Tourism is On the Go Again in CAFNR

New faculty ramping up research efforts in the revived program.

Just a few years after a reboot of the tourism program within the School of Natural Resources, Shuangyu Xu has not only revived the undergraduate program but has developed a robust graduate program buzzing with research while also contributing her own research to help grow tourism for some of Missouri’s more unique qualities.

What are these unique qualities Xu is pursuing? Caves, wine and agritourism.

Currently, Xu, an assistant professor, along with her undergraduate and graduate students, is conducting a study on cave tourism that examines visitor experience of families and individuals while exploring these underground worlds that are so plentiful in our state.

“Before Missouri was the Show-Me State, it was the Cave State because we have so many,” Xu said. “There are over 7,000 caves in Missouri, and many are open to visitors.”

The project is funded by the Cave Research Foundation and seeks to understand the sensory experiences of visiting show caves — both public and private — and how that can be enhanced to improve visitor satisfaction. Xu and her students are looking at the effects of the intensity and quality of lighting within the cave.

She is also examining visitors’ motivations, cave services evaluation, and barriers to entry such as price perception and risk perception as some visitors may forgo a cave tour for fear of COVID exposure or fall risks or may struggle to afford the entrance fee, especially if they have a large family.

The undergraduate student working with Xu, Maddie Carter, was awarded a College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources undergraduate research scholarship and a School of Natural Resources Undergraduate Research Grant.

Xu brings to the program insight on Missouri tourism in particular, as she did her own master’s degree in parks, recreation, and tourism at CAFNR. During that time, she studied recreational storm chasing, another pastime in the Midwest that Missouri is particularly well-situated for. In addition, her dissertation is in wine tourism, which is of interest to the many winemakers who call Missouri home.

“Missouri is ranked 11th nationwide in wine production but only captures 1.4% of wine tourism,” Xu said. “I really want to do some baseline research to find out why there is such a discrepancy and strategies to increase wine tourism in Missouri.”

Xu, however, does not limit herself or her students to Missouri-specific research projects. She believes a global perspective is valuable knowledge. She is working with one graduate student, Connie Johnmeyer, for example, to study pilgrimages — like hiking the 500-mile Camino de Santiago across northern Spain and southern France — and what motivates people to take them repeatedly.

“We are curious why people choose to keep going back,” Xu said. “What is it about pilgrimage journeys that are so transformative?”

Johnmeyer is conducting a survey about the topic, which has received more than 2,200 responses, with the assistance from the American Pilgrims on the Camino.  Xu says it has been the most well-responded-to survey that she has experienced in her academic career.

In December, to fulfill a Farmer-to-Farmer (program funded by U.S. Agency for International Development) assignment, Xu will travel to the Dominican Republic, where she will work with local rural communities in their sustainable eco-tourism and agritourism development efforts.

Each of these projects have emerged because of Xu’s work to rebuild the program after it lacked faculty for a short period.

“Thanks to Dean Daubert and his vision, they re-opened this position, and I was able to return to Mizzou,” Xu said. “When I started, I had students telling me, ‘I am so glad you are here.’”

Xu said students were excited to dive into studying tourism, and that enthusiasm has continued to motivate her in return.