ISSN 1108-8931


Year 6 - Issue 80 - May 06

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Index of Interviews

Jim Macbeth"There are important philosophical and ethical questions to be asked about western researchers fanning out across the developing world asking questions thought up in developed countries."

*Associate Professor in Tourism,
School of Social Sciences and Humanities,
Murdoch University
Perth, Western Australia.

While studying in the UK, Jim Macbeth took a ‘chance’ job at the University of Western Australia in Perth in 1972, thinking that he could work for a couple of years in Australia before returning to Canada. Perth is that kind of place: it is easy to stay. Three years later he joined Murdoch University, also in Perth, as a foundation staff member. He has ‘survived’ with one employer because of a number of things, not least of which is that Perth is such a good place to live and the other universities in town don’t offer the sort of interdisciplinary challenges and flexibility. But, Jim has also varied the focus of his academic career every 8-10 years with the shift from sociology to tourism in the mid-1990s, both for teaching and research. That said, all of Jim’s research is informed by the ‘sociological imagination’ (C. Wright Mills) and a wider concern for communities on the one hand and the experience of individuals on the other. The latter was the focus of Jim’s Doctoral study that was informed by and contributed to the sociology of subcultures.

Ocean sailing became one of Jim’s passions in the 1970s and has remained an interest ever since. He owns an ocean sailing yacht but these days uses it more as an office than for sailing; but, life does go in segments and the last few years have been dominated by tourism work and travel as well as the horses of his daughter.

Murdoch University is a relatively small research intensive university (about 12000 students) that was established in Western Australia when there was only one other university. It is renowned for its teaching excellence (top five star rating 10 of the last 11 years on graduate assessment), its success in research and in postgraduate research. Jim Macbeth shares in this passion for research and supervision being involved in a wide range of funded projects and postgraduate research. He received the 2005 Vice Chancellor’s Excellence in Supervision Award for his postgraduate work.

Associate Professor Macbeth developed the undergraduate tourism course in 1995 and has been program chair since that time. The course has a social science bias with a concern more for policy and planning than for product development or marketing, for example. There are currently four majors available within three different degrees, reflecting the interdisciplinary and cross-school philosophy at Murdoch, with tourism studies in science, tourism and commerce. (go to  and enter ‘tourism’ in the Course box.)

As noted above, Jim has seen his career follow 8-10 year cycles and another cycle is about to begin: he has been appointed Interim Head of the School of Social Sciences and Humanities, a school of about 50 staff. If that appointment is confirmed in 2007 into a longer term then the next cycle will be underway. Jim will be able to maintain his tourism research and postgraduate supervision but to a lesser degree with the new responsibilities in a rapidly changing higher education sector.

(The Interview follows:) Western Australia is promoting itself as Australia's most environmentally-aware destination while Perth, where you are based, as a "city in harmony with nature", also dubbed the "City of Lights" by overflying astronaut John Glenn in 1962, and named "the most isolated city in the world" by America's Cup skipper Dennis Connor. It sounds like a tourists' paradise, but has development in isolation inevitably lead to any environmental and social problems, and may be Tourism contributing to the amelioration or accentuation of these?

Jim Macbeth: Promotion and marketing come out of wishful and creative thinking and what some people think the market wants to hear. But, as with your statements, it is not all incorrect. I’ve lived in Perth for 35 years after migrating from Canada via the UK and this is an isolated western developed city, although in many ways we don’t feel it. A short air flight for me is 3 hours; it is all relative. We are not isolated in the sense of being out of touch with or unaffected by the machinations of 21st Century global development pressures and the pre-eminence of the dollar and right wing fundamentalist politics. That said (fortunately), we are unimportant enough to be ignored by many. But, this is a sparsely developed state where it is a four-day drive to the Kimberley in the north, one of our premier outback destinations, and there are no cities in between. Make no mistake about it, though, the landscapes of Western Australia are awesome! And, that is said by someone who grew up near the Rocky Mountains in Canada.

