Sustainable tourism has become a buzzword since the 1990s, serving as the guiding principle in tourism planning and development by governments, the industry players, academia and NGOs. Last year was the United Nations’ International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development. It also marked the 10th anniversary of the Master of Social Science Programme in Sustainable Tourism (MSSST), the first of its kind locally and regionally, founded by CUHK’s Department of Geography and Resource Management.
Thirst for Talent
The programme’s impact is significant for the burgeoning tourism industry. According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, international tourist arrivals generated 292 million jobs in 2016—equivalent to one in 10 jobs in the global economy—and accounted for more than 10% of global GDP. But if economic growth trumps environmental limits and sociocultural capacity, sustainability will be elusive. ‘Ecotourism is responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment. But ecotourism is not always sustainable, especially when it’s beyond the capacity that the locals and the environment can bear,’ said Prof. Lawal Marafa, director of MSSST.
MSSST combines the principles of environmental management and sustainable development, and explores the direction of sustainable tourism development in Hong Kong and other regions. ‘Our faculty members strive to inculcate in our students a holistic understanding of sustainable tourism by offering quality small-class teaching and engaging them in various local and overseas field studies.’ Provided with a solid theoretical training and know-how to implement sustainable tourism, its students are offered a sumptuous intellectual feast: lectures, workshops, field trips, independent research, international conferences, and networking opportunities with industry professionals.
One of the strategies listed in the ‘Development Blueprint for Hong Kong’s Tourism Industry’ issued last year by the Tourism Commission of the Commerce and Economic Development Bureau is to nurture and develop tourism products and initiatives with local and international characteristics, including cultural tourism, heritage tourism, green tourism, and creative tourism. ‘Most of these aspects are covered in MSSST. Right at the beginning of our curriculum planning, we intended to nurture talent to meet the society’s needs. Now we have more than 300 graduates. I’m elated whenever our graduates come back and tell us how they apply their knowledge at work,’ said Professor Marafa, hardly suppressing a smile of satisfaction.
The Making of Inquisitive Learners
Field trips are part of MSSST graduates’ fondest memories. Alumna Wendy Yang found her previous Sabah field study unforgettable, during which she learnt about the traditional cultures from her host family, mingled with the local tourism majors, and examined the special tourism features up close. ‘Rather than sunbathing on the beach, I discovered some tourists planted tea with the locals. I also appreciate the environmental consciousness of some tourist hikers who avoided creating rubbish on the way.’ Students observe the behaviours of the locals and the tourists, record significant raw data, and apply their knowledge in the field trips, during which they develop an interdisciplinary perspective, collaborative research skills and critical thinking.
The world is a classroom for MSSST students, where they put their knowledge in context and provide solutions to environmental sustainability and destination planning. In 2016, MSSST students visited Spain and France to understand such things as nature-based tourism in the national park along the Spain-France border and industrial tourism in Catalonia in Spain. Another cohort of students paid a visit to Taman Negara National Park in Malaysia to explore the three-million-year-old tropical rainforest and abundant wildlife. They formed groups to investigate the local community’s perception of tourism development, conservation and environmental sustainability, and business competition and tourism marketing strategy. Their methodologies included questionnaire-based survey, in-depth interviews with different stakeholders and content analysis of promotional materials.
Hong Kong is always considered a mature urban destination with shopping malls, skyscrapers and theme park attractions. Tourism nowadays, however, is far beyond the hypes. Prof. Johnson Chan teaches ‘Urban Tourism’ in MSSST. His students examine the urban tourism development and issues relevant to the management and marketing of destinations. ‘Apart from visiting shopping districts such as Temple Street and Canton Road, students identify tourism potential in religious places like Tao Fong Shan Christian Centre and Chi Lin Nunnery,’ said Professor Chan. He planned to incorporate the elements of dark tourism in the course. ‘My students will explore the city’s inconvenient truths by visiting its less glamorous underbelly. Frankly, tourists are getting interested in knowing how the locals live. Some of them even visit the homeless and the residents of subdivided units.’
Place branding is one of his research foci. ‘It is a process of matching the expectations of multiple stakeholders including the locals, the tourists and the industry players. A thorough understanding of sustainable tourism would lead to successful creation of place branding,’ Professor Chan said. He encourages his students to discover the city’s hidden gems at their own pace. ‘The neglected corners of the wealthy city always show the beauty and uniqueness of the city. For instance, the colourful Choi Hung Estate has a certain je ne sais quoi that makes it popular to street photographers.’ To the flâneurs of MSSST, city roaming to discover the authentic local life and diversified tourism products is vital to destination planning.
Craving for Commitment
Wendy works as a teaching assistant in MSSST now. ‘I was a non-local student in the programme. The steely support of my classmates, professors and staff helped me overcome the challenges in academic study and adapt to the lifestyle in Hong Kong.’ The amiable atmosphere and camaraderie she experienced have become her motivation to re-join the big family and support the students over the course of their study. ‘We’re proud of our solidarity. Our alumni occasionally come back to give career advice to the students. Two alumni founded a hiking group and welcomed like-minded persons to hike with them. When a core member returned to Shanghai, she formed another hiking group and continued to spread the value of sustainability,’ said Wendy.
The programme has been organizing international conferences on sustainable tourism annually since 2012 to facilitate academic dialogues. Professor Marafa found it encouraging to have received abstracts submitted by MSSST alumni who are now making impacts in the industry. ‘We have commemorated a decade of excellence. With concerted effort of the MSSST community, we aspire to be a cradle of committed leaders with innovative and entrepreneurial spirits.’
This article was originally published in No. 514, Newsletter.