Connecting spaces of everyday life and vacation: Chair of Tourism at the KU exists for 20 years

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"Travel and tourist behavior are a reflection of society, and if society is subject to partly fundamental transformation processes, this is consequently also the case with travel", says Prof. Dr. Harald Pechlaner, whose Chair is celebrating its 20th anniversary with a symposium on September 21 and 22. The focus will be on fundamental developments in tourism, which Pechlaner and his team have been accompanying and setting their own impulses for two decades now. A conversation on the question of where tourism is headed.

Professor Pechlaner, you were once head of the Tourism Department of the regional government of South Tyrol yourself. In German, back then, tourism was often called “Fremdenverkehr” (word-for-word translation roughly: traffic of strangers). Meanwhile, this term is hardly to be found. What development is expressed in the fact that today, Germans also talk about “Tourismus” when referring to tourism?
For one thing, the word “Tourismus” is simply the more connective term internationally. On the other hand, hospitality is the basis for the fact that strangeness or the foreign, which is found in the original German word “Fremdenverkehr” can be transformed into familiarity. I think this orientation in terms of familiarity has increased, so that also for this reason the original German word for tourism has moved into the background. I find it interesting that in Greek and Latin, for example, the same word is used for "guest" and "stranger".

What was your own motivation to switch from practice to science?
I already had a taste for a career in science while completing my doctorate. Tourism is an applied science. I had a high scientific interest and got to know the practice in my function at that time. In the process, I realized that you can't have one without the other.

The roots of your Chair lie in an endowed professorship that has been supported by many sponsors from the region since 2003. How is tourism science positioned in the German-speaking world?
Tourism science has developed very positively from an international perspective. Especially in Germany, many offerings have been created on a higher educational level, but in the university sector, my Chair is actually one of the few that has an explicit denomination for tourism. This puts us in an interesting situation in that we have become the central point of contact for early-career researchers in our field throughout Germany. The original founding impulse for the endowed professorship was to work from the region for the region. Meanwhile, we are very well networked as a Chair, both nationally and internationally. We nevertheless retain the idea of transfer with the region.

If you look back, your goal has always been to network cities and regions, to join forces. How pronounced is thinking in terms of county boundaries still with regard to tourism – both in the region and in other destinations where you do research and consultation work?
On a national level, there is still room for improvement. Touristic thinking that is confined to county borders is still pronounced. The Altmühltal Nature Park, with seven participating districts, is a praiseworthy exception. We do not have many such examples. In general, however, this also depends on the economic importance of tourism in a certain region. If you look at Bavaria, you will find a good mix of industry and tourism, while South Tyrol, for example, is much more dependent on travelers.

Prof. Dr. Harald Pechlaner, Chairholder of Tourism at the KU
Prof. Dr. Harald Pechlaner, Chairholder of Tourism at the KU

How does tourism in general differ from other industries? Through the emotional connection to vacation and recreation?
Exactly, the emotional component is one aspect. However, above all tourism has a cross-sectional function that has an impact on many other areas. This makes it complex and atypical at the same time. Against my personal background in alpine tourism, for example, I have also developed a new perspective on city and business tourism, which has always fascinated me. Germany is one of the top international destinations and reasons to travel in this area. Fundamentally, tourism is not a sector the boundaries of which can be clearly marked. Just 20 years ago, tourism was discussed from the perspective of economics and geography; now, sociological and sociopolitical issues are gaining in importance – for example, with regard to the acceptance of tourism among the local population at the destinations. Today, when thinking about it, everyday spaces are connected with vacation spaces. This is absolutely necessary at present. Nowadays, if you fail to take the local population along for the ride, so to speak, you will not be able to establish tourism successfully in a region.