Tourism is an important part of our economy and is vital to a number of towns and regions. But, it is the resources boom that drives this place into a frenzy of tax revenue and consumer spending. There is, of course, environmental damage from tourism development and the activities of tourists. But, it has to be said that much of the damage is done by developers whose main interest is often property development for residential purposes with tourism used as a hook to attract financial and government support. We have also had some important environmental ‘wins’ in tourism, the most notable being the eventual rejection by the State government of an inappropriate development at Maud’s Landing, near Coral Bay on the coast beside the Ningaloo reef, 2 days drive north of Perth. A new development strategy is being proposed for Coral Bay itself, a high demand area that badly needs infrastructure in the face of the travelling hoards. There is a lot of research and strategic planning current and while not all of it will result in strong environmental protection, it is not open slather for developers or for tourists.

From your research in Western Australia, are sometimes captive wildlife facilities better than the real thing in terms of removing pressure from the environment, guaranteeing satisfaction to the tourists, and in general increasing carrying capacity and tourism popularity of an area, or is the preservation of the image of authenticity, anticipation of the unknown, exploration and independence a dominant factor for commercial success of a 'quiet' outback area?

Jim Macbeth: I think the implied dichotomy in your question masks the key issues. There is no doubt in my mind (and from my academic and personal background) that humans like to ‘explore’ and that exploration takes many forms, including learning new knowledge and walking the unknown trail, sailing the oceans.

Captive wildlife facilities (zoos?) serve a variety of purposes, including important conservation functions. They are also places where tourists can see animals they would never see in the wild simply because those animals are hard to find. And, yes, there are times when it is desirable to use captivity as a way to protect animals and habitat. But, any form of captivity is also an ethical question that we have to address. (see Newsome, D, M. Hughes and J. Macbeth 2005 Captive Wildlife Tourism in a Natural Setting: Visitor Satisfaction as a Measure of Success at Barna Mia, Western Australia. Journal of Ecotourism. Vol. 4, No. 2, pp73-91).

Tourism academics question the notion of ‘authenticity’ and will do so forever. What is it? Who knows? Is it in the experience of the person? Our limited research in one facility found the respondents did experience this captive experience as authentic. Fine.

But, there is no substitute for the quiet outback, as on the ocean at night 100s of miles from land and lights – it is a big sky when seen like that and while we may feel insignificant we can also feel part of a pretty special place.

Some, who could be called sustainable tourism revisionists, would argue that 'stage-managed' indigenous performances, artificial villages and souvenir shops, within luxury all-inclusive resorts, are less obtrusive and disruptive for indigenous communities, and more efficient in terms of revenue generation and poverty reduction. Do you find any merit in this argument, with reference to indigenous communities in Australia, your native Canada and elsewhere?

Jim Macbeth: I don’t believe I can generalise and say that this, or any other solution, is always, if ever, right for particular people. But, it is an important alternative strategy to consider and has been used by ‘closed’ communities to keep tourists at a distance while still satisfying the tourists’ curiosity and consumer interests. Often, the answer to your question lies in an understanding of power relationships and then in questions of empowerment. Who has the power in determining a strategy and are indigenous people empowered in the process?

You are both a skilled yachtsman and an expert on the academic side of private ocean sailing or cruising, with your Ph.D. thesis concluding that cruisers are cultural 'heroes' within the western individualistic value system, and although in a way deviant, their deviance can contribute to positive social evolution. So does it follow that tourism is always a positive force as long as tourists are satisfied on an individual level, or does this satisfaction need to be within a certain 'ethical' platform that also values the greater impact on the community?

