Educational tourism: Everything you need to know

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(Last updated on: 13/10/2021)

Educational tourism is one of the best types of tourism! Whether you are going on a school trip, backpacking around South East Asia or going on a round the world cruise, there are always lots of things to learn while travelling. Whilst people used to be content with laying on a beach and reading a book, consumer preferences are changing- people want to experience something different- they want adventure, excitement and education!

What many people don’t realise, is that educational tourism is actually all around us. Whether in a formal or informal context, most types of travel involve an element of education. But how does this work and what does it mean for the travel industry? In this article I will explain exactly what is meant by the term educational tourism, how this occurs and where it is most commonly found. I will also discuss the many advantages of educational tourism, to both the tourist and the tourism industry.

What is educational tourism?

As LaTorre noted in 2011, The world is one’s school. When most people hear the term ‘educational tourism’, they think of school trips to visits to sites such as Auchswitz or Oradour-Sur-Glane. Or they think of educational holidays for adults such as learning to dive in Dahab. or learning to cook in Thailand. However, educational tourism is soooo much more than this. In fact, it is everywhere we look!

Travelling provides many opportunities to learn, in both a formal and informal context.

Since the origins of tourism and the grand tour (Ritchie et al, 2003) the educational benefit of travel has long been recognised. There are now an abundance of ‘study abroad’ options available to those inclined and the informal educational attributes of travel, for example whilst undertaking volunteer tourism placements, gap years or backpacking trips, are undisputed.

Yet despite such common reference to the educational benefits of travel, educational tourism appears to be under-researched as an academic subject. Literature surrounding educational tourism appears to be sporadically scattered across many fields of study and ironically, this concept that is so commonly identified as a benefit or motivation for touristic activities has been subject to little academic attention to date. This has seen rise to many unanswered questions such as; what are travellers learning; who is learning; where, when and how are they learning? (Falk et al, 2012).

Educational tourism definition

Due to the lack of literature addressing the concept of educational tourism there are few attempts at drawing definitional boundaries explaining what constitutes an educational tourist. Ritchie et al (2003) draw upon definitions of tourism and the parameters of educational tourism and conclude that an educational tourist is;

‘A person who is away from their home town or country overnight, where education and learning are either the main reason for their trip or where education and learning are secondary reasons but are perceived as an important way of using leisure time’ (p18)

Ritchie highlights an important point here. He notes that education may be the main reason for tourism. BUT it may also be a secondary motive for tourism. I would like to take this one step further and propose also that education may not be perceived as being an important part of a trip, but in actual fact, it is. I call this consequential education in tourism.

Educational can be the reason for travel or it can be a consequence of travel.

Why we need to understand the concept of educational tourism

Understanding the concept of educational tourism is important to tourism industry stakeholders. Tourists want to learn. They may not desire a formal learning environment whilst on holiday, but most people are inquisitive about new places and new people. People enjoy learning how elephants are cared for at the elephant sanctuaries in Thailand and they want to know more about how spices are harvested at the spice plantation in Goa, for example.

Falk et al (2012) argue that tourism managers and researchers need to better understand the nature of learning in tourism and leisure contexts. Educational tourism is big business, bigger than most people realise! And the potential for tourism businesses is huge…. understanding the concept of educational tourism can help to inform business plans, marketing, consumer satisfaction and lots more!

The types of educational tourism

Educational tourism comes in many different shapes and sizes. In fact, educational tourism is actually a macro niche tourism, which is subsequently found within many different types of tourism. Types of tourism that commonly facilitate educational tourism include:

Educational is found is tourism in many different regards. This can be in a formal or informal context (or somewhere in between). Shwayat has attempted to demonstrate this through the diagram below. However, I believe that this is too fragmented to be representative. Yes, sometimes educational tourism is evident to all, but other times it is subtle. So subtle in fact, that even the tourist may not realise they are an ‘educational tourist’.

Educational tourism
4 Structure of educational tourism concept Source: Al Shwayat, M. (2017).

Similarly, Pogodina (2009) has attempted to visually depict the educational tourism spectrum in the chart below. Here you can clearly see the role of the various stakeholders of educational tourism.

