WITH THE REGION'S hospitality and tourism industry expected to expand significantly over the next decade, many professionals in the sector are taking online courses to open doors to faster career advancement and a range of new job opportunities. One such programme is the MSc in tourism and travel management, launched just a year ago by the University of Nottingham and online graduate school U21Global. It incorporates tourism courses run by the former institution and elements of the latter's executive diploma in business administration, allowing students to obtain both a master's degree and a diploma on graduation. U21Global was established in 2001 and is a joint venture between Universitas 21, an international network of 19 distinguished universities, and Thomson Learning. The course is designed to attract three types of student: those already in management positions, those looking to move up and those wishing to make a career switch. 'The course aims to develop leaders in the travel business to think more strategically and in an integrated manner, rather than just focusing on skills,' said Helen Lange, director of U21Global's MBA programme and associate professor. 'The objective is to give your career greater competitive edge and allow people to have a better strategic business and industry view.' Professor Lange said the course was a little like an MBA in tourism, with its focus on broad-based management capability. 'There is a huge need for such a programme,' she said. 'We believe demand will grow rapidly as people become more aware of the necessities.' It will take about two years to complete the programme. Everything is conducted online, allowing a degree of flexibility. The MSc programme costs US$15,000. The University of Nottingham offers subjects such as service quality in travel and tourism, understanding the consumer, sustainable tourism, heritage and cultural tourism, and destination management. U21Global oversees subjects such as organisational behaviour, marketing management, finance and strategic management. The course could not have come at a better time. China's emerging middle-class has taken to travel in a big way, Macau's hotels and casinos are booming, and new tourism projects are coming up in the region, promising new jobs for those with high levels of expertise. The programme takes a multicultural approach and brings together professionals from diverse backgrounds. Most students are from Southeast Asia, while the others hail from India and the Middle East. The classroom diversity creates a forum for exchanging ideas online on a broad spectrum of subjects, with input from industry veterans and people working in other sectors. The current intake of students includes about 35 per cent from hotels, 20 per cent from travel agencies and 25 per cent from the airline industry. The remainder includes government officials and entrepreneurs. Mary Tsang, a consultant at HMC Holdings, a hospitality consulting firm, is taking a diploma in tourism and travel management, and plans to go on to the master's programme. 'We always relate the topics to situations we experience on the job,' she said. 'Because we come from different countries and work for different organisations, our experiences are not the same.' Ms Tsang said the course had prompted her to give extra thought to how she dealt with certain work situations. Also, the course had strengthened her analytical skills. 'You get to learn the latest methods and case studies,' she said. Not surprisingly, there is a strong emphasis on working in virtual teams and mentoring. 'Students aren't left to their own devices,' Professor Lange said. 'They are very engaged and what they discuss online goes much deeper than usual classroom banter.' Online discussion allows participants to contribute during times that fit into their schedules, while using a keyboard to tap out replies usually results in more carefully considered answers and comments. Applicants with a bachelor's degree and at least three years of managerial experience have an advantage. Those without a first degree should have at least eight years of work experience, five in a management role. The online application also requires two reference letters and a statement of motivation from the student explaining why he or she wants to take the programme.