After the pandemic ended, the question was whether people would return to pre-corona travel patterns? What development are you observing?
On the one hand, the desire to travel again as usual was great out of habit. Nevertheless, there have been changes: Space and time have become more valuable. And beyond the pandemic, new challenges are emerging in the face of climate change, war, and demographic trends. On the one hand, people want distraction from the crises, on the other hand, there is a greater desire to travel more consciously. Many ask themselves not only the question of how they travel, but also why they travel at all. This is where the issue of sustainability comes in. At the moment, I doubt that tourism can contribute to major transformations on its own, because it is simply a matter of pleasant distraction for people. In a transformational context, political and social impetus is also needed. Tourism is not only economic, but also social policy. This understanding still needs to grow in tourism.

Where does the shortage of skilled workers come from and how can the industry counteract this trend? And: Where have the skilled workers migrated to – after all, they still have to earn their money?
We discuss this very much in the Federal Government's Competence Center for Tourism, of which I am the scientific director. Before the pandemic, conditions prevailed in the industry that are generally being questioned now after the pandemic. In order to be able to provide the service as cost-effectively as possible, attention has been paid to the cheapest possible working power. No thought has ever been given to working time models that allow for a five-day week. Of course, this requires more employees and more organizational processes, which makes the service more expensive. Now, in the acute crisis, employees are being particularly sought after, but only as a reaction to the situation. I wonder how credible and sustainable this U-turn is. The task is to find answers to the question: You tell me why I should work in tourism. Or also: Under what conditions can working in tourism be fun again?

What skills do future specialists and managers need and how do your courses offered at the KU prepare them for their professional future?
We need to understand that tourism is not just an economic industry, but a social phenomenon. This also requires interdisciplinary skills involving sociology, geography or psychology. We are pooling these, for example, in our new digital Master's program "Transformation and Sustainable Living Spaces - Reshape Tourism".

Most recently, you have been advocating for a "hospitality ecosystem" that takes into account not only the well-being of paying guests, but also the local population of the destinations. What is the background behind this and what steps are required?
Tourism is generally very well organized by various associations and organizations to combine quality of experiences of the guests with the quality of life of the locals. They can set impulses in business and politics to think more holistically. Aspects of resilience need to be identified – not only in terms of resilience to crises, but also in terms of future viability. Tourism is not solely responsible for this, but can assume the function of a network.

Among other things, you are also the scientific director of the Federal Government's Competence Center for Tourism. What is the role of politics in tourism?
The competence center's task is to identify topics that are of general importance for tourism – such as the labor shortage or aspects of digitalization – in exchange with the responsible stakeholders primarily from tourism associations. In the past, tourism policy was understood too much as economic policy. When properly understood, tourism has an integrative power across different fields – from environmental policy to cultural policy to social policy. Seen from this perspective, tourism policy should be the responsibility of the Chancellor's Office.

For the anniversary of your Chair, you are organizing a two-day symposium. What can participants look forward to?
The first day in Eichstätt is intended as a tourism think tank, the second in Ingolstadt as a public day on issues of regional and location development. Overall, the focus will be on the major issues surrounding transformations in the economy, society and politics and the consequences for tourism. The aim is to initiate change and break existing routines.

Let's take a look ahead: Where is tourism headed in the future?
I think digitalization is also a driving force in tourism – both for the presentation of destinations and for own products. Virtuality is blending into the real world. Today, for example, it is already possible to get a virtual 3D impression of a destination and explore it in advance even before booking. The original motifs remain timeless: Societies need recreation, variety and cultural enrichment. In the current times of social transformation, tourism can make a valuable contribution if it succeeds in offering insights into future-oriented lifestyles.

One last question: What kind of vacation does tourism expert Harald Pechlaner prefer for himself?
I like to experiment a lot. Even though this is not my preferred way of traveling, I once went on a cruise trip so I could report from my own experience. Together with my students, I went hiking on the Way of St. James. Traditionally, I like to combine mountains and sea.

The interview was conducted by Constantin Schulte Strathaus.

Detailed information on the program and registration for the conference "Transformation is an attitude! On the transformation of travel: Perspectives on the design of places and spaces" at