Careers in Tourism: Which Career Path Suits You Best?

Male tour guide with a group of young tourists

Do you still think fondly of your last vacation? Perhaps you have a lengthy bucket list of places you’d love to travel to. If you’re passionate about traveling and tourism, then perhaps a career in tourism is right for you.

There are many different careers in tourism, some of which allow you to travel on a regular basis. For example, you might find that you’re destined to become a travel agent, tour guide, hotel manager or perhaps even a sommelier. With so many tourism careers to choose from, this career guide offers some food for thought as you consider your options.

Is the Tourism Industry Right for You?

A passion for travel and tourism is just one indicator that a career in tourism may be the right choice for you. Other indicators may include answering yes to any of these questions:

  • Do you enjoy working with people?
  • Do you love to meet people from far-away places and learn about their cultures?
  • Do you wholeheartedly believe the guest is always right, and do you enjoy making others happy?
  • Are you a well-organized, detail-oriented person?
  • Are you flexible and able to adapt to an irregular schedule that may include nights and weekends? (Some tourism careers require irregular schedules, while others are of the nine to five variety.)

Careers in Tourism: Explore Your Options

If careers in tourism do indeed sound like the perfect fit for your personality and interests, then it’s time to explore your many options. As you explore careers in tourism, keep in mind that there is considerable overlap between hospitality and tourism.

The main difference between the two is that hospitality is a broader field, while tourism fits within the hospitality industry as a subfield. For example, you could patronize a hospitality establishment (e.g. a restaurant) in your hometown, in which case you aren’t a tourist. However, an out-of-town visitor could patronize the same establishment as a tourist. Since there is so much overlap between hospitality and tourism, the two terms are often used interchangeably.

Travel Agent

It can be challenging for people to make their own travel plans, particularly if they are busy, working professionals with little to no knowledge of their destination(s). That’s why people often turn to travel agents for assistance. A travel agent is responsible for making the travel arrangements for people who will be traveling on vacation or on a business trip.

Some of the individual tasks that a travel agent typically handles include the following:

  • Offers advice on travel destinations and makes recommendations for lodging, dining and entertainment
  • Plans and books transportation, lodging and activity admissions based on clients’ needs, preferences, schedules and budgets
  • Helps clients learn about local customs and applicable laws
  • Advises clients about travel requirements, such as passport and vaccination requirements

Travel agents sometimes travel to popular destinations so they can pass along firsthand knowledge to their clients. Much of their time, however, is spent talking to clients and coordinating trips with airlines, resorts and other businesses.

It’s possible for a travel agent to specialize. Some travel agents are leisure travel agents who work with people interested in taking a vacation. A leisure travel agent may further subspecialize, such as by predominantly dealing with adventure trips or ecotourism trips, or with a particular demographic of travelers (e.g. students or retirees).

Other travel agents subspecialize by becoming corporate travel agents. They are responsible for making travel arrangements for corporate employees. Some of them may work in a travel agency, while others work directly for a large corporation, such as a professional sports team.

New travel agents typically receive some on-the-job training. This training period will usually focus on training new agents in the use of tourism/hospitality computer systems, such as the Global Distribution System (GDS). To gain a competitive edge over other aspiring travel agents, you might also consider earning a voluntary travel agent certification from a professional organization, such as The Travel Institute®.

Tour Operator

A tour operator is often confused as being a travel agent. However, they are quite different. A tour operator develops travel packages that are then marketed to travel agents, who can then sell those travel packages to their clients.

A travel package can be an exciting thing to put together. For example, let’s say you’re a tour operator developing a travel package for Venice, Italy. The main components of your travel package will include transportation, lodging, meals and the itinerary.

As a tour operator, you’ll figure out the best possible airline or railway to allow tourists to reach the destination, as well as transportation options for moving the tourists from one place to another within the destination(s). You’ll consider a number of factors when choosing accommodations, such as proximity to attractions, amenities and accessibility for tourists with disabilities. You’ll also develop some meal options for the travelers.

The next step is putting together the itinerary. For a Venice, Italy tour package, you’ll certainly want to include gondola rides along Venice’s storied canals, a visit to St. Mark’s Square with its historic buildings, an excursion to Doge’s Palace and similar popular attractions.

If you decide to pursue a career as a tour operator, you’ll have lots of fun learning about incredible destinations and planning ways for tourists to make the most of their trip. Tour operators often work for private tour companies, some of which specialize in particular types of trips (e.g. tour packages for students).

Tour Guide or Tour Leader

If high-level planning isn’t quite your forte and you would rather spend your time working directly with tourists, you might consider becoming a tour guide or a tour leader instead. These two roles are quite similar. A tour leader is someone who travels with the tour group for the entirety of their journey, whereas the tour guide is the professional who leads tourists through a specific site, such as a historic or cultural site.

If you decide to become a tour guide, you will need to develop deep, extensive knowledge of your chosen site. You’ll lead tourists through the site, discussing its history, major events, cultural significance, architecture and other points of interest. You’ll have to be able to think on your feet in order to answer the questions you may be asked by the tourists.

