Interview: C. Michael Hall, Professor, University of Canterbury, New Zealand

"...Trouble is so many institutions from the World Tourism Organization down have adopted neoliberal positions and policies without even adequate considering what their implications might be at various levels, including knowledge generation and diffusion..."

C. Michael HallC. Michael Hall is currently a Professor in the Department of Management at the University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand; a Docent in the Department of Geography, University of Oulu, Finland; and in recent years has been a visiting professor at several institutions including Linneas University, Kalmar and Lund Campus Helsingborg, Sweden; the University of Eastern Finland in Savonlinna; Sheffield Hallam University in the UK, and Southern Cross University in Australia. His PhD was from the University of Western Australia and his masters from the University of Waterloo in Canada.

He has published widely on tourism related issues but also writes on issues relating to environmental history, environmental change, regional studies, and gastronomy. He has written or edited over 60 books with translations in Arabic, Chinese, French, Korean, Portuguese and Spanish as well as over 400 journal articles and book chapters. Some of his most recent books include Tourism and Climate Change: Impacts, Adaptation and Mitigation (with Daniel Scott and Stefan Gössling, Routledge, 2012); Fieldwork in Tourism: Methods, Issues and Reflections (Routledge, 2011); and Polar Tourism and Change: Climate, environments and experiences (edited with Jarkko Saarinen; Routledge, 2010).  Current research primarily focuses on second homes and multiple dwelling, tourism and climate change, food tourism, biodiversity conservation and wilderness tourism, tourism politics and power, and the development of steady-state approaches to tourism. In 2011 he lost his house in the Christchurch earthquakes and has since started studying the relationships between tourism and loss of senses of place and belonging following environmental change. We are very sorry to hear that you lost your house during the February 2011 Christchurch earthquake. Has tourism shown resilience and contributed to the reconstruction effort? Do you feel that international tourism is (a) particularly susceptible to all sort of crises and as such it should not be relied upon as a development model (especially a monoculture one) and (b) that domestic tourism, a tourism which is also more ecological in terms of greenhouse gas emissions is also more crisis-proof and thus it should be preferred by policy-makers?

C. Michael Hall: The ongoing sequence of significant earthquakes has had all sorts of impacts, both collective and personal. Those of us who have been through the quakes will have a range of experiences and stories to tell. Local tourism has been a significant experience for many people in terms of their desire to see what has happened to their city and region, especially as so many landmark buildings have been lost. Early on there were negative comments from some people about 'earthquake tourism' and visitors taking photos of the damage that had occurred. Many of those comments started to disappear though as the need for people to understand what had happened to their communities and the experiences they had began to be reconciled through the process of being a local tourist or sightseer. Of course many such local sightseers are not part of the formal tourism industry which has taken a huge hit, and has continued to do so. It's not that Christchurch has lost its gateway status to the South Island, it's more that many tourists don't stay here so long as they used too, especially as many of the key attractions, such as the Arts centre and cultural precinct, have been severely damaged.

Those of us who have lived through the earthquakes have probably heard the word resilience too many times! Heck, most of the time we are just surviving as you can't do anything else! New systems get established, you find new ways of doing things, and you just keep going! I'm not even sure if it's appropriate to intellectualise it as resilience! Some people have left the city and moved to elsewhere in New Zealand or overseas, but the population loss hasn't been as great as some expected with many remaining in the wider region, although more may leave once insurance and land use issues get finalized and depending on how long the aftershock sequence lasts for. The other thing that will make a difference is the extent of job losses in various sectors as a result of earthquake damage or its effects. My own university for example is shedding staff as a result of a drop in student numbers. Tourism will undoubtedly bounce back but, in many cases, it will come from those small businesses and entrepreneurs with high social capital and networks in the region, while the airport, Air New Zealand and a return of consumer confidence are also obviously important. The rebuild of the city, when it can eventually get going, will also generate new tourism opportunities for business travel as well as new patterns of VFR.

Tourism, because it is a form of voluntary mobility, is clearly vulnerable to perceptions of crisis, especially if such crises are regarded as threatening to the safety of the traveller. Unless it is a global crisis, i.e. is system wide, then tourism overall continues to grow as people embrace other travel and leisure opportunities. However, in the longer term there is a real need to gain a better understanding of the interaction between different forms of crisis and their affects on tourism. I think that the relationships between economic and environmental crisis are fundamental for example, the problem is they are not necessarily crises in the popular imagination – even now. While we talk about a global village most people do not have a world view (and in case your wondering I'm not even sure that tourism necessarily contributes to such a view, although it may, I think having a wide spread of independent media may be more helpful than relying on the Rubert Murdochs of this world. Encouraging people in the west to watch or listen to Al Jazeera rather than depending on Fox or Sky News would be much more beneficial than another holiday in Ibiza or Benidorm).

