Dallen J. Timothy, professor, ASU, Arizona State University, School of Community Resources and Development

Faculty spotlight: Travelers’ top concern is safety, and tourism industry won’t fully recover until there’s a vaccine, says researcher


Mark J. Scarp

When and how the tourism industry recovers from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are subjects of intense academic and public interest. ASU Professor Dallen J. Timothy said that within the first few months since the pandemic began, he’s become aware of more than 50 scholarly articles about it and there are many more in the mainstream press. Some are more pessimistic than others.

As a tourism geographer, Timothy teaches and researches many aspects of travel and tourism in the School of Community Resources and Development (SCRD) in the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions. He recently read a United Kingdom-based prediction that even if a vaccine is found and approved soon, the global airline industry won’t begin to stabilize until 2024.

Still, Timothy believes that many of the most profound financial hardships will be felt by small and medium tourism businesses, such as boutique hotels, cozy cafes and bed-and-breakfasts in popular destinations. “My fear is so many will go under and not come back,” Timothy said. “Many have put their life’s savings into a bed and breakfast and they may not lose only the B&B but their homes as well.”

Meanwhile, the airlines and airports have employed strict sanitization protocols. However, according to Timothy, ironically, most reports of novel coronavirus exposure come from people frequenting bars, beaches or large social gatherings. “When health agencies try to track exposure, I haven’t heard any cases tied back to airplanes.”

“Every time there is a plane crash, it’s a wake-up call. People say we should have done this and that, and so on. (The pandemic) is also a wake-up call,” he said. Timothy said that COVID-19 ultimately being suppressed by an effective vaccine will be a significant turning point for the tourism industry’s recovery and a trigger to making lasting changes in how it operates.

To recover successfully, transportation and lodging providers, as well as destination management organizations, will need to ensure a sense of safety, even if it is only a “sense of security” rather than actual security. “People’s No. 1 concern in travel is safety. It’s not food, it’s not immersion in culture, etc.,” he said. “People just won’t travel if they don’t feel secure.”

Hand washing, masks and physical distancing help, but the numbers of cases are still rising, he noted. “Once a vaccine is widely distributed throughout the world and numbers of infections begin to decline, then we’ll start to see tourism begin to recover,” Timothy said.

Read on to learn more about Dallen Timothy and the kinds of research he does in the field of tourism studies.

Q.   Tell us a little about yourself today and your early years.

A.    Some of my earliest memories are dreams of exploring the world. I planned my first trip to Europe when I was nine, although the journey never happened. I planned my first trip to Mexico when I was 12. My father trusted me enough to let me guide him to Mexico in our old Volkswagen Rabbit to explore northern Sonora. That was my first trip abroad. Between the ages of 12 and 20, I wrote to 21 pen pals from all over the world and eventually got to meet several of them in their home countries. Because of my growing interest in the world, beginning at age 16 I spent a year as an exchange student in Finland, and later returned there for two years as a volunteer. During my life, my interest in global affairs and international travel led to my career choice to research the social and environmental implications of tourism. I have been fortunate to visit and undertake work-related tasks in more than 100 countries. Global engagement continues to be a deep, underlying driver in my career choices.

Q.   Tell us about your most recent activity in research, what it’s about, what it’s designed to have you learn.

A.    I have several ongoing collaborative research projects. One in the early stages of development examines the implications of cross-border tourism between China and Vietnam, South Africa and Botswana, the United States and Mexico, Poland and Germany, and Poland and Belarus. This multinational project examines the impacts of international borders on tourism as a barrier, an attraction and as a moderator of tourism development in borderland areas in a variety of cultural contexts. A related project deals with Chinese travelers who visit Vietnamese border towns on day trips to purchase household items and food products and participate in leisure experiences. This study aims to understand their motives and their inter-cultural interactions with Vietnamese merchants. A third project addresses medical tourism along the Mexico-U.S. border and its economic and social implications for Mexican border towns. There are several other current projects, but these are illustrative of some of what I am doing.

Q.  What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study the field you are now in?

A.   Although my undergraduate degree was in tourism (in a geography department), I had decided I was not interested in pursuing applied tourism as a career or academic tourism in my graduate studies. It just was not for me. However, during my master’s program, I took a course from a very well-known tourism geographer. The course really inspired me, and I admired the work the professor was doing. After my term paper received an A grade, I submitted it (with the professor as co-author) to the top journal in the field. After reviews and revisions, the paper was accepted and published. This encouragement and mentorship spurred a deep-seated desire to work in the academy and specialize in the social science of tourism

Q.   What fires you up about your research?

A,    Learning! Learning is my passion. Collaborating with students and other scholars to discover how the world’s cultures, societies and ecosystems survive and adapt in the face of tourism is very exciting.

Q.   What is it about ASU that made it where you wanted to take your career?

A.    ASU’s status as a top research institution was very appealing. This status has provided many opportunities to develop my research programs. Before I was hired in 2000, ASU already had a strong tourism program and I wanted to be part of that. Likewise, its location provides many potential opportunities to work along the border with Mexico, with Native Americans and immigrant groups and in natural and cultural areas in the western United States.

Q.   What’s something you learned — either as a student yourself or since becoming a faculty member — that surprised you, that changed your perspective?

A.    Not everyone in the academy pulls their own weight; many people are not team players. I am frequently disappointed in the (in)action of others and have learned to be selective in the partnerships I develop. Nonetheless, I am naturally an optimistic person and will always give people the benefit of the doubt.

Q.   Which professor(s) – current colleagues or your own teachers -- taught you the most important lessons? What were those lessons?

A.    I was very fortunate to have amazing mentors throughout my undergraduate and graduate studies. Lloyd Hudman was my undergraduate adviser and a pioneer in the geography of tourism. Geoffrey Wall, Richard Butler and Charles Whebell were amazing mentors during my graduate years. All of these professors taught me the value of hard work, the joy of discovery, the importance of being creative and innovative and the significance of generating new knowledge.

Q.   What’s your proudest academic or professional accomplishment to date?

A.    I suppose there are two answers to this. First, I founded the Journal of Heritage Tourism (published by Routledge) 16 years ago. Editing this journal has been a labor of love. Secondly, I just finished writing my 32nd book. Although I get a great deal of gratification from publishing journal articles, my greatest satisfaction comes from authoring and editing books, because this enables me to dig deeper into today’s most important questions without the production constraints of journal articles.

Q.    If you could clone yourself, what other career would you pursue?

A.    Farmer. Although conducting research around the globe is not very compatible with farming, it is my other passion. I have a small farm in Gilbert, where I produce plenty of fresh eggs, vegetables and fruit for my family and my neighbors. If I weren’t an academic, I would be a full-time permaculturist.

Q.    What is your life motto in one sentence?

A.    “Choose not to be offended when offense is not intended, and choose not to offend as you interact with others.”

Q.    If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A.     Poverty. My work deals a lot with poverty. Underlying everything I do is the desire to help communities improve their standards of living and quality of life through well-planned and sustainable forms of tourism. As I travel and work in less-affluent parts of the world, one of my biggest personal challenges is how to cope with the heartbreak I feel when I witness hunger, disease and conflict. Poverty has many causes, including climate change, political instability, illiteracy, greed and inequitable access to resources. These are the things I would tackle to reduce poverty at home and abroad.