Jim Macbeth: Thanks for getting me to revisit a document I wrote over 20 years ago. People following their own needs for adventure, self-reliance and challenge are only cultural heroes within a particular society and ideology. Twenty years on I would write a different abstract, if not a different thesis. But, yes, in a corporatised world these people managed to ‘escape’ but they also sought to create a lifestyle closer to nature and more dependent on their own skills and resources. While they are not self-sufficient, they are self-reliant. People explore, they search and they push their own boundaries and these people had a fundamental critique of western society of the 70s. They interested me because of their expression of an uneasiness about modern society, an expression found in their actions and in their writing. Further, given the wide readership of this expression, they represented something, maybe a fantasy, for millions of others. But, one of the reasons I was interested in these people was because they represent the advantaged, a part of society too little studied. This was the middle class searching and it needed expression.

I used the word 'deviant' because I wanted to emphasise the notion that to be different from the mainstream, to deviate, isn’t always about things like street gangs or drug use. To deviate is often to look for something better in life for oneself and loved ones and/or for one’s society. Some of our most famous deviants were responsible for the environmental movement that is so vital to the survival of humanity. (see Macbeth, J. 1985. Ocean Cruising: a study of affirmative deviance. PhD Thesis, Murdoch University, Western Australia, available electronically; and Macbeth, J. 1992. Ocean cruising: a sailing subculture. The Sociological Review. Vol. 40, #2, pp319-343.)

It certainly does not follow that tourism is always a positive force when individuals are pursuing their own form of nirvana. To assert this would be laughable given the damage being done around the world by hedonistic and selfish individuals posing as tourists or developers of tourist products. Yes, it does take a particular ethical position(s) for there to be a chance that tourism will be a positive force.

The fact that it has been necessary to develop and use a concept such as pro-poor tourism or its relative Sustainable Tourism-Eliminating Poverty (ST-EP) is not only an important initiative but a sign or recognition that much tourism is not serving the needs of the disadvantaged.

Which brings us to the next question. Most branches of science are currently researching 'Ethics', with the usual argument being that technology development is running faster than ethics development, and 'ethical' dilemmas appearing with greater frequency. Is there a similar situation in Tourism with advances in technology taking the form of improved transport (cheaper flights to everywhere) and communication (TV, Internet, mobile phones)? And in practice, how would you convey the concept of 'Tourism Ethics' in a short, memorable way, to an airport audience composed of an 18 year old backpacker on his way to Ibiza, a 30ish couple on their way to their all-inclusive honeymoon in the Maldives, a 68 year old retiree heading to Pattaya, and a travel photographer on his way to remote Burmese villages? And would it have any effect you believe?

Jim Macbeth: You don't ask hard questions do you! Now, how do I get out of this one late on a Saturday night with good music playing? Prevaricate and say you develop a variation on ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’. Then you have to help people understand their impacts and why those impacts are important. Will it do any good? In some cases, yes; in others, of course not.

My work on ethics in tourism is concerned with informing our policy and planning frameworks within a sustainable development context. It is not primarily for tourists but for planners and policy makers (see Macbeth, J. 2005. Towards an ethics platform for tourism. Annals of Tourism Research. Vol. 32(4), pp. 962-984)

On a slightly different aspect of technology, I’m involved in a project on virtual nuclear tourism. One of my colleagues in multi-media has had a long interest in presenting the Cold War dynamics of nuclear testing, especially in Australia, in a virtual tourism product. Many of the nuclear sites are either closed to visitation or are largely inaccessible. And, of course, the testing sites do not have a lot of evidence to look at! We got funds for a scoping study to investigate ways to make these sites accessible through multi-media and are doing (or did) the scoping field trip to the South Australian sites in June 2006 (Maralinga, Narungar, Emu Junction and Woomera).

One last thing here: changes in technology are changing tourism and tourism’s impacts but it is also important to recognise that these changes also work independently of tourism. For example, it is pretty hard to blame tourists for 'infecting indigenous communities with Western ideals' when those same communities have television and are faced with a plethora of western consumer goods.

From your research findings, are Backpackers or Luxury tourists more appropriate 'customers' for emancipated local communities, or is it up to the - after all emancipated - local communities to decide for themselves?