International tourism or, in some cases, even domestic tourism should not be relied upon as a development model. I think that domestic tourism can be very beneficial of course but the key is not being overly dependent on specific markets and having a diversified base – and that applies as much to tourism within the local economy overall as it does within tourism of course. Hopefully, over the next few years our understanding of tourism and mobility within local and international economies will become much more sophisticated with tourism being recognized as extremely significant for development but that it is not embraced unthinkingly. But then I have been anticipating that for the past 30 years now so I am not confident that such a transformation will necessarily occur, but then we live in hope! You have already taught in most parts of the world, and in various papers you have argued against the dominant neoliberal research agenda in Universities. What needs to be done to change this and set a new, progressive academic tourism agenda focusing on ecological and social justice? A state-funded university independent from corporate donors, or something more radical, the equivalent of the Occupy movement in Tourism - a total overhaul of what university tourism education means, what it involves and how, where and to whom it is delivered? 

C. Michael Hall: All of the above really! There needs to be more openness to counter-institutional and alternative thinking in tourism research and education. This is not even necessarily a particularly radical position as it is another way of stating that a range of different policy positions need to be considered in decision-making and that constraining decision-making either overtly or covertly is just poor policy analysis and advice.

The above said there really is a need for a more progressive academic tourism agenda. Unfortunately, I think many tourism academics, departments and universities see such a position as a threat but surely at its most basic level it is about getting students to think through the consequences of tourism as well as their own potential management decisions in the future. It is seeing the world in shades of grey not just necessarily in black and white and to stop learning about the world by numbers or rote learning. University should be there to make you think. It may well be that you see the world differently to me but at least there should be a dialogue between viewpoints and the opportunity to take argumentative positions. Trouble is so many institutions from the World Tourism Organization down have adopted neoliberal positions and policies without even adequate considering what their implications might be at various levels, including knowledge generation and diffusion. Indeed, one of the things I find most frightening is the very lack of critique of influential organisations such as the UNWTO, WTTC and the WEF. Some of the things they come out with is just plain scary in terms of how self-serving it is or, at least from the perspective of sustainability, amazingly ignorant. Yet their perspectives are often held-up from government agency to classroom as gospel. OK so it is a neoliberal gospel but the lack of overt critique in the tourism literature is frightening in its own way. Maybe it's a sign that some academics do not want to bite the hand that feeds or that they would like to receive a UNWTO award! I’m not sure. Maybe they don’t care or even worse, and I wonder if this is the case, whether they actually believe it!

Sadly in their quest to be ‘relevant’ many universities have drawn closer to corporate interests in their quest to meet government agendas for ‘public-private partnership’ and shortfalls in funding.

Sadly in their quest to be ‘relevant’ many universities have drawn closer to corporate interests in their quest to meet government agendas for ‘public-private partnership’ and shortfalls in funding. This is very hard for many academics to resist especially if tenure is insecure or there are concerns about funding. While I think that many of the deans of business schools or other academic structures in which tourism is tought, places also serve to reinforce the embrace of the cult of neoliberal competitiveness, the supposed need of tourism research to be relevant to business (what about everyone else?!), as well as the entrepreneurial university. Nevertheless, I would like to think that there are various points and spaces of resistance to the dominant neoliberal logic, even if only in terms of its apparent failure, and the need to find alternatives. Ideally, this means seeking to provide alternative positions both in teaching and research and then hopefully being able to convey such perspectives in terms of encouraging students and other readers to think. Trouble is, and this is where Occupy movement has struggled as with so many other points of resistance, is that the articulation of alternatives needs to be sustained over the longer term in the face of the dominance of the interests of capital and this is extremely difficult given access to media and financial support in the external environment, and is also hard in the internal academic environment where such alternative approaches may well be in the minority.  It is a textbook (and international tourism organisations) truism/cliche, that, along with its mystic peace-building abilities, Tourism is a labour-intensive sector and as such provides the only available work for many people, especially in many "developing" areas that lack other resources or infrastructure. But what about these numerous workers themselves, while self-employment is very common e.g. tour guides or consultants, workers' self-management is rare, with only a few worker-run hotels and community-owned & run ecolodges found around the world. Do you have an explanation? Is hierarchy somehow engrained in the dominant Tourism model, perhaps through the employment of the less educated and the more needy (eg. new immigrants working as hotel maids)?

