourism, and tourism in developing countries.

Among the first institutions to start a degree in this area was Bournemouth University, where the tourism department now has 250 undergraduates, 120 masters students and 30 PhD students. The department head, Dr Keith Wilkes, describes the BA degree in tourism management as structured very strongly around business disciplines, and enjoying an 80 to 90 per cent employment rate on graduation.

Bournemouth's is one of the minority of courses to have a third-year work placement, spent in a variety of places: tour operators' offices, airlines and local authority tourism departments. Wilkes sees this year as vital and one in which the students mature out of all recognition, he says.

"They come back having a good idea of which parts of the business attract them and which jobs they are good at," he explains.

Bournemouth has more placement offers from businesses than it has students, he says. And student applications to start a degree this autumn are up past the peak of three years ago.

Although core business-related elements feature on every tourism course, a recent phenomenon is the variety of blends of degree on offer, reflecting the breadth of ways people spend their leisure time. So you can do adventure tourism at nine universities, eco-tourism at six, and sports tourism at five.

At the University of Westminster, the tourism and planning degree, taught within the school of architecture and the built environment, looks at how urban environments adapt to absorb what is a new tourism phenomenon.

The effects of tourism are given an ethical twist at Brighton University. Peter Burns, professor of international tourism, regards tourism as a "super complex social phenomenon", and considers it vital that students look beyond the selfish concerns of tourist businesses.

"Our graduates come away with competence in finance, marketing and managing people - and an understanding of the social and environmental implications of large-scale tourism in developing countries," he explains.

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