Increasingly popular educational travel and learning adventures offer participants more than fun
By Lu Yan  ·  2023-08-02  ·   Source: NO.31 AUGUST 3, 2023
For Liu Aiming, this summer vacation is an extremely busy one. Liu manages a program that takes students on educational tours and learning adventures in Beijing and he organizes two immersion activities each weekend. Late nights have become the norm for Liu, but he feels it's worthwhile when he sees the smiles and laughs of students.

An increasing number of parents across China are interested in short-term study tours for their children, especially during summer vacations and national holidays. Many hope the tours will help children develop a better understanding of traditional Chinese culture and gain more knowledge outside the classroom.

"Parents know that their children have a strong desire to explore new things and broaden their horizons. Combining learning and fun will make children healthier and happier," Liu told Beijing Review.

Students conduct an experiment at a research institute in Beijing on July 12 (COURTESY PHOTO)

Gaining momentum

This summer, many regions in China have been scorched by the worst heatwaves in decades. But the scorching sun doesn't seem to have dampened the enthusiasm of the younger generation for exploring places of historic significance, breathtaking natural landscapes or anywhere else where they can learn and enjoy time together.

The China Tourism Academy released a report in March that showed educational tourism has become popular among not only young people but also people of all ages. In addition to students and preschool children, those in middle and even advanced ages are all now seeking ways to incorporate learning into travel.

More than 6 million people joined study tours last year, higher even than the pre-pandemic number of 4.8 million in 2019, according to the Education, Science, Culture and Public Health Committee of the National People's Congress (NPC), the national legislature.

One subcategory of educational tours is called "textbook tours," meaning traveling to places that are mentioned in school textbooks or where historical events in the textbooks took place. For example, the story of Yu the Great, a legendary ruler famed for taming floods and introducing flood control in ancient times, is included in a widely used primary school textbook. One of his alleged hometowns, Wenchuan in Sichuan Province, has launched several Yu-the-Great-related educational activities, such as seminars with scholars, to welcome students from around China to learn more about the ruler's life.

As part of Liu's program, students participate in volunteer activities or visit institutions such as museums, universities, embassies and companies and learn new things and interact with new people. Examples include primary and middle school students visiting Tsinghua University, one of China's most prestigious universities, to become a university student for a day; visit embassies to learn about other cultures; or conduct experiments at a research institute.

"We try to develop a variety of routes and activities to help children explore the world and to give them an all-round moral, intellectual, physical and aesthetic education," Liu, who also leads the groups, said, adding that his agency organizes some 500 activities a year.

Past and future

Study travel can be traced back to the Song (960-1279) and Ming (1368-1644) dynasties, when many poets wrote of their experiences on study travels, according to Luo Shugang, Director of the Education, Science, Culture and Public Health Committee of the NPC.

Some say that the origin can be traced back even earlier. Ancient Chinese philosopher and educator Confucius (551-479 B.C.) is regarded as one of the pioneers in advocating study tours, as he often took his disciples to different places and taught them life lessons during the tours.

With the growing demand from parents and students, the need for professionals to guide study tours is surging. In June 2022, the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security announced 18 new occupations, among which study tour instructor was listed. The ministry specified that the title "study tour instructor" refers to personnel who formulate and implement the travel plan and organize activities for these study tours.

"Study tour instructors need to not only draft the curricula, routes and content of tours for students of different ages, but also have the knowledge and ability to teach in the process, so that the students can learn effectively," Wang Miaomiao, a study tour instructor, told Xinhua News Agency. "This requires them to keep updating their knowledge and teaching methods."

Zhang Yang, an associate research fellow with the China Tourism Academy, believes study tour instructors are different from school teachers and tour guides in that they need to understand both tourism and education, and there's a high demand for such professionals.

Official data show that, in 2022, more than 90 of China's approximately 1,500 vocational colleges offered a major related to educational tourism.

Facing controversy

Despite its growing popularity, the nation's educational tourism sector still faces problems in its development, such as safety issues, unsatisfactory itineraries and a lack of qualified instructors.

"I participated in a tour with my son once and I was not impressed by its activities—It was more like sightseeing than learning something useful," Pan Yan, a mother of an 11-year-old in Beijing, told Beijing Review. "I thought the programs should focus more on 'study' than 'tour'."

Liu said there is fierce competition among tour operators, and many are profiteers who copy others' routes, rather than educators who are devoted to developing more quality activities for students. "It's difficult for eager parents to distinguish the good from the bad before they realize they have been tricked by a dazzling advertisement and taken in," he added.

"Market supervision is lagging far behind the development of educational tourism due to a lack of state-level market entry requirements. The domestic educational tourism market is still in its infancy with many different entities like travel agencies and consultancies rushing to enter," Luo said at a forum in March.

Xu Huayu, President of Anhui Global Culture Tourism Group, said that a shortage of talent also hampers the development of educational tourism. "Many people involved in educational tourism are those who used to work for travel agencies, and some people just think of it as a business. It's necessary to produce more professional study travel instructors and recruit qualified people to develop curricula that will be used during the study tours," Xu said.

In mid-July, the National Museum of China in Beijing, a popular study tour destination, released a regulation that tightens restrictions on agencies that apply to conduct activities there. The regulation requires the lessons delivered to students inside the museum being both based on outlines provided by the museum and also subject to the museum's approval.

Shen Wangshu, Deputy Director of the Institute of Capital Cultural Development at the Beijing Academy of Social Sciences, suggests that with the assistance and supervision of the National Museum of China, agencies and their study tour instructors should have the liberty to make their presentations engaging, with interesting stories.

"At the same time, the museum's requirement can also help create a more professional team of instructors, encouraging positive competition among them to ultimately achieve high-quality development of the industry," Shen told Beijing Business Today.

(Print Edition Title: Journey of Discovery)

Copyedited by G.P. Wilson

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