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Students at Turrialba Volcano National Park
Daniel L. Spears, Ph.D.

The University of North Texas in Denton introduces a new master’s program aimed at keeping tourism rolling around the world without putting a strain on local resources.

When you’re soaking in the sun on a white-sand beach, chances are you’re not worried about how the bar that’s prepping your piña coladas jibes with the local economy or whether your hotel displaced any indigenous species. But when tourist attractions aren’t planned with these things in mind, they can have a seriously negative effect on their surroundings. That’s why the University of North Texas has partnered with Costa Rica’s Centro Agronómico Tropical de Investigación y Enseñanza (CATIE) to develop a program that offers a Master of Science in International Sustainable Tourism (MIST) via a two-year curriculum in which students spend their first year Stateside and their second year in the heart of Central America. Daniel L. Spears, Ph.D. and Lea R. Dopson, Ed.D., two of the program’s lead faculty members, gave us some insight into what MIST offers.
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On a nature walk during a class on natural-resource management at Arenal Natura Ecological Park, students learn about leaf-cutter-ant colonies.
Daniel L. Spears, Ph.D.

American Way: What exactly is sustainable tourism?
Lea Dopson: Say you were going to build a resort on a pristine beach. You’d have to pay attention to not only what that property and the people who go there will do to the environment but also how it will impact the local community. Maybe there’s an indigenous culture there that you’d have to incorporate into [the plan]. Also, you’d need to make sure that [as a] tourism destination, [it’s] economically feasible. It has to bring an economic benefit to the area.

AW: What benefits do students derive from spending a year at CATIE?
Daniel Spears: During the first year, we’re giving them a very broad perspective of the issues as it relates to sustainable tourism, and they’re also getting the larger management and marketing perspective. Then, when they go down to Costa Rica, they’re getting examples of the best practices within that country. So they’re actually going out and seeing these practices in place in Costa Rica, which is world-renowned for its sustainable tourism.

AW: Do students get a chance to explore Costa Rica?
LD: As part of the curriculum, they take about seven multiday trips and 10 one-day trips. One of the places they go is Monteverde.
DS: That’s upper-level rain forest. They also go out to another region closer to campus, in Turrialba, where the Bribri tribe live. They visit with them, interact with the host community, make different foods and learn about the culture.

AW: What sort of fieldwork do students complete in Costa Rica?
DS: One of the opportunities this past semester was working with a national tourism organization in Costa Rica [to] develop a marketing plan and an affiliation plan for a new program they have. We also had a student working directly with Marriott in Costa Rica on a project related to sustainable-business questions.

AW: What types of careers can people pursue with an MS in International Sustainable Tourism?
DS: The careers are really based upon [the students’ strengths] as they go through the program. If they find that they’re really good at writing or implementing policy, they can seek a path at the policy level. The other side of that is someone who has more of an entrepreneurial spirit, who wants to start his own adventure company.
LD: There are opportunities for our students to go work with global nonprofit organizations on standardizing sustainability certifications around the world, all the way down to a tour operator who’s organizing white-water-rafting tours. So there’s a wide gamut of what you could do.

MIST by the Numbers

4 Semesters in the curriculum — the first two at the University of North Texas and the last two at CATIE in Turrialba, Costa Rica.  //6 Students in MIST’s inaugural class.  //9 Credit hours per semester, with classes that include Hotel and Restaurant Operations, Environmental Policies in a Changing World and a fieldwork assignment that serves as the program’s capstone.  //12 Professors in the program — six at UNT and six in Costa Rica.  //17 The (approximate) number of field trips that students take during their two semesters in Costa Rica.  //$65,000 The amount of scholarship money awarded to students by UNT’s College of Merchandizing, Hospitality & Tourism during the 2010–’11 academic year.