A FEW BUILDINGS DON'T MAKE A TOURISM STRATEGY
WHILE QATAR PUTS THE PEDAL TO THE METAL ON ITS TOURISM DEVELOPMENT STRATEGY, THERE ARE SOME FUNDAMENTAL ISSUES THAT ONLY COMMITTED TOURISM RESEARCH CAN SOLVE. QATARTODAY TAKES A LOOK AT THE EXTENT OF INDUSTRY-ACADEMIA PARTNERSHIP IN THIS SECTOR AND HOW EA
While Qatar puts the pedal to the metal on its tourism development strategy, there are some fundamental issues that only committed tourism research can solve. Qatar Today takes a look at the extent of industry-academia partnership in this sector and how early research can impact how the industry grows.
When announcing the National Tourism Strategy 2030, Qatar Tourism Authority explained how it was developed after lengthy consultations with various stakeholders, both in the private and public sectors – Ministry of Culture, Arts and Heritage, Qatar Museums, Qatar Airways, Mowasalat, hotels, travel agencies...the list is long. But notably absent are any academic or research institutions. As of yet QTA hasn't responded when asked whether any such entity was involved in the drafting of the plan. But if there weren't, as seems to be the case, it would seem like a serious oversight, considering how much academia can contribute towards understanding the direction of tourism and its impact on the society.
To understand this relationship – as it stands now and what it could potentially become – we pay a visit to Stenden Qatar, the country's only institute that offers courses in hospitality management and tourism management. Ali Abdulla is Senior Lecturer and the Acting Programme Leader for tourism management. Stenden demonstrated its eagerness to engage with the industry earlier in February this year with the Tourism in Tomorrow's World conference, which brought together QTA, QM, Katara Hospitality and many other players. Partly owned by art connoisseur, collector and businessman Sheikha Faisal bin Qassim Al Thani, Stenden, along with its parent university in the Netherlands, has a special interest and a wealth of expertise in this sector. It is watching closely what QTA is doing, albeit from the outside. While not part of the national tourism strategy, Stenden is developing a parallel strategy that aligns with what the country is planning to do, so that it is able to meet the future human resources needs. “QTA is an important partner for us. With Qatar's focus on tourism development and us being the only tourism school here, we rely on each other very deeply,” says Abdulla.
Already, Abdulla says, their graduates are in high demand, all of them being placed as soon as they complete their course. QTA is an obvious choice and absorbs many of their students. And if a ministry of tourism is established, he expects this number to go even higher. Their students have also gone on to find employment with Qatar Museums and some of the embassies. Stenden recently introduced a short three-month tour guide programme at QTA's request. “This course, which is offered in both English and Arabic, trains professional guides who can lead tours at many of the country's popular tourist spots like Souq Waqif, Al Wakra, Banana Island, Al Khor, Zubarah, etc. and demonstrate to visitors what Qatar has to offer,” he says. After witnessing the success of this course, QM has also now approached Stenden to tailor a programme for them.
This relationship with the industry is in its nascent stage and is growing slowly, he says. “Qatar's tourism industry is still developing and new companies are being established every day. Once they start planning their mission and vision, they'll start seeking us for collaboration,” he says. With the state's multi-pronged strategy that targets sports, culture, sun-sea-sand and MICE tourism, the potential for partnerships is immense, with Stenden capable of “implementing our learning in whichever field it is needed” but this is not yet on the horizon. “I expect they'll approach us close to the events for our knowledge and expertise,” Abdulla says when asked if they have a dialogue going with the Supreme Committee of Legacy and Delivery or any of the sporting bodies. “It's still early and I expect they are currently concentrating on infrastructure rather than brain force.”
But these ‘soft issues' should also be addressed and developed in tandem with infrastructure. “Tourism strategy is not all about money spent on buildings. That's just a tiny part of the story,” says Conrad Lashley, Senior Researcher at the Stenden home campus in the Netherlands. “Strategy, developed in partnership with one or more universities, should be about giving people a unique experience that reflects the local life of its people,” he says and it's
immediately clear this is where Qatar hits its first roadblock. Who is going to tell the story of Qatar? The Indian taxi driver? The Filipino hotel receptionist? The European guest relationship officer? The American museum expert? There is a definite need to create a “sense of ‘Qatarness.'” But how can this be done with Qataris conspicuous by their absence in the front line?
