Tourism a vehicle for change

December 7, 2017
Stephanie Harrington
Geoffrey Bird

Associate professor Geoff Bird believes that tourism can be a force for good.

The director of the School of Tourism and Hospitality Management at Royal Roads University has spent his career putting that belief to work. Far from marketing all-inclusive holidays, Bird’s tourism research focuses on confronting challenging issues such as war remembrance, poverty and sustainability.

From supporting eco-tourism in Vietnam to making documentaries about the heritage sites of war-time Canada, Bird understands that tourism can be a vehicle for change.

“Tourism is a double-edged sword. It has damaged a lot of communities in the world in terms of overtourism, cultural and environmental impact,” he says.

“But it can be a benefit to cultures and local economies too. I see tourism as a conduit for addressing a range of societal, cultural and environmental issues as well as bringing economic benefit for the community.

“It is also a tangible form of globalism, where people from around the world can meet and learn from one another.

Bird’s most recent research, a documentary series called War Memories Across Canada, takes the form of 27 video vignettes. The project features a range of stories that explore little-known aspects of Canada’s war heritage, including the use of war horses during the First World War and the work of the Canadian Women’s Army Corps during the Second World War.

Bird says each vignette reveals the different experiences and effects of war on people, communities and nations. As a point of depature, each video starts in a physical place in Canada and gives voice to the “guardians of remembrance,” as Bird refers to the local people involved.

“Rather than making this solely a piece based on facts of the past, I’m working with the local people to have them tell their story and share their cultural memory and the relevance of remembering events today,” he says.

Funded by Canadian Heritage, Parks Canada and Royal Roads, the series has attracted national media attention. The next project will involve filming Canadian sites of war memory in Belgium and France.  

War heritage initiatives are close to Bird’s heart. As a young man, Bird was a guide at Vimy Ridge National Historic Site of Canada in France where he experienced what he calls the “power of place.” To mark the centenary of the battle this year, Bird was involved in leading a tour of the battlefields for Canadian teachers. He also helped an educational tour company design an expo that focused on how lessons from the past can be used to start discussions around civic responsibility and empathy today.

“I’m looking for a more resonant form of remembrance, emotional remembrance that people can physically connect to in these places,” he says.

Bird’s war heritage work asks the question, what does commemoration look like in the 21st century? Commemoration could include art installations or video projects—ways, he says, to connect new audiences with an important past.

With more than 25 years working in the tourism sector in roles including education, government, non-profit and business, Bird’s research extends beyond war remembrance to myriad other intiatives, including poverty alleviation, education policy and community development in Canada and overseas.

He has helped lead community-based tourism initiatives in Malaysia and Vietnam, countries where he took part in three tourism training projects funded by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA).

In one CIDA project that ran in Vietnam from 2002 to 2008, Bird managed training development for ethnic hill tribe communities in the country’s north. The idea was to help the groups develop sustainable tourism ventures that would support their communities. Training included food safety, first aid, sanitiation, HIV awareness and entrepreneurship.

The project was successful, leading to homestay development and a range of other local sustainable enterprises. 

“It’s about having them in control of decisions in terms of the direction their community is taking with tourism,” he says

Bird’s interest in humanitarian issues stems from his undergraduate degree in international development and an internship in Côte d’Ivoire. A position with the provincial government and a master’s degree in training formalized his research interests in tourism, education and development issues.

The intention to help humankind, whether through understanding past events or building a better future, matters most to Bird.

“I’ve always tried to look at research in tourism as a way to affect change or a way to measure or explain projects I’ve been involved with,” Bird says. “I always want to come back to the issue of benefiting people and communities.”

This profile was developed with the assistance of the Research Support Fund and will be included in the forthcoming 2018 Research in Action publication featuring Royal Roads University faculty and student research.