Teaching Students to Find Balance in an Endangered World

Leaders must weigh prosperity against preservation in regions where tourism brings great benefits and potential devastation.
Teaching Students to Find Balance in an Endangered World

BY THE YEAR 2022, 4.5 million tourists are projected to visit New Zealand-a number that's almost equal to the nation's current population of 4.7 million. Many are drawn to the country for its historical sites, breathtaking views, and hikes through mountains and glaciers. Others want to see the places where the "Lord of the Rings" movies were filmed.

There's no doubt the country has benefited from the revenue generated through this influx of foreign visitors. According to a survey conducted in March 2018 by Tourism New Zealand, 96 percent of New Zealanders believe that international tourism is good for the country. But 39 percent of respondents also are concerned that tourism growth is putting pressure on New Zealand's infrastructure and natural resources.

The problems are various. Airports are overwhelmed by too many arrivals, pristine natural vistas are being trampled by too many hikers, endangered species are becoming more at risk, sewage systems have been overloaded in scenic small towns, and narrow roads leading to out-of-the-way spots are jammed with vehicles. Observers are asking if the tourists are crowding out the local residents and if the country has the infrastructure in place to handle the hordes.

Other popular destinations are facing similar challenges. For instance, in Venice, the city's population has dropped by about 120,000 since 1951, and many blame tourism for contributing to a higher cost of living and lower quality of life for residents. In addition, the presence of massive cruise ships and large groups of visitors are harming the city's delicate ecosystem, leading both UNESCO and the World Monument Fund to put Venice on their watch lists. Other well-known locations-from the Galapagos Islands to the Taj Mahal to Mount Everest-are also suffering from too much tourism.

In all of these locations, both local governments and business organizations are scrambling to meet these challenges in ways that will maximize revenue without harming citizens or natural resources. Strategies vary from capping the numbers of visitors to instituting differential pricing structures. In New Zealand, for instance, tourists pay almost double the cost for huts and campsites on New Zealand's four most popular Great Walks, including the famous Milford Track that takes hikers through a spectacular countryside carved by glaciers.

Whether the tourism crisis is unfolding in Italy or Nepal, I don't expect to see a quick resolution to the tension between stoking the local economy and preserving the world's wonders. But I do expect that tomorrow's leaders-in government, business, and the nonprofit sector-will be called upon to manage the balance well into the foreseeable future.

At the Victoria University of Wellington's School of Marketing and International Business, one of our goals is to turn out such leaders. The school is located in New Zealand's capital city, and many of our graduates will take jobs with corporations and government agencies that will wrestle with the challenge of tourism. We want to prepare them to address this complex problem.

Students develop the ability to think critically about urgent problems.

I teach marketing strategy at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, and in both courses I have students develop marketing plans for organizations facing interesting challenges. As part of each project, students prepare a situation analysis and assess the organization's strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. They develop critical thinking skills as they provide recommendations for the companies to follow.

For the 2018-2019 academic year, I chose two popular tourist destinations in Wellington: Zealandia, a nature preserve, and the Wellington Cable Car company, a funicular railway that takes visitors to a scenic overlook. While most people would consider the boom in tourism to be an exciting opportunity, neither of these two companies has the ability to accommodate the striking growth.

In the case of Zealandia, the nature preserve is already at full capacity during the summer months. How can it increase revenue without increasing the number of visitors during the summer? After my undergraduate class studied the situation, students proposed targeting individual tourists from China, who spend more money in New Zealand than Chinese tourists who come as part of a group. Zealandia officials were particularly impressed by the idea of giving visitors postcards that include a discount coupon for a tour or a gift. When visitors mail these cards to friends and family, they generate word of mouth about Zealandia—but target the tourists who come as individuals, not in large groups.

The Wellington Cable Car faces similar issues, in that demand during the summer is high and the company has limited capacity. However, the company has an additional problem. During off-peak times, senior citizens are allowed to travel for free on the cable car and other public transit systems, but their presence displaces tourists who would pay full price for the ride. Since the company is owned by the Wellington City Council, it is difficult to change this arrangement. The company also needs to replace its two 50-yearold trolleys within the next eight years, an investment that will cost an estimated NZD$12 million (about US$8 million).

Graduate students working on this project in the current semester will consider recommendations such as instituting differential pricing for locals versus tourists. They also will consider whether it would be politically feasible to charge senior citizens for off-peak travel, or if there are less controversial ways to generate revenue.

As students tackle such real-world problems in the classroom, they learn a range of leadership behaviors. They develop the ability to think critically about urgent problems, the poise to make public presentations, and an understanding of the need to act in a professional manner. The top five students in my undergraduate class had an extra opportunity to develop their presentation skills and professional attitudes because they were invited to present their recommendations directly to Zealandia's management team.

While it is time-consuming for professors to arrange and manage real-world company projects for their students, I believe these experiences are the ones that are most valuable for future leaders. These assignments also help students land jobs, because when students complete these projects, they demonstrate that they have the skills to deliver value to other organizations that might hire them.

As I continue to arrange for Consultancy projects in the future, I will look for companies and governmental agencies that are facing complex challenges with deep societal impact. While the problems of overtourism are important to New Zealand today, there is never a shortage of challenges facing business and never a shortage of businesses needing leaders to guide them through troubled times.

Daniel Laufer is associate professor of marketing and a former head of school at the School of Marketing and International Business at the Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand.

This article originally appeared in BizEd's March/April 2019 issue. Please send questions, comments, or letters to the editor to [email protected].

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