C. Michael Hall: I think that is a really interesting question. At first glance to me it comes to the very nature of capitalism and the process of capital accumulation itself. But I think you have also hit on something particular about tourism in that there is an historical lack of worker run and cooperative tourism establishments. It may be that this comes from a hierarchical model or even a conceptualisation of tourism with respect to service that predicates a vastly uneven power and social relationship. Of course this need not be the case but undoubtedly that unevenness is there at least within more corporate tourism operations. This is certainly an issue that needs to go beyond some of the interesting work on emotional labour in tourism and hospitality as well as the status of women and migrants to really deal with issues of power in co-production.

Of course the other issue with the labour aspects of tourism is that this is also the area where most businesses seek to reduce costs as much as possible either through the introduction of new technology or through wage and employment practices. But here the very dynamics of consumer demand in time-space, whether it be seasonal demand or fluctuations in daily and weekly demands for hospitality and tourism services also creates its own imperative for part-time and casual work which, increasingly, broader labour and employment policies in the west support under the rubric of ‘flexibility’. Often with tourism boycotts, such as the Burma / Myanmar one, potential travellers are told that visiting a country would only benefit the tyrants and the stratocracies. It is also a fact that stratocracies even in nominally democratic countries popular with tourists, have a finger in every tourism pot and related real estate developments. Another fact is that even in countries which are proud of their democratic traditions, human rights are constantly violated. All this makes one wonder if tourism and travel boycotts make any sense, if they have any real effect, or if they in fact make more harm than good. Travel advisories, in some cases by former (or current) colonial powers against former colonies, are a related issue. Is it just an aspect of the larger geopolitical game or are travel boycotts and advisories a useful and effective tool for social justice and human rights proponents?

C. Michael Hall: I think it depends on the individual and the context. There is no such thing as a perfect democracy or a transparent state but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t still try and work towards them or have a notion of an ethical being and/or tourism. Tourism and travel boycotts certainly can make sense even if only to raise wider awareness or consciousness of a particular political or ethical situation. Clearly, such boycotts may also have unintended consequences for some individuals and here we have to play our own ethical balancing act. But at least this is something that we should – actually must – do if we are going to be conscious consumers.

There are some countries that I will not travel too because of their human rights records and/or other restrictions on freedom of expression or political participation.

I think that for me a decision as to whether to travel or not to a country is an important one. There are some countries that I will not travel too because of their human rights records and/or other restrictions on freedom of expression or political participation. That does not mean that I do not welcome students from such countries or intellectual and research relationships with colleagues from such countries (unless there is some particularly unsavoury relationship with the ruling elite or junta of course). However, I do not want to become a tourism statistic or even worse, having my presence at a conference being construed as support for such regimes. I cannot speak for my colleagues but one of the things that horrifies me is the extent to which some individuals or even academic associations seem all too happy to go to such countries. Maybe they get their conferences for free or maybe they think they are changing the system from within? Or maybe they don’t really give a toss – which may well be the most likely reason! And what about the standard of human rights and worker rights within Tourism itself. Are they comparatively better or worse than in other industries, and what can be done at an international level to improve them? 

C. Michael Hall: I am really not sure whether they are any different but clearly the service relationship is one that can be very imbalanced both between customer and staff as well as within tourism and hospitality organisations. This situation is made all the worse in conditions of high unemployment or underemployment. My gut feel is that worker rights probably are worse than many sectors because of the nature of the sector and consumer demands. However, I think that human rights issues in tourism are likely to be more a reflection of the country within which travel and tourism and hospitality services are occurring rather than something that is indicative of tourism per se. That said, it does concern me that many corporate tourism entities really don’t care too much about the human rights records of the countries they operate in and, of course, dictatorships or one party states do also provide the ‘stability’ that many foreign investors seek. (Although of course the same could also be said of the activities of some universities who now invest and open new campuses overseas!). But that is also likely to be a reflection of their overall embrace of the Friedmanite position that the only responsibility of a company is to their shareholders. Which to me is an issue that needs significant investigation and criticism in tourism especially with respect to the time scales of investments, impacts and systemic affects and the feedback loop to government and company decision-making. Do you ever get frustrated by the seemingly never-ending arrival of adjectival / niche forms of tourism? Do they have a "liquidarist" or "sectarian" impact on research and researchers or do they in fact improve comprehension by allowing a more focused and detailed discussion among specialists? 