Jim Macbeth: Good decisions are only made with good information. It is possible to be emancipated yet not have good information and thus to make decisions that are bad for your community, your culture and your environment – we do it all the time and, as I said earlier, power relations are an important dynamic. Each of your dichotomised alternatives above may be appropriate together in managed numbers and in certain contexts. There are no simple decisions possible in the complex world of intercultural, globalised tourism development. I have explored this in some research we did on tourism in Byron Bay, an icon backpacker location on the east coast of Australia. (See Westerhausen, K. and J Macbeth. 2003. Backpackers and Empowered Local Communities. Natural Allies in the Struggle for Sustainability and Local Control? Tourism Geographies Vol. 5, No. 1, 2003, pp. 71-86.)

All tourists have impacts and the crucial question then becomes one of setting policy frameworks and developing planning guidelines that will improve the chances of meeting the complex demands of a truly sustainable tourism, one that contributes positively to social, cultural, economic and environmental dynamics in a destination. While so-called backpackers are widely believed to produce one of the best economic yields (they spend the most and a lot of it goes in small businesses) they too have impacts, both positive and negative, in places where they 'hang-out'. The following article explores a framework for planners to help them think about maximising sustainable yield on all dimensions. (See Northcote, Jeremy and Jim Macbeth. 2006. Conceptualising Yield in Sustainable Tourism Development: An Integrated Model.’ Annals of Tourism Research, Vol.33, no. 1, pp. 199-220).

Another way in which we’ve approached understanding tourism and communities is through social capital and related cultural and political issues. We were concerned not only for evaluating a community’s ‘readiness’ to undertake and control tourism but also to understand what impacts tourism might have on social, cultural and political capital. The debates around these concepts are very interesting and a rich source of ideas about communities and their enhancement. (See Macbeth, Jim, Dean Carson and Jeremy Northcote. 2004. Social Capital, tourism and regional development: SPCC as a basis for innovation and sustainability. Current Issues in Tourism. Vol. 7 (6), pp. 502-522.)

Many studies try to measure the social impact of tourism at a local level, (usually as a decision tool before financing further expansion in tourism), through resident perception surveys. Can these be relatively accurate, as for example election polls, provided that the proper methodology is applied, or is there something inherently wrong about trying to evaluate resident’s perceptions and indeed the social impact of tourism in this way? (And in that case, why not go for the real thing, hold direct elections about tourism issues?)

Jim Macbeth: As I've written elsewhere, understanding how residents and other stakeholders perceive tourism impacts is important in managing a tourist destination. But, I don’t believe perceptions are the same thing as actual impacts. There are actual changes going on in any situation that may not be noticed by residents, some of which may be positive by most definitions. So, to really understand tourism impacts we have to measure perceptions, employment changes, aspects of social capital, real estate prices and ownership changes of business and infrastructure – and the list goes on. (see Northcote, Jeremy and Jim Macbeth. 2005. Limitations of Resident Perception Surveys for Understanding Tourism Social Impacts: the Need for Triangulation. Tourism Recreation Research, Vol. 30(2), pp.43-54.) Obviously, we would argue that direct elections/plebiscites about tourism developments are less than satisfactory, if for no other reason than the result are mainly about perception (this is arguable). However, I would go further and revisit the issues of power and of the failures of elections, especially non-preferential, to deliver a result the represents the complexity of residents’ views. Anyway, are votes/residents the only stakeholders to get a say?

As someone who has successfully supervised many Ph.D Tourism students, do you at all sense that Tourism Ph.D. theses topics tend to get slightly more commercial / exotic / attractive / "nichey" each year? Is academic integrity at all sacrificed for future publishing and consulting success, are perhaps topics influenced by commercial pressures and available funding for students, or is it a case of Universities ("finally" as cynics would say) producing research that is relevant to real world problems?

