April 19, 2024


For Natalia Bayona (Bucaramanga, Colombia, 1985) the commitment to education seems unwavering, and from her new position she endorses the urgent need to advance in the training and professionalization of those who work in the tourism industry. The Colombian is the first woman under the age of 40 to be appointed executive director of the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), the United Nations agency dedicated to promoting responsible, sustainable and accessible tourism. “Tourism is the most human sector of all; it is the one that employs the largest number of women and young people. And yet, 50% of the young people who work in this field only have a secondary education, ”she maintains by videoconference.

For the first time in the history of the organization, the UNWTO embarks, hand in hand with the University of Lucerne (Switzerland), in the creation of a university degree in sustainable international tourism, which will see the light of day from the 2024-2025 academic year. A three-band degree (Madrid, Lucerne and on-line) which will become the spearhead of its efforts to revalue an “accessible, affordable and quality” education capable of facing tourism challenges strongly linked to the values ​​of the UN and the 2030 Agenda.

Ask. Why is sustainable tourism education important?

Answer. Tourism today has a very important challenge, which is to help the labor force to be more powerful and more professionalized. Half of the young people in the tourism sector only have high school, and if you look at their desires, 50% want at some point in their lives to be entrepreneurs. That’s why they need to train. But it is also that tourism is one of the great poles of economic development for countries. You see it in Spain, where 12% of GDP comes from tourism; in France, which is the most touristic nation; In the United States, it ranks third. And, despite this, young people do not necessarily have the education they need, nor are the curricula adequate to current challenges.

Q. Education, of course, is one of those.

R. Of course, because, to begin with, 80% of the curricula and programs that are promoted in tourism are focused on a single branch, the hotel industry, when in fact it includes more than 100 subsectors of the economy. You have to diversify! In the medium term, we are going to have a very big challenge to hire people with other profiles, who can talk about administration, tourist destinations, innovation and technology, public policies, transport, travel agencies or hospitality, for example.

But it is also that today tourism needs leaders who have the ability to work as a team and under pressure, who have communication and technological skills, who are resilient… Look what happened with the covid: tourism was the only sector that fell 74%. And neither can we continue to import talent from other sectors of the economy; you have to create it.

Q. What other challenges does tourism have ahead?

R. One of the main challenges has to do with sustainable development, which goes far beyond the environment. It is about being able to truly measure the social impact of tourism in terms not only of employment and investment, but also with respect to the generation of wealth in local communities, in territories that are not necessarily the capitals or traditional tourist centers. A process in which, in addition, emerging companies will be key (startups) and the SMEs, who will be the ones who tell what are the tourist experiences to be developed. And we can mentor, support and promote the best initiatives.

Another issue has to do with the need to consider tourism as a State policy, a transversal priority that not only involves the ministry that has this portfolio, but also includes the Treasury, to increase budgets, generate tax exemptions and support for the growth of investment in the sector; the Ministry of Education, to include tourism as a relevant subject in secondary and higher education; to the Ministry of the Interior, to guarantee security and confidence; to that of Culture…

Q. Why has a UN agency such as the UNWTO been involved in the creation of a university degree?

R. Tourism is a very dynamic sector that quickly becomes obsolete. That is why it is impossible to always teach the same thing, and that is why the UNWTO decided to join forces with the University of Lucerne, which is one of the best public universities in Switzerland, so that we also become an example for other Member States on how to build an innovative curriculum in tourism. It will be completed in three phases: a first in Madrid, a second in Switzerland and another in a hybrid format, and those who study it will have access to internships at UNWTO.

This degree will have something that others do not have, because we ourselves are going to design the educational modules according to what we believe should be sustainability, innovation, social impact and statistics in the management and administration of tourist destinations. It is a 360 model that does not focus on any specific subsector, but will offer comprehensive training in the international development of tourism: those who want to be entrepreneurs can, because there are entrepreneurship and innovation modules; they will be able to work in a hotel; in a tourism promotion agency like Turespaña; as a local tourist destination management agency; become hoteliers…

Q. You mention that education has to be accessible, but I don’t know to what extent that agrees with going to study in Switzerland…

R. Studying the degree costs about 12,500 euros, but if you compare it with the rest of the universities that have the same quality in Spain, you see how a private university can cost you twice as much. In addition, the idea is not that the degree is made only for Swiss and Spanish, but that it is intended to grow and that people, at an international level, can come here to study it. Spain is also a pole of education.

Q. How can tourism be introduced into secondary education, and for what reason?

R. Tourism is the great employer of young people, but when you look at where it is in the secondary education curriculum, you realize that it does not even appear as an elective. This process is being carried out in very few countries: Colombia, Jamaica, Israel, Greece, Portugal, China, the United Kingdom, the United States… We have already signed agreements with three of the most important methodologies in education: Cambridge, the American Educational Institute of Hospitality and Hospitality (AHLEI) and the International Baccalaureate (International Baccalaureate Organization).

Since January, we have also been working on a series of recommendations to take to the next General Assembly on the steps that countries must take to include this subject. The reason? That young people know, from the moment they reach secondary school, that tourism is an economic sector that is committed to the economic development of countries, because many times people have no idea, and that they later consider it as an option to study. Spain and France live from tourism, as well as 34% of developing countries and many small islands that live from cruises.

Q. Due to the pandemic, the UNWTO also developed its Online Tourism Academy, where numerous MOOCs (open and massive courses) are offered free or at low cost. Who are they for and what topics do they address?

R. When we created the academy on-line, during the pandemic, we had the goal of getting an accessible education. The idea was to massify the way in which people were educating themselves and to bring quality education to any place. To do this, we have established alliances with more than 30 universities around the world: IE, Les Roches, Hong Kong, the Externado de Colombia, the Complutense University, the Basque Culinary Center… All to create these MOOCs, which are 12 to 16-hour courses where people can acquire fundamentals in different topics.

The most interesting thing is that anyone who wants to study can do so and then get the seal of quality from a prestigious international university. Anyone who wants to start a career in tourism can start there; while those who already do it, but need to update, can also do it quickly. As for the topics, you find all kinds of content: hospitality; culture; right; artificial intelligence and innovation; courses on how to access the Chinese market; marketing; strategic communication…

Q. Does technology play an important role in tourism?

R. Those who work in tourism need technological skills, because this is precisely a sector that has been linked to technology since the very birth of the internet. In addition, while in other sectors technology can be seen as a danger to employment, in tourism it has never been the case, because no technology, artificial intelligence, will ever replace the joy or smile of a tour guide. Quite the contrary, because it is the most humane sector, but people who know about data engineering, innovation or entrepreneurship are needed.

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