C. Michael Hall: Both! It depends on the case and the extent to which new terms are being exchanged for old without there being any further intellectual advance. Unfortunately, academia is often marked by band-wagon effects and the drive to be the first to use a term or work in a particular field. In some cases this may lead to artificial divides between subject areas, and I think that event studies is a good example of that, while in others, such as wine and food tourism, it has actually enabled new sets of relationships to be established across academic areas.

One of my abiding memories is being at a graduate studies meeting in Finland several years ago and we were sitting round having some beers after a sauna and that evening we developed an entire field of studies that we referred to as ‘bean tourism’ in which you could refer to bean festivals and events, the bean tourism consumer market and segmentation, bean commodification, bean authenticity, the ontological and epistemological relationships between bean tourism and bean studies, etc. etc. And, of course, the Journal of Bean Tourism. Sadly at times though that conversation seems to get a little too close to reality for my liking, as the divisions that are developed by such sectarian approaches often then mean that not enough attention is given to the big issues that cross tourism as a discipline/field of study. But perhaps it may also depend on whether you are taking a glass half full or glass half empty approach? You have written extensively about the general unsustainability of mega-events, the need to degrow tourism, in favour of non-consumerist forms of travel (couchsurfing?) and non-travel. Yet, even in a time of crisis, all we hear and see from tourism decision makers is more tourism development, more tourism developments, the bigger the better, "to provide jobs".  Can the minds of tourism decision-makers be changed, or do they need to be changed, or abolished, with local communities deciding for themselves on the basis of their real, collective needs?

C. Michael Hall: I think they desperately need to be changed however it is often extremely hard for both elected officials and government agencies to break the paradigms and cultures within which they operate. Especially if their own education and training in tourism has failed to include a more discursive approach to the nature of development and its consequences, as well as the need for a more sophisticated analysis of the systems within which tourism operates. The response to this situation means both improvements in education and research as well as potentially greater involvement of tourism researchers in policy analysis and advocacy. Although having said that much of what is described as policy analysis in tourism makes me want to weep, including some texts that supposedly deal with tourism policy and planning, because of their poor grounding in policy studies as well as being unwilling or unaware in asking some of the big questions with respect to the sustainability of tourism. Including is tourism the most sustainable means of development anyway?

there needs to be a reduction in how far and how fast people travel – what we could refer to as the condition of hypermobility – as that is where many of the problems of sustainability in tourism lie.

I think that one of the things that is significant in my studies on the development of steady-state forms of tourism and lowering the emissions impacts of tourism is that such position do not mean the end of tourism at all. If anything they suggest the embrace of localism in tourism and potentially even an increase in leisure and tourism mobility in time. But what they do suggest is that there needs to be a reduction in how far and how fast people travel – what we could refer to as the condition of hypermobility – as that is where many of the problems of sustainability in tourism lie. Such a conclusion of course is not so good for many airlines but may well be good for many other sectors.  While the virtues of domestic tourism for sustainable development also needs much greater attention than what it has been given in recent years. The vast majority of tourism is, of course domestic, trouble is it is not as ‘sexy’ as a topic for researchers, marketers and agencies!

While I also have considerable empathy for localism and community empowerment in tourism I don’t think that solutions for sustainability lie completely at the local level especially as there is often a tendency to romanticize the local in much tourism research. The local community can be as full of splits, power plays and manipulation as anywhere else. Instead there is a need for progressive political developments at both the local and national level, especially with respect to such measures as making the polluter pay for example in tourism as well as for a more sophisticated analysis of the short and long term externalities of tourism throughout the entire system, not just at a destination. I think such measures are obviously significant with respect to mega-events, something which I have been writing and talking about for years. Yet we still get the same old drivel supplied about how beneficial they are supposed to be. Well go explain that in the case of the Greek, South African, Spanish economies, and maybe even that of the UK given the increasing costs of the 2012 Summer Olympics?!

I am all in favour in jobs being created by tourism. And it can certainly be done appropriately. Trouble is they need to be grounded in a far more sophisticated appreciation of sustainable development and green economics than what many of the supposed lead agencies in tourism and their consultants can muster. While for those of us interested in the nature of consumption more attention also needs to be given to the factors that encourage certain types of tourism consumption over others as well as the reasons behind interests in staycations and voluntary simplicity in tourism. Among the policy tools available for degrowing Tourism which do you consider as the most effective, based on its past use around the world?