Jim Macbeth: Yes, but …. that is not the whole story. Funding does drive many research projects because the funding is provided to ask certain questions and this is the case in all disciplines to some degree. In tourism, we have seen a massive increase in Australia of tourism scholarship through all types of research. The Sustainable Tourism Cooperative Research Centre in Australia currently funds almost 100 PhD scholars throughout the country. A student’s academic integrity is not compromised by this funding although the questions they need to ask are directed. Their work can still be academically competent while we still may decry the way funding skews the research agenda. Governments throughout the world place strings on most funding and Australia is no exception with our universities micro-managed by the whims of Federal politicians (they have more money than State politicians so we pay attention to more of their whims). Do I contradict myself?

The really frightening thing about research funding in Australia is that it is so heavily skewed to the health and bio-sciences that the humanities and social sciences are simply starved out of the research loop. What is frightening is that without the social science, humanities and creative industries doing serious and well-funded research we will develop societies managed through ignorance and without an understanding of the complexities of human nature and needs. And, this is to say nothing of the military-industrial-research industries! This year I have had two PhD students receive clear passes from all three of their examiners, one just came today. I’m ecstatic. But, my point in raising this is that neither of them did industry directed research.

In this context, field research in remote and dangerous parts of the world is increasing in importance for Tourism academics. Recently, and on your initiative, your Institution developed a scholarship in the memory of a tourism researcher who perished in Thailand during the Tsunami. Should "tourism-research-related tourism" be recognised and organised perhaps, like Voluntourism, as a separate and important genre of Tourism, indeed due to its double importance and contribution to local communities, and be given due attention and support by relevant bodies including governments, airlines and tourism professionals?

Jim Macbeth: From a research point of view, no we should not further segment our knowledge by developing yet another special area of research. That said, there are important philosophical and ethical questions to be asked about western researchers fanning out across the developing world asking questions thought up in developed countries. But, I don’t think that is the question you are asking and is not my whole answer.

Business travel is an important component of the tourism activity of many destinations. One could argue that tourism researchers (do you include consultants?) are another form of business travel and some destinations would do well to facilitate the work of such tourists – provided the society isn’t afraid of the answers that hard questions sometimes throw in your face.

Murdoch University named its most prestigious International Postgraduate Scholarship after Lisa Jones, a UK national and Murdoch postgrad who died on the North Andaman coast doing what she cared about - working with endangered species (sea turtles) and local communities. Her research, under the supervision of myself and Associate Professor Carol Warren, was about empowering local communities in the face of the global forces of tourism development, including decision-making by central governments divorced from the needs of local and indigenous people. The 2006 inaugural Lisa Jones Memorial International Postgraduate Scholarship is held by Stephanie Chok, a Singaporean student who already has a masters degree in development studies; she will be doing work with tourism and poverty alleviation, probably with a field focus in Thailand.

Finally, is there something else you would like to say, perhaps on your or your institutions future projects?

Jim Macbeth: My life has developed in 8-10 year segments and the last 10 years in tourism has been one of the most dynamic in terms of research and scholarship so I'm looking forward to more of it. Throughout these times, one of the most important aspects of my own intellectual background has been the social sciences and a fundamental critique of the way our societies disenfranchise their peoples. While I’ve never engaged in the radical edge of that critique, much of my work has an underlying flavour of that perspective. My tourism research began in earnest in 1995 when I did what seemed then a small project on community tourism management/planning in rural Australia. That was part of my commitment to rural and regional communities and became a turning point in my academic career. Much of the research funding I have managed in that time has had a regional community focus and that will continue.

I get funding from two major Cooperative Research Centres (national funding bodies), one with the title ‘Sustainable Tourism’ and the other ‘Desert Knowledge’. In the former, tourism is the key focus (see, is almost an end in itself. In the latter, the key issue is sustainable communities (see with tourism as a means to an end. That suits me so that my involvement in a new 5 year project on desert 4WD tourism bodes well for my future research.

But, to return to where we started – Thailand. The death of my student in the tsunami affected me greatly and I look forward to our being able to do more work that will carry on the tourism objectives of Lisa Jones. Stephanie Chok’s new PhD won’t be the same, of course, but it will address many of the same underlying tourism and globalisation issues. It will be the most radical research of my tourism period. Thank you very much

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