Educational tourism
Integrated operational model for the concept ” educational tourism ” (adapted by the authors, based on Pogodina, 2009 ) 

According to Ritchie et al (2013), educational tourism can be divided into two segments. The first is university, college and school tourism, in which the tourist experience is secondary to formal learning and can be described as ‘education first’. The second is edu-tourism, defined as general travel for education and known as ‘tourist first’ (Ritchie et al, 2003). In addition to this, I propose that there should be a third classification: consequential educational travel.

I will explain what each of these mean below.

Education first

Education first tourism is the most known form of educational tourism. However, in reality it is actually less common than the other two types of educational tourism, tourist first and consequential educational travel. Education first is the most formal educational tourism setting and can take a number of forms. Examples include:

  • Studying abroad at college or university
  • Attending a boarding school abroad
  • Doing a qualification overseas, e.g. TEFL
  • Language exchange programmes
  • Taking a course abroad e.g. learning a language/diving/cooking/art etc
  • Service learning
  • Educational school trips
  • Girl guide/Scouts etc trips
  • World schooling
  • Cultural immersion e.g. working as an au pair

Many people choose to study abroad because they are in search of a new experience or because this provides opportunities to them that are not available at home. Freestone and Geldens (2008) state that as a result of the student having a pre-determined date of returning home, study abroad can be considered a tourist experience. Students are also likely to undertake touristic activities during their free time.

Study abroad has been found to significantly aid learning and is now common practice within schools, colleges and universities (Paige et al, 2009). Abrams (1979) stated some years ago that study abroad is better defined as learning through experience abroad. This is due to the difficulty in determining whether the benefits and outcomes of study abroad are the results of travel, interaction with other cultures, classroom study or a combination. This supports my suggestion that it is difficult to develop linear, segmented models of educational tourism, like the ones included in this article above.

Learn about ‘education first’ tourists in Australia with the Travel Professors.

Tourist first

The ‘tourist-first’ experience is when learning is acquired through tourist experiences outside of the classroom. This can take many different forms. For example, it could be learning about the history of the long neck tribe in Thailand during an excursion or visiting the Egyptian museum in Cairo whilst travelling in Egypt.

Some have identified educational tourism as being a form of lifelong learning (e.g. Broomhall et al, 2010; Falk et al, 2012). TEFL teaching (the subject of my PhD- learn more in the video below) is akin with lifelong learning in that the experience consists of formal and informal learning, whether this be in a classroom environment or ‘on the job’ learning, self-motivated learning as they are likely to have opted to undertake their TEFL teaching placement and self-funded learning as many are likely to have funded the trip and placement through their own means. Increasing numbers of people in Western society appear to have a growing appetite for lifelong learning (Falk and Dierking, 2002), and this can lead to assumptions that the likes of TEFL tourism will increase in the future. 

Learn about TEFL tourism in this 3 minute presentation.

Consequential education in travel

An increasing body of research now shows that most learning takes place outside of the formalities of the education system (e.g. Falk and Dierking, 2010; Falk, Storksdieck and Dierking, 2007). In fact, there has been an exponential increase over the past two decades in the amount of learning that derives from self-directed experiences on the Internet or as part of leisure activities (Estabrook et al, 2007).

Pearce and Foster (2007) describe travel as being its own kind of educational institution, with the experiences and knowledge gained representing a kind of parallel to formal education in school or university. In fact, travel offers one of the few opportunities outside of formal education where non-vocational learning about other times, places and people takes place (Werry, 2008). An example of such learning is demonstrated through gap year travel, with many people returning home claiming to have developed intellectually as a result of their experiences, with personal growth and increased life skills being prominent areas of development (Coetzee and Bester, 2009). Others have reported learning of ‘generic skills’ whilst backpacking, such as problem solving and interpersonal skills as well as enhancing their general geographical and cultural awareness (Pearce and Foster, 2007).

Studies on volunteer tourism have highlighted its educational benefits and the ability to foster self-reflection and developments in personality traits and behaviours (e.g. Alexander, 2012; Benson and Wearing, 2012;  Broad and Jenkins, 2008; Gray and Campbell, 2009; Sin, 2009; Soderman and Snead, 2008; Wickens, 2011). It has also been known for those involved with international travel to develop skills such as problem solving, time management and communication (Scarini and Pearce, 2012). Although the ‘curriculum’ of such informal learning may not be well organised, there is plenty of information to process and travellers are likely to acquire new skills and perspectives as a result (Pearce and Foster, 2007). 

