Tourism is a person-to-person industry and interpersonal relations are vital. The critical success factors [CSF] for a tourism enterprise are, like those for many other businesses, based on the uniqueness of the product and the efficiency and effectiveness of the accompanying services. Because USPs alone often fail to draw feet in this cut-throat industry an enterprise might have a market lead only because of excellent service. Therefore, a lot hinges on the people at the destination who provide that service; the destination cannot do without a spirited service. This makes employing the right worker who provides the service, a complex task. And yet employers often do not see the complexity of it.

The tourism industry has more than enough challenges that are seated within the typical characteristics of the industry itself. The worker is at the mercy of many variants and in the face of these, employee and employer alike tend to put their heads in the sand. And in the tourism industry that attitude is of no use!  If one looks at the challenges, the influences and the law, it is easy to get despondent, but it is as easy to look at possible solutions. So, what are the characteristics that generate so many challenges?

Tourism is a multi-faceted, complex and sophisticated industry that expects a sophisticated knowledge and a variety of tiptop skills from its stakeholders. Not anybody can be a successful participant. Workers have to be tooled and retooled continuously to be able to handle the knowledge and skills that will make them employable and put them in a position to maintain and develop their career in tourism. 

The tooling and retooling includes making available relevant knowledge and skills so that most workers can master core elements. Normally this is done at the hand of learning programmes that have to address real-to-their-work-world issues and will have to lead to a culture of lifelong learning.  Sadly developing, presenting and attending learning programmes for this industry are big challenges for the educator, employer and the worker cum learner in an industry that in itself is a challenge.

For one, many workers see tourism as a job and not as a career and are tempted and propped up in this notion by the seasonality of the industry on the one hand, and the fact that it is often seen as a flippant occupation because of the fun that is to be had, on the other. Yet, no tourism worker, not even the very seasoned ones, can claim that they know it all – the industry provides ample opportunities for “I never knew that”-moments. 

Tourism is a labour-intensive industry and employs a large and varied workforce that is neither homogenous nor static. So, looking at this issue from the employer’s side one sees that in addition to the large numbers they have to employ, the characteristic high staff mobility, a workforce that does not often have the time, money or motivation to get involved in further education one can see that there is little reason for over-enthusiasm. Besides, stakeholders can never be fully prepared for all eventualities, which makes the mountain seem even higher. 

Unfortunately the industry is fragmented and this poses a challenge to reach a uniform standard in education and training. The employer has no guarantee that the candidate’s qualification will empower him/her to know and be able to do what is expected. There is no sign yet of internationally accepted standards in prevocational education. As it is, there is a struggle keeping the balance between pre-vocational qualifications and on the job training. Added to that is the state in which the local Sector Education and Training Authorities are in.


On the one hand, the frontline worker pool is often drawn from the lesser-educated in the area who then need to get on the job training at the local establishment if individuals want to reach the required level of competence to enter and progress in the industry. Ironically, on the other, there is globally a scarcity of jobs for people who have tourism qualifications.

Education and training is expensive and employers are out on their own on this one, as governments do not always put their money where their mouths are. Activities in the industry are not always geared to making a super profit either, and this might have an influence on the funding of learning programmes.

A further deterrent for employers to providing the needed opportunities for their employees to learn is the leakage that occurs in most areas of especially, but not exclusively, rural destinations. Money leaks out of the host destination by outsiders benefiting from the attributes of the destination (for example, a large city-based adventure tourism company that operates in a rural area and only employs people from the city leaves little benefit for the locals).

Employers’ excuse for not employing locals is often that locals are not educated enough about the tourism industry. Yet the fact that both locals and “imported” workers have to be educated and trained is often overlooked. Locals will have to gain skills and knowledge of the industry and imported workers will have to gain knowledge about the area and its people. Which group’s needs are prioritised will have a significant influence on the design of a general learning programme for the destination. For instance, the need for the local workforce to be able to communicate effectively, is a very real necessity, but it might take longer to equip them. Learning to communicate effectively is not an overnight miracle, but the rewards are longer lasting for both the employer and the local employee.