Given that Qataris represent 15% of the population and that there is a problem with the perception of service among the middle and upper-middle class (not just in Qatar but also globally), this is a problem that requires some serious consideration. Dr John Ap, Associate Dean of the International Tourism Management Programme at Stenden Qatar, says: “When people come to Qatar, they want to meet a Qatari. But there is no contact with a local expert at the immigration counter. We took our students on a field trip to Al Zubarah recently and the tour guide was Polish. Though she was very good, it's not the same as a Qatari talking about his or her own culture and history.” Professor Conrad made a similar observation during his visit to Qatar: “Qatar needs to start thinking about what they are promoting. The Arab culture is rich and diverse and can be an attractive feature of tourism to the Middle East; it has to be showcased, one way or another.”
Imagine you went to Souq Waqif and saw only tourists, asks Dr Ap. How authentic would that be? “But the Qatari government has redeveloped it thoughtfully and appropriately. The restaurants, boutique hotels and sheesha bars appeal to tourists and locals alike, but also there are certain everyday Qatari items that you can get only at the Souq and not in the shopping malls. So when I see a lot of the locals going there, I can tell the government has done this right,” he says.
But how can academic research help with some of these problems? Professor Lashley was charged with coming up with a research strategy for the International Hospitality Management School at Stenden Leeuwarden. As a result, they have introduced three professorial posts on hospitality studies, international operations and sustainability. The first is Professor Lashley's pet subject. “It's based on the idea I have been promoting that whilst programmes about training and development are needed, there is also a clear need to study about the nature of hospitality and hospitableness. The cultural heritage of hospitableness is international and covers all religions, which all have underlying themes on the morality of hospitality. Be kind to a stranger, welcome him, give him shelter. These are universal. But somewhere along the way the industry has lost sight of this,” he says. Which is why any strategy must account for making sure everyone on the frontline – people at hotels, visitor centres, taxi drivers, waiters at restaurants – all understand the kind of service that is required. “Parallel to that is the need to be well informed through an active research culture about the nature of the guests, why they are coming, what they want and what they think hospitableness is about. This whole package of training and research needs a budget and a strategy,” he says.
Stenden Qatar recently started talking about a service management program, Dr Ap says, and this is the best thing that could happen. “We train staff on certain behaviour but do not focus on the rationale behind why it is an important to do what you are told to do. The relation between tourism behaviour and social psychology is interesting aspect but a lot of tourism research focuses on HR, management, operations, sales and marketing, etc, rather than this. For me, understanding the psychology of a guest and the host is much more rewarding,” he says, talking about his PhD research which looked at residents' perception towards tourism. He is hoping to work on something similar in Qatar.
“I have applied for two research projects at Qatar Foundation. One is on the community attitude towards cultural heritage and identity and the related tourism. It proposes to study the impact of tourism and how people perceive it. When you think tourism you generally focus on economic benefits and development of infrastructure. But equally important is the social and cultural impact on the host community. What is going to be the impact of the World Cup 2022 on Qatari and Arabic culture, especially with the questions around alcohol? Are you expecting the Western football fans to go dry during the games? What does this mean for the Muslim population? It's important to research these topics to understand the problems and concerns likely to arise out of hosting the Games or tourism in general,” he explains.
These bigger questions aside, research can benefit even the smallest players in the industry. And with tourism largely dominated by SMEs who don't have access to academia, it's important for the state to take the first step. Professor Lashley says, “In the UK there is a fair amount of investment in research funded largely by the public sector or publicsector-supported bodies that represent the industry.” But funding research is just the tip of the iceberg. Implementing the results of the studies is much harder. “There are a number of ways that this can be organised. Setting up some form of quality licensing system which extends star rating to include service quality, etc., is one approach,” he adds.
Unfortunately, Qatar has a long way to go. There is very little happening around tourism research here. Even on critical issues like development of the hospitality industry. “My impression is that hotel development is largely driven by people who are investing in property and there is no serious linkage between the likely growth in tourism demand.” Another area that needs attention but is not on the priority list is research about sustainable tourism; for a country like Qatar, it's important to study what kind of pressure a growing tourism sector will put on its critical resources like food and water. Equally important is to understand the motivations of the Qatari community, what they think about their culture, how they judge the impact of external influences on it and what they want to project to the world outside
CONRAD LASHLEY Senior Researcher Stenden Leeuwarden, the Netherlands