Another emerging type of education that is acquired through travel is the concept of world schooling. World schooling is essentially a means of providing and finding education from the real world. It provides families with the opportunities to travel long-term and to allow their children to learn through their experiences. World schooling removes teachers, classrooms, schools and pre-defined curriculums and allows children to learn through environments, cultures, climates, histories and societies that they naturally encounter on their travels. You can learn more about how world schooling works in practice on the World Travel Family blog.

Inner Mongolia Itinerary
Travelling can provide educational opportunities to people of all ages.

To further emphasise the value of consequential education through travel, Pearce and Foster (2007, p1286) draw upon a quote from a graduate recruitment advertisement for the Ford Motor Company ascertaining that;

 ‘Degrees get students a job but the skills determine success’ 

This highlights that it is the combination of learning derived from formal institutions and qualifications and personal experience that is likely to help the individual be most successful in their chosen career path.

How does educational tourism work? The theory behind the practice

In order to demonstrate the relationship between travel and learning it is necessary to draw upon some of the fundamental theories used in learning and education analysis. Stone and Petrick (2013) pay reference to existential learning, stating that it can be used as a model for explaining how people learn by travelling.

Existential learning is in essence a form of education that takes place as a result of learners uncovering knowledge by themselves, usually as a result of personal experiences and can be defined as ‘meaningful discovery’ (Boydell, 1976, p19).

Kolb’s (1984) model provides a widely used framework for the understanding of existential learning and consequently, evaluating travel learning (Stone and Petrick, 2013). Kolb’s (1984) model essentially outlines the way in which a person will have a concrete experience, reflect on their experience, conceptualise or conclude what has happened and then experiment or try out what they have learnt before having another new concrete experience, and so the cycle continues. This framework is useful not only in understanding existential learning as a result of travel in a formal education context, but can potentially aid in the comprehension of learning of the different areas of the travel industry.

Despite Kolb’s (1984) model having not yet been thoroughly analysed as a way of travel learning (Stone and Petrick, 2013), it does have potential to be utilised in future studies involving travel as a means to learning. To date there have been attempts at linking travel with existential learning (e.g. Novelli and Burns, 2010; Woolley et al, 2011), however these have focussed on travel as part of an educational course, as opposed to freely chosen travel per se. This appears to be an area that is largely under researched to date. 

Building on the pedagogy of existential learning and the reflective aspect in particular, Coghlan and Gooch (2011) propose that volunteer tourism organisations should utilise Mezirow’s (1991) theory on transformative learning to inform their operational plans. Mezirow’s (1991) theory describes a shift in one’s assumptions and world beliefs through a series of ten steps and highlights that the individual experiences a deep, structural shift in the basic premises of thought, feelings and actions (O’Sullivan, 2002).

Benefits of educational tourism

things to do in Guilin
Educational tourism can teach us more about the world that we live in and more about ourselves.

There are many benefits of educational tourism that have been recorded in the academic literature. These include:

  • Change in perspective or worldview/ greater awareness of ‘self’ (Dwyer, 2004)
  • Increased independence and self-confidence/positive personality changes (Bachner and Zeutschel, 2009)
  • Intercultural development/ have cultural experience (Ingraham and Peterson, 2004; Rexeison et al, 2008)
  • Global engagement/ enhanced citizenship (Paige et al, 2009)
  • Enhanced cultural awareness/dispelling of stereotypes (Freestone and Geldens, 2008)
  • Intellectual and cognitive growth/ learning (Chieffo, 2007; Ingraham and Peterson, 2004; Novelli and Burns, 2010; Miller-Perrin and Thompson, 2010; Sutton and Rubin, 2004)
  • Opportunity to achieve training and/or qualifications/ develop skills to aid career development

Educational tourism

Educational tourism is an important type of tourism that I expect will continue to grow into the future. If you enjoyed reading this article, then I recommend you also take a look at:

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Dr Hayley Stainton

Hi, I'm Dr Hayley Stainton

Through Tourism Teacher I share my knowledge on the principles and practice of travel and tourism management from both an academic and practical perspective.

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