Lessons in Leadership: Responding to Challenges in Tourism Development

Recent postings on RE: Reflections and Explorations have addressed a wide variety of topics, ranging from Anna Erwin’s discussion of the need to address food security for the world’s impoverished populations to Lyusyena Kirakosyan’s examination of theater as a form of peace building in conflict areas. The theme of change runs through many of these contributions—shifts in policy, mindsets, or culture. In many communities tourism development represents a form of change that promises both potential benefits, such as increased tax revenues or employment opportunities and costs, including increased costs of living or loss of cultural and natural resources. I wish here to address briefly an issue at the core of all purposeful social change, leadership. However, initiating and implementing efforts to secure change inevitably results in resistance. This requires leaders to face challenges, such as those discussed by Sabith Khan in the development of responses to crises, and Kim Cowgill in negotiation of stakeholder power. These difficult tests are intensified by both the complexity of the environments in which change occurs and by social forces, including privatization. Those leading efforts to catalyze new ways of thinking or acting must be able to address these effects to ensure that positive outcomes are achieved. While it is crucial to gain an understanding of how leaders address these concerns in all efforts to obtain change, I believe such inquiry is especially important for tourism. The tourism system is composed of a broad variety of stakeholders and leadership is vital to ensure that its benefits are maximized and its costs are minimized.

Tourism involves a wide group of actors, ranging from those who directly benefit from its economic impacts such as hotels, restaurants, attractions, and transportation providers to those that gain indirectly from travel-related spending, including governments. The residents of destination communities are vital stakeholders as they are the principal subjects of the positive and negative effects of tourism. Whether residents, service providers or indirect beneficiaries, all of these actors shape tourism’s success. Therefore, it is vitally important that leaders find ways and means to organize and integrate their efforts appropriately, while ensuring that they share in the economic, social, cultural, and environmental costs and benefits that travel generates. Such leadership often emerges from state, county, or municipal tourism offices, such as our own Montgomery County Tourism Development Council. However, the tourism industry has lately been the subject of growing privatization efforts, as illustrated by the recent decision to eliminate funding for the Washington State Tourism Office. This agency was formerly responsible for supporting tourism development and marketing for all of Washington state, but those duties are now the province of the Washington Tourism Alliance, a nonprofit group of industry members.

While formal organizations such as the Montgomery Virginia Tourism Development Council or the Washington Tourism Alliance serve as one critical source of leadership for tourism-related development efforts, potential for vision and energy in the sector also arises from other sources whose original impetus may not come from the tourism industry itself, but whose purposes and efforts create travel destination possibilities, as seen in the work conducted by HandMade in America, a nonprofit organization dedicated to growing Western North Carolina’s economy through handicrafts. HandMade’s efforts to create a network of artists resulted in development of “craft trails,” driving tours featuring local artisans that have attracted many visitors to its region.

What is not fully understood, however, is precisely how leaders develop in the tourism industry. Little is known about the attributes of leaders in this sector, the styles of leadership they embrace, or the strategies they are now using to address the challenges of complexity and privatization. It is important to the field and to the profession to explore which leadership characteristics tourism system stakeholders’ value and why as well as how they rank those in identifying sectoral leaders. The decentralized and rapidly evolving character of the tourism system suggests that these characteristics may be quite contextual in character. However, attaining such insights will aid both in charting the forms of leadership now in evidence among tourism stakeholders while also helping to identify strategies that future leaders may employ at the local, state, national, or international levels to encourage cooperation among stakeholders.

While there are idiosyncrasies related to the tourism system’s complexity that must be considered, a great many lessons in leadership can be learned from other community and economic development efforts aimed at change, such as those discussed previously in this space by Anna Erwin and Lyusyena Kirakosyan. Tourism today, like international and community development efforts more generally, faces the challenge of continuing efforts to decrease government involvement in it. Both complexity and changes in public sector roles in development at all levels can have a major impact on efforts to build and also to exercise leadership for the field.


Whitney Knollenberg is a Ph.D. candidate in the Hospitality and Tourism Management Department at Virginia Tech. She holds a B.S. in Parks, Recreation, and Tourism Management from Michigan State University and an M.S. in Sustainable Tourism from East Carolina University. Her research interests include tourism’s impact on communities, leadership in tourism development, and the role of policy, power, and partnerships in tourism development.

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