Le Tourisme, Les Nouvelles Technologies et l’Alsace
[A draft article I wrote for the British Tourism Society focusing upon the point that it is the contexts and cultures in which ICT is to be embedded which determines how it looks, feels, is used and the degree to which it is successful rather than the technology itself.]
Le Tourisme et les Nouvelles Technologies: TNT – just about says it all, really – it has considerable explosive potential. However, as ever, it is not technology that is the important issue here, so much as the context in which it is employed; a realisation that dawned upon me most emphatically on the evening of my 17th birthday on the old Homesley Aerodrome in the New Forest some thirty-odd years ago when my Dad set me behind the wheel of the car for my first unofficial driving lesson with the words: “This is the first time you’ve had a loaded weapon in your hand – you can kill someone with this if you are not careful”. The car is not the issue so much as the driver. In information and communication technology (ICT) terms it is very much the same: it’s not what it is, so much as what you do with it that counts.
In 2003, whilst still teaching Tourism at Bournemouth University, as part of the role of my Learning and Teaching Fellowship, I was engaged in talking to other universities about the potential involved in the use of the internet as a support tool for learning in a university ‘attendance’ (rather than distance learning) mode. As part of this endeavour I was invited to the Université d’Haute Alsace (Mulhouse, France) to address and work with a faculty upon the development of a vision and a strategy for the application of ICT in learning and teaching. Certain things became immediately apparent:
- the degree of Faculty and individual lecturer autonomy (sovereignty, even) were very much stronger than in England
- in the light of such independence, the University ‘centre’ found it difficult either to lead or to impose new ICT initiatives and was looking for something to emerge from the faculties themselves.
- the largely collegiate nature of operation within Faculties and their Departments made it ‘difficult’ for coherent ICT initiatives to come about.
- although there were ‘lab-style’ ICT oases, generally speaking, both staff and student access to ICT was very much lower than I had been used to seeing in the UK.
The overall result appeared to be (on the basis of this institution at least) that the French Higher Education system was finding it tough to get to grips with ICT whose hardware and software needs and pedagogic issues & principles ran across the piece and needed leadership and to be addressed systematically. It appeared to me that the context was perhaps holding back the potential contribution of the technology. On the upside, however, was the voracious appetite of the staff for genuine discussion and debate and for the needs of learning and teaching to ‘drive’ the future use of technology. Cutting a long (and as yet still incomplete) story short, the university faculty concerned seemed to have a rather late ‘start’ in the application of ICT, but to benefit from an intense involvement of the front-line staff in the development and utilisation of bespoke technology in learning and teaching which they themselves would use. Set against the oft-seen alternative of systems imposed from ‘on high’ upon staff who feel unconvinced and uninvolved, this represents a refreshing alternative.
The same sort of difference applies to local government here in France (as compared with England) and its use of new technologies, particularly the www. Before moving here, I lived on the Bournemouth/Poole border (with some 163,000 population in the former and 138,000 in the latter according to the 2001 census). I am somewhat ashamed to say that I do not think I could immediately recall the name of my Ward Councillor. What I am getting at is the fact that the units with which I was dealing as a citizen were simply too large and amorphous to take in (for me at least). Yes, I know there are Parish Councils at a lower level and I am sure some do excellent work – but for decision-making authority one has no alternative but to look to the Borough/Town/City/Unitary Authority level which is often remote in terms of distance, access and knowledge despite local government services often being rendered online. Here in Alsace I live in a community of just over 1000: I am registered as resident No 998 in fact. It may read like a script from ‘The Prisoner’ cult 1960s series, but it isn’t. The seat of power is the Mairie and the redoubtable Maire it’s living incarnation. He operates in a representative and executive fashion with a team of about a dozen elected members who live in the village and are visible and known to just about everyone. At this level nothing happens without the community being fully in-the-know or involved. We even get our hands ‘dirty’ metaphorically and literally too: the mayor, his team, their families and friends (yes, me and my wife too) planted out some thousands of geraniums around the village rather than employ landscapers and did the same thing building stages, barbecues and drinks tents for the Music Festival we put on. The point of all this seemingly non-Tourism context? Nothing …. except for the fact that the small Commune unit is the same basic building-block that the French use for orchestrating their Tourism promotion. The difficulties are obvious:
- with a population of almost exactly the same as England but which is spread out in a geography of some five times the surface area, small, almost innumerable, rural micro-communes predominate
- the small-scale building-blocks themselves cannot generally support the level of expertise or expenditure necessary to develop credible, quality, interactive websites. The capability to develop and maintain such sites is also relatively limited at this level.
- the small geographical scale of the areas of the commune do not tend to lend themselves to readily-identifiable, recognisable and marketable Tourism destinations
At a practical level, the French are overcoming these limitations with their ‘CoCos’ – Communities of Communes – pragmatic partnerships with neighbouring communes: “We have a multi-purpose ‘Bobcat’ vehicle – you have a rubbish truck and they have a road-sweeper: let’s share the resources and work out a rota”. No reason why that should not spawn other service-based partnerships like Tourism. That’s from the ground up. France is also making strides with top /middle down in that it is now (re)inventing the concept of Regional Tourist Boards. In Alsace, for example, a particularly ambitious and prolific Tourism Observatory has been set up to research and circulate data and a (sadly separate) body has also been established to develop some coherence across the region in the number, nature, quality, functionality and usability of Tourism websites operating particularly at the level of the commune; indeed some of my own students of Tourism and Hospitality Management at the Colmar Institute of Technology have been instrumental in research projects designed to improve website quality and access to ‘Green Tourism’ products and services in the region.
The technology itself is most emphatically not the problem for Tourism: it simply offers a range of technical features, functionalities and potential opportunities – it may sound obvious, but the real issue is the context and culture into which the technology is going to be placed and the people who are (or who are not) going to try to bend it to their will. This still appears to be receiving rather less attention than is its due … no matter where one may look. Technology? – It’s all about humanity.
Tony Jolley is proprietor of the ‘Tonyversity‘ Tourism and Professional Development Consultancy, based in Bruebach on the French/German/Swiss border. www.tonyversity.com
Tony Jolley email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Tonyversity website: www.tonyversity.com
Alsace Tourism Observatory http://www.clicalsace.com/
Alsace Tourism Extranet http://www.resot-alsace.fr/
Alsace Tourism Online http://www.tourisme-alsace.com/fr/
Community of Communes http://www.ville-riedisheim.fr/site/haut/menu_principal/intercommunalite/cococo