People's enthusiasm to travel depends on tourist skills

Llangollen Canal in the UK.
Llangollen Canal in the UK. Source: Maarja Kaaristo

People are happy to go on a trip when they know that they will manage. While ski resorts, in order to attract less experienced visitors, are offering ski instruction services, it might not be enough to bring in people who might be afraid even of entering labyrinthine airports, a study on the importance of tourist skills says.

"For instance, in order to take a self-drive canal trip in England, you need specialist boating skills such as steering, manoeuvring or mooring," says Maarja Kaaristo, a lecturer in tourism mobilities and marketing at Manchester Metropolitan University.

Since it is rather obvious that for some travel activities – such as adventure tourism – special skills are necessary, the academic research has focused on those sets of specialist skills. "However, is boat handling really the only skill you need on a boating trip? – No, it is not," argues Kaaristo.

In her recent article, she and two of her colleagues Ilze Mertena and Tim Edensor are focusing on the importance of skill in tourist practices. In their analysis of canal boating and train travel in the UK they showed that while a tourist may on some occasions need specialist skills, what they need at all times is an entire set of transferable skills, i.e., "generic" or commonplace skills.

 All the little things

As discussed before, holidaymakers when hiring a boat need skills to handle it. "You have to open and close the canal locks yourself on the narrow canals of England and Wales as there is no one else to do it for you," says Kaaristo.

View of Manchester from canal lock number 92 on the Rochdale Canal. Source: Maarja Kaaristo

But a boat traveller also needs a much broader set of skills, one that also consists of what Kaaristo and her co-authors have termed the commonplace skills. These skills are essential to the enaction of various habitual, everyday tourist practices. For example, boating tourists need to be able to plan their trips, which means booking the boat and deciding on a particular route.. Kaaristo, who has spent herself nearly a decade exploring English canals, would know which boat to choose or where to book it the cheapest. However, she says, these things would not be so self-evident for a novice canal boater.

"Eventually, you have to plan an itinerary, but how do you do that if you've never been on a canal boat before?" asks Kaaristo. You also need to know the number of canal locks along the chosen route, as it takes at least 15 minutes to pass through each one of them, and that needs to be taken into account when traveling on a tight time-schedule. A skilled boater also knows how to use the canal guidebooks or special web applications to plan his or her trip.

Train travel, on the other hand, does not seem to require any skills at first. "If you think about going to Balti Jaam and buying a ticket to Tapa, do you need any skills for that? However, take a similar situation in the context of the UK, for example," she suggests a thought experiment. "The UK has different trains and ticket machines, different mobile apps, a range of trajectories to choose from and many platforms in a train station." "All these little things are seemingly so simple," she said. "And yet, to navigate them smoothly, you need to have certain practical experience-based skills, not just a knowledge of them."

A view of small station from a train window. Source: Ilze Mertena

Therefore, it is not enough just to know in the abstract that you have to buy a ticket to travel by train: Knowledge must also become action. "You have to choose the right ticket from a ticket machine, insert it in the right slot at the gates and take it out at the other end of the machine. If you are traveling with a bike you need to know where and how to put it," said the researcher.

An experienced train passenger does all this in a casual way, without thinking about specific movements or actions. A tourist, on the other hand, has to focus on those actions attentively in order to get things right. "Of course, skills are also portable: when traveling you use all the skills you have acquired in your life, while also adapting and combining them on the go to this new situation," adds Kaaristo.

The more people travel by means of the same transport or through the same area, the more competent and confident they become. "At a certain point, they don't notice anymore how exactly they chose the shortest route to right platform – it just happens," she points out.

At a rain station. Autor/allikas: Ilze Mertena

The more people travel by means of the same transport or through the same area, the more competent and confident they become. "At a certain point, they don't notice anymore how exactly they chose the shortest route to right platform – it just happens," she points out.

Could the focus on tourist skills promote sustainable behavior?

In the article, Maarja Kaaristo and her colleagues show that in addition to specialist skills such as those needed for boating or skiing holidays, tourists need a range of commonplace skills, mundane forms of know-how. "One practice that really describes what it means to be a tourist is gazing, which is the activity of looking attentively at something interesting while sightseeing," Kaaristo said, adding that the tourist gaze has been extensively analyzed in academic literature.

However, Kaaristo said, as their new paper demonstrates, even gazing is an activity that requires skills. When one of the authors of the study, Ilze Mertena, interviewed passengers on a train journey, one interviewee suddenly asked another whether she had seen a bird through the window and received a confirmation. The interviewer had not noticed anything, but those two frequent train passengers explained that they  always look out for buzzards in this area. Since the train travelers already knew the supposed location of the birds and when to look out for them, that influenced their choice of seats on the train.

Such seemingly small skills are acquired, Kaaristo said, even if you do not think of them that way. "The commonplace skills you need to succeed on a journey can be learned on your own, by trial and error, or by imitating others, more experienced travelers," she said. Commonplace tourist skills are for the most part unreflexively adapted and mobilized and often people do not even remember acquiring them—and yet all our skills are learned, Kaaristo said; and what skills those are exactly depends largely on the society or culture. 

The results of the study could be useful for individual travelers and tour operators alike. In addition to the fact that a skillful tourist enjoys his or her trip, such confidence also accounts for the frequency of travel or even the decision whether to go on a trip at all. For example, Kaaristo said, some people are afraid to fly not because they do not want to be on a plane, but they might be afraid of going through security checks or of not finding the right gate at an unfamiliar airport.

"They might have all the necessary knowledge, but the lack of practical experience-based skills makes them anxious," she says.

This is where, Kaaristo says, the service provider can come to the rescue by being attentive to concerns people have and offering solutions to them. For example, larger airports could offer services such as help of way finding in terminals to much wider selection of passengers. Some train station operators might also be thinking about offering such services and train companies could signpost some necessary skills on their websites, she said.

"It could be a win-win to both parties, for the people who travel and need assistance and for the service providers, as more people would have positive experiences of their travels and they will be more likely to go on the next trip," she said.

The knowledge of the extent to which people might be inexperienced or unskilled in taking train trips could be beneficial in yet another way: It might help to guide people towards more responsible practices. For example, 90 percent of leisure trips to national parks in the UK are made by car, which in turn causes traffic jams and problems with parking in popular beauty spots. This fact is the starting point of the three authors' continuing research into tourist practices.

"We are striving to increase train travel and minimize individual car rides," said Kaaristo. But why do people still prefer cars to trains? This could in part be explained by infrastructure and in part by the meaning of car travel being associated with freedom. "In addition, people's competences come into play: their knowledge and skills. Traveling by train is simply not part of many people's skill-kits," she points out.

The attempts to make people's behavior more sustainable by changing their values and attitudes have often been unsuccessful. "Perhaps a practice-based approach, where the emphasis is on the practice rather than the individual traveler, would have more success," Kaaristo said. "It could start with understanding the key role skills play in people's decision-making of whether to participate in certain practices or not and how those decisions shape our life habits."


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Editor: Kristina Kersa

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