If you decide to become a tour leader instead, you’ll need to know a little bit about each place that you bring your group to. You’ll also need to assist the tourists with practical and logistical issues, such as learning how to use the local public transportation system, exchanging currency and checking in at hotels.

Hotel Manager

Many people who decide to pursue careers in tourism take a different route. Instead of becoming a travel agent or tour leader, you might prefer to concentrate your efforts on making a particular hospitality establishment as successful as possible. As a hotel manager, you would be responsible for ensuring that your guests have the best possible experience across all areas of your establishment, while simultaneously optimizing revenue.

Hotel managers typically handle the following tasks:

  • Evaluate the grounds, common areas and guest rooms to ensure an aesthetic, clean appearance.
  • Supervise and coordinate activities across departments (e.g. food service and housekeeping) to ensure the standards of the hotel are maintained.
  • Hire and train staff members.
  • Monitor the guest experience.
  • Establish budgets and room rates, allocate funds and approve expenditures.
  • Address questions from the guests regarding hotel services and policies.
  • Develop innovative ways of positioning the establishment as the go-to accommodation for a particular destination.

Note that some hotel managers are responsible for managing one department, while others manage the entire establishment. The job of a hotel manager isn’t an entry-level one. Aspiring managers will typically begin at an entry-level job, such as a line cook or front office staff member, before working their way up to a managerial position.


A sommelier is a highly knowledgeable professional who has deep knowledge of wine. Sommeliers typically work at fine dining establishments, where they handle the wine purchasing, storage and service, such as pairing wines with food, explaining the wine selection to guests, offering recommendations and serving the wine. A sommelier may also work at a vineyard or resort.

It isn’t strictly necessary to become certified in order to work as a sommelier. However, certification is strongly recommended, as it would make you a competitive candidate in the job marketplace. The path to certification can be lengthy.

First, you could earn your postsecondary degree, ideally in hospitality management, and you’ll become of legal age to consume alcoholic beverages. You’ll then likely pursue an entry-level position in hospitality that focuses on food and beverage service. While you’re working in hospitality, you’ll learn as much about wine and the art of serving wine as possible.

You may then enroll in a wine school recognized by the Court of Master Sommeliers. This highly reputable professional association establishes four levels of sommelier certification: introductory sommelier, certified sommelier, advanced sommelier and master sommelier.

Essential Skills and Characteristics for Tourism Careers

There are a few skills and characteristics that will prove helpful for you as you pursue a career in tourism. These include the following:

  • Communication skills
  • Interpersonal skills
  • Cultural sensitivity
  • Organizational abilities
  • Attention to detail
  • Leadership abilities
  • A problem-solving mindset

An enduring commitment to providing excellent guest service is another requirement.

Get Started by Earning a Hospitality Management Degree

No matter which career path you choose in the tourism field, you can get started working toward your goals by earning a hospitality management degree. Ideally, the degree program you choose will feature a blend of classroom instruction and in-person, hands-on learning experiences. Although there is much you can learn in a classroom about the hospitality industry, you’ll develop invaluable skills and knowledge through learning experiences in the field.

Throughout the course of your degree program, you’ll learn that managers who work in hospitality have one overarching goal: to provide outstanding guest service. The quality of service can make or break the business, as tourists who patronize establishments may leave positive or negative reviews based on their experience.

Although the specific curriculum will vary from one hospitality management degree program to the next, you can generally expect to study topics such as the following:

  • Managerial basics in hotel and lodging operations, with a look at operational procedures, guest relations and interdepartmental coordination
  • Daily operations and management of food and beverage service establishments, including human resources functions, food sanitation and safety, equipment planning, menu management, cost control and safety regulations
  • Communication strategies for fostering strong working relationships with guests, vendors, suppliers, internal stakeholders and prospects
  • Events within the tourism industry, such as event planning and organization within the context of leisure and business travel
  • Brand management and tourism services marketing campaigns and strategies, with a focus on digital marketing

For those who are truly invested in a tourism career, you’re likely to take some courses in finance and economics, as well as organizational behavior, strategic management and technology. While you are working toward your hospitality management degree, you’ll have the opportunity to take a few electives. There are plenty of good choices that will be relevant for your intended career, such as courses in communications, foreign language, marketing and any classes that aim to build cultural knowledge with a global perspective.

Take the Next Steps After Graduation

With a hospitality management degree, you’ll already have an edge in the job marketplace within the tourism/hospitality field. However, you will also likely need at least a few years of professional work experience before you can begin climbing the career ladder. Expect to work in one or two entry-level positions to gain experience before pursuing your dream career.

If a career in hospitality is the right choice for you, you can begin working toward a meaningful future by applying for enrollment at Grand Canyon University (GCU). The Bachelor of Science in Hospitality Management degree program prepares future hospitality professionals to work toward a future in management at any type of hospitality establishment. Our hospitality management students benefit from thorough classroom instruction in addition to hands-on experiential learning opportunities.

Approved by the Hospitality Management Chair for the Colangelo College of Business on Dec. 28, 2022.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.