Promoting Sustainable Development through Tourism Education – The Role of the World Tourism Organization

Zurab Pololikashvili
June 27, 2022

Tourism is all about people. People travel for human interactions, to make connections and experience different cultures. At the same time, tourism is a leading provider of employment and pillar of opportunity. And the sector itself is dependent on the people who power it.

However, while every link of the broad tourism value chain recognizes the importance of training and education, it remains the case that just 50% of workers go beyond developing secondary skills – by which we mean behavioral skills such as following or giving instructions, relating with others or communicating ideas. Although this 'set' of aptitudes is essential, on their own these skills are not sufficient, especially when we consider that tourism is one of the most competitive sectors of the economy, contributing 3.5 trillion dollars to global GDP in 2019.

Multilateral cooperation, and specifically the UN World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), play a key role to further tourism education by creating accessible content and guidance for tourism workers and public officials, partner with educational institutions and the private sector, and facilitate the matching of skilled workers and job opportunities in the tourism sector. Multilateral institutions can thus add to creating jobs, promoting decent work, and facilitating the functioning of the global tourism sector.

Skill gaps and needs for tourism

Again, while these soft skills are indispensable, the focus should be on ensuring that the tourism workforce - made up, to a significant degree, of women and young people - develop the hard-skills that will enable them to remain competitive and have an impact on the development of the sector. Such hard skills include database management, data analysis, technical knowledge, computer skills, analytical skills, marketing, project management, languages, design and copywriting. In the medium term, possessing only soft skills does not seem to be a major problem. However, issues begin to brew when academic training stagnates there - when labor informality goes from being an exception to becoming the rule.

UNWTO’s approach to tourism education and innovation

For this reason, four years ago, upon starting my mandate as Secretary-General of the UNWTO, I knew that one of the strategic pillars of the organization had to be the promotion and strengthening of education. Not only for the purpose of supporting UNWTO’s member states to assess and address their educational needs but also to democratize training opportunities to aspiring tourism professionals from all corners of the world, for instance through more and wider online training which would reach those who would otherwise be at risk of missing out or being left behind.

Consistent with our strong belief in the integral links between tourism education and digitalization, I decided to create UNWTO's first department for education and innovation. Indeed, these variables are inseparable. You cannot expect to have a sector with trained professionals if you do not offer innovative, intuitive, and easily accessible tools. Nor can you speak of a digitized tourism sector if you do not have the trained professionals to make this happen.

UNWTO's education strategy has been forged around four fundamental axes: online education and training opportunities; training programmes for tourism officials in the public sector; digital tools to obtain value-added jobs; and overseeing high-quality tourism education through the assessment and accreditation of tourism institutions.

Digital tourism education and training opportunities for all

The rise of online learning has allowed students from all corners of the world to access higher education programmes. While these platforms must still overcome some challenges - since they are based on the privilege of having access to a computer and an internet connection - they have become an ideal mechanism through which underprivileged students can access certifications and even academic degrees that become the gateway to the labor market. Recognizing this, we created the ‘UNWTO Tourism Online Academy.’ This free and self-paced online learning platform provides students with theories, concepts, fundamental principles and challenges related to the sector. This includes topics such as globalization, digitalization, international law, travel marketing and sustainability, among others. To date, we have hosted more than 15,000 students from 191 countries in our 20 online courses taught in English, with some options available in Spanish and Arabic.

Upon completion of a course, students have the chance to acquire certificates from partner universities (namely IE University, Sommet Education, the Swiss Education group) for a modest fee. Between 2020 and 2021, we granted more than 3,000 scholarships for obtaining such certificates, most of them to citizens from the UNWTO’s Least Developed Countries (LDCs) and Small Island Developing States (SIDS) member states.

Training programs for tourism officials

In addition to strengthening the skills of tourism professionals, it is essential that national and local tourism officials assume leading roles to promote tourism as a catalyst of economic growth, inclusive development, and environmental sustainability. Between 2020 and 2021, more than 4,700 tourism officials from around the world participated in online and in-person workshops and training courses at the UNWTO Academy to learn about key trends and issues in tourism; destination management; occupational safety and health; digital and soft skills; sustainable tourism; innovation and digitalization; crisis management and marketing.

Ensuring access to added-value jobs

The pandemic has hit tourism hard, putting between 100 and 120 million direct tourism jobs at risk. At UNWTO, we know it is not enough to warn of the dangers; we need to offer solutions too. At the start of the crisis, we decided to harness the potential of technology to launch the UNWTO Jobs Factory, a platform based on artificial intelligence which aims to improve talent acquisition and foster competitiveness, helping a global workforce access local and international employment opportunities.

Its primary purpose is to facilitate finding and securing new jobs. Tourism workers will be able to create a profile on the Jobs Factory to explore and apply for hospitality and non-hospitality jobs that match their professional experience and skills. At the same time, an employer will benefit from a combination of machine learning, algorithms, and deep learning, to gain access to the best solutions for hospitality recruitment.

Ensure quality in tourism education programs

Promoting and advocating for quality tourism education implies analyzing the phenomena from a comprehensive perspective. As such, we needed to include the institutions that offer higher education programmes in tourism, in charge of educating trained professionals with increasingly multipurpose skills, such as the aforementioned hard-skills and soft-skills. To guarantee the quality of the education provided by the different institutions worldwide, we developed an evaluation system - universally applicable to any institution - that seeks, among other things, to measure the efficiency of their academic system, as well as their degree of incorporation of the tourism industry and the needs of the students. The objective of UNWTO.TEDQUAL is to improve the quality of tourism education, training, and research programmes.

At UNWTO, we stand firm with our unrestricted commitment to ensure tourism education is based on a solid foundation of digitalization because it will be vital not only for the recovery of the sector but also to ensure in the medium and long term, a workforce equipped with hard-skills, accessing quality jobs, where they themselves, with their ideas and innovations, will transform the sector into a more sustainable, profitable one for those who decide to invest in it – supported by the development and use of technology and innovation – as the main axis of its operation.

About the author:

Zurab Pololikashvili has been Secretary-General of the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) since January 2018. Prior to this, he worked in a number of high-level roles in both the private and public sectors. Under his leadership, UNWTO has gained unprecedented visibility and prominence within the United Nations system, strengthened bonds with other key agencies and placed tourism at the heart of the wider agenda for recovery and sustainable development.

The views and opinions expressed in this think-piece are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of SIPA or Columbia University.