Looking at it from the workers’ side, one cannot ignore the fact that the industry is seasonal, causing long periods of low or unemployment, which has an influence on the motivation of learners. Their odd working hours makes the learning process even more difficult to manage for the worker. Other dynamics like the proximity and sustainability of the destination, the industry’s sophistication, complexities and demands, the effect of tourism on the community and on the personal life of the worker can be daunting. Frontline workers often have to learn on the job, which results in just in time learning because of the multifarious situations they have to face – every tourist is after all different and has different needs as every destination is different and has different needs and attributes. This clearly asks for a broad educational base, which does not necessarily exist in the average worker. The tourism worker has thus to make a concerted effort to engage in lifelong learning and has to be supported in this effort.

One of the main reasons why tourism stakeholders have to continually be updated about the never-ending changes that happen both in and out of the industry is that tourism is reliant on events outside the industry.  Nobody can deny the disastrous effect the present visa situation or even xenophobia in South Africa has on our industry.

There is of course also the bright side to the influence of tourism where events like the World Cup and other big sport events give the host country’s tourism industry a mammoth injection and leave lasting benefits. However, the benefits for a host destination, not only the monetary ones, but also the social and environmental benefits can only be effective if whole communities are educated. Communities are impacted, but often ill-prepared to handle the challenges inherent to the tourism industry. To prepare them there would have to be structured programmes for adult learning. Julius Nyerere, an African politician-developer, advocated adult education as the way to transform societies. He said: “Societies become better places through the development of people” and tourism by its very nature provides the reason for a whole society affected by the event of tourism, to be educated and trained.

A country’s uniqueness often pivots on its culture. It is often experiencing the uniqueness and the quality of a destination that draws people to visit, revisit and tell others about it. This uniqueness, manifesting in its people as culture, ultimately is who we are and what we do. The word “culture” is often used as opposite to “nature” and then implies “civilisation”. Yet, tourism has managed to intertwine the two concepts because the industry realises that they are inextricably connected – nature at a destination has an influence on who the locals are and what they do. And at the basis of this uniqueness is the community.  Communities are the place where individuals are rooted in being who they are; there their thinking about their identity is shaped and there they are allowed to live that identity. The attitude of a community towards growth and change could enhance lifelong learning in the individuals that are part of it, which is the only way in which the needed cutting-edge knowledge and skills can be obtained. Introducing and encouraging a culture of lifelong learning in a whole community, therefore, should be part of every tourism programme that gets a community ready to host visitors.

The challenge is to consistently create as well as utilise opportunities to update knowledge and skills if you want to be able to handle the challenges of today’s knowledge revolution. A tourism learning centre for the community will improve the quality of life of individuals as well as the whole community through learning, but the positive effect will hinge on whether those individuals and communities take up the challenge of learning, realising that every member of society has to adapt to the inevitable impact and changes that come with tourism or die, get equipped or be isolated. 

Accordingly, transformed societies will thus become better places to develop and keep developing people to willingly become empowered to communally build social capital and encourage justice and prosperity. Only in that way will it become an equipped tourism community.   

The design of generic education and training programmes is very complex. Tourism does not lend itself to the easy development of learning programmes because it has a unique inherent structure, diversity and nature [Cooper, Shepherd and Westlake, 1996 ]. It also is a young industry, which poses challenges to the educators as there are few or no benchmarks and changes happen fast and often. Added to this is that there are many one-man bands and small operators who cannot easily afford to go or send their employees on quality learning programmes. Yet, because “there is a continual tension between being and becoming” individuals in a profession are always challenged to grow [Maggs, p 25-26 ]: “The process of challenge and change is a maturing process, one which should be dynamic, dialectic…” and the industry can only benefit from workers who will be able to handle the many challenges that are part of their daily activities in a mature way.

Du Plessis will offer up solutions in a follow-up column.