C. Michael Hall: Depends on the criteria for effectiveness and the nature of the location/attraction. In terms of the reduction of numbers the most effective is to limit transport access. If there is limited access it automatically reduces numbers. However, that may have undesirable economic and social implications so in such circumstances there may be a good argument for higher charges on visitors so as to generate income from a smaller number of visitors, although only a few destinations or attractions can do that because they are not perceived as providing a substitutable experience. Another way of approaching the issue, if you are also looking for a degree of social fairness so it is not just the wealthy who have access, is to introduce a lottery system for access so that if your name comes out of the hat (or these days the computer) you can go and if it doesn’t then bad luck and try again next year. Such an approach has been used on some wilderness and hiking trails in the US with some success. Do ecotaxes in Tourism succeed in limiting tourism flows and raising revenue for conservation, or are they more or less just a pretext to tax something that will keep growing regardless?

C. Michael Hall: Unless they are substantial they offer only a very partial success in limiting tourism flows. However, the revenue raising function is extremely important – whether it is a pretext to tax or not I do not mind so long as some of the money goes into conservation or other efforts – such as education and health funding. At least then some of the impacts may be mitigated while the benefits be spread further. I also do not mind admitting that I would much rather see tax programmes or other forms of regulation being used ahead of voluntary schemes. The latter have their place undoubtedly, but they are not terribly successful and often the good operators who do embrace such programmes to assist conservation and community efforts are often penalized commercially because of the actions of competitors who do not act appropriately. So in such situations I think a level regulatory playing field is the best way to go. In relation to marketing and branding a destination, can stereotyping, conformism and commodification of culture be fully avoided, also considering that it is mostly undertaken by marketeers seeking short-term results and not patient academics?

C. Michael Hall: No I don not think it can be fully avoided as I think that commodification is inherent in any branding strategy and is therefore unavoidable. The short-termism is also very hard to deal with and I see it arising not only from the activities of marketing and advertising professionals who are keen to justify their positions and salaries but also by elected officials who also want to be demonstrating their “action”, “initiative” or “success” by launching a new brand or marketing initiative as part of their election cycle. I am also not sure about patient academics! In some cases academics are the problem in coming up with concepts such as “destination/tourism competitiveness”, the “creative city” or even worse the “experience economy” and then flogging them to governments at various levels as some form of manna from heaven even though they are full of conceptual holes or restate existing ideas in a sexier (for some) form. The problem is that not only do officials and boosters who are looking for answers to a complex set of economic, social and political problems seize on to such concepts but many academics jump on the band-wagon as well. I mean the experience economy idea is paradoxically a great contributor to the serial monotony of place and has become part of the zero-sum game of place competition for many locations. It is not just that the concept has been misinterpreted but it was a shit concept in the first place that was inadequately interrogated. Sounded good and still does but as you start to scratch away at the idea and its utility all sorts of holes appear and the framework comes crashing down.

I am not saying that experiences do not matter but place success is about much more than that, including understanding the nature of places and what people want from them, realizing that there usually are no quick fixes and instead looking to invest in things like education, health and the maintenance and expansion of social capital. Looking for small incremental gestures and actions that help places maintain options in terms of the trajectories they want to take, that sort of thing, but its not so easy for politicians and others to sell than the snake oil salesmen (they are usually men! And are sometimes academic consultants and boosters!) who promote new stadia, mega-events, convention centres, sports complexes and such likes as the great leap forward! And the final question: as a prolific and highly distinguished author do you ever worry that apart from textbooks, most other academic books and journals are published and sold by an international oligopoly, to be read mostly by other academics and the business / political elite and that ways (including free, open access, and perhaps a less rigid style of writing) should be found so that all this great body of research work can reach the public and indeed the tourism workers themselves?

C. Michael Hall: Yes I do, fortunately I work with publishers, such as Channelview and Routledge, who do seek to run schemes that make published material more available to less developed countries at cheaper rates, but that does not really solve the wider problem of access at a time when in some countries, such as the UK, public library access is being made more difficult. I do try to make as much material available as I can via my "academia" website which may not be the final version of some papers but they are at least accessible for those who can themselves access the web, and are interested. Plus I can tell from monitoring the site that there are plenty of people who also come across publications on it just by putting down some general search parameters. Hopefully, this service is one way of making my academic and some of my other writings more accessible. Some other tourism academics are also going down this route.

I think one solution is to try and develop an academic tourism cooperative that may be able to make material more readily available

But I am obviously also aware that I too am caught up in a academic and publishing system with its own set of rewards as well as constraints in terms of what, where and how you publish. Which often do not (yet) really include being free and having open access. I think one solution is to try and develop an academic tourism cooperative that may be able to make material more readily available but still provide it with appropriate review procedures so that the publications are academically rigorous. This is a path I can see developing in the future perhaps. Thank you very much!