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January 28, 2005

Ten Thoughts on Tourism: Lincoln Allison reflects on what it is to be a tourist

Posted by Lincoln Allison

I have just spent four months as a tourist and could not avoid a certain amount of reflection on the nature of tourism as an activity even if I tried. It is, of course, an enormously important and growing activity and in many of the places I visited, from Egypt to South Island, it already dominates the economy. There is, quite properly, a considerable body of academic writing on the subject, particularly in cultural sociology, but also in economics. Though I have perused John Urry's The Tourist Gaze and the Journal of Sustainable Tourism and even the website of that "other" WTO, the World Tourism Organization, what follows does not take up their themes, but those which I began to think about as a result of experience.

1. Tourism is destiny. We inexorably work towards the tourist condition, the holiday and the retirement, both individually and collectively. In the absence of real religious conviction "Paradise" and "Heaven" become beaches and hotels.

2. Tourism is difficult. The most famous lines written by W.H.Davies, the "supertramp" are:

What is life if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare.
They are famous because reflective idleness is a condition that we aspire to. But the actual experience of tourism isn't remotely like that. We found ourselves constantly getting up at 4am to see animals, temples or whatever. And the skiing day starts with you getting up early and putting on hugely heavy boots to go out in temperatures of 12C. More fundamentally, when I look at the diaries I kept there are constant self-assessments as to whether I've put the work in, touristically speaking: there are "thorough" days and "lazy" days. There is a tick list in one's mind of things that have to be seen and done if opportunities are not to be lost. On safari they actually give you a tick list. It all feels like a set of obligations, but to whom? It is a particular example of a more general contemporary problem. If we are utilitarians and consequentialists how do we balance means and ends, stop being instrumental and merely enjoy?

3. The core difficulty is the multiplicity of purposes. One might cite "relaxation", but the objective evidence is that most tourism is anything but relaxing. "Curiosity" is not what it was, either: given the plethora of visual images available to us now actually seeing the pyramids at Giza or the Sydney Opera House adds little to one's knowledge. "Status" would be another general objective, but is surely increasingly elusive. The statistics show that in the UK (and there is a similar pattern in several fairly wealthy countries) only about 50% of the population travel at all, but the 50% travel increasingly far and often. You may think you are rather special for having reached the ancient mountain capital of whomever, but when you get there you are likely to meet your plumber or a group of your former students. In any case, there are very diffuse values among tourists: what backpackers admire and aspire to is not the luxury hotel but the arduous journey.

4. Photography concentrates these philosophical difficulties. Imagine the scene: dawn at the Valley of the Kings on the West Bank of the Nile. About 400 coachloads of tourists turn up. (It feels like 400, anyway.) The place is as crowded as any football ground. We all click away like paparazzi, in many cases with equipment a BBC cameraman would have envied twenty years ago. It is so crowded that cameras have to be stuck up in the air at arm's length. But why are we doing all this? Who on earth is going to look at all these pictures? The danger is of a kind of false instrumentality in which we fall into the assumption that we have come to create pictures and assess our journey accordingly.

5. Quasi-tourism is better than tourism. By this I mean that the activity is not tourism (or not mere tourism), but the route or destination are chosen touristically. The cricket tour, the skiing holiday, the conference, the guest lecture: all these provide a "narrative", as they say, a way of winning and losing, which gives tourism meaning. I was surprised that in driving to Santiago da Compostella I felt twinges of envy for those who were actually walking there as proper pilgrims. I was equally surprised at the enthusiasm of my wife (who normally refers to the game as "bloody cricket") for her first away test match, because "it gave us something to focus on". The future of the industry lies with focus and not with mere gawping or relaxing. Note the resentment that lies in the idea of the NAFT tour (= "not another flipping temple" roughly).

6. Tourism generates its own forms of social relations. "Easy come, easy go" is the assumption and I suppose our literary paradigm must be the Canterbury Tales. It always amazes me that the British, who seem to put up barriers against each other at home, are so good at creating friendly acquaintance and viable groups once away. Put us round a table on a Nile boat or in a safari vehicle and we are able to create instantly what seem like warm friendships. There is an unwritten rule against extending these relationships, however. In New Zealand we had dinner with an airline pilot who was travelling on his own and whom we had met several times on the road. We exchanged life stories and had much in common, but somehow knew not to exchange addresses. It is as if the transient nature of these mini-friendships licenses and eases them. A version of this holds true for the relationship with the tour guide, ski instructor etc.

7. Tourism provides a complex expression of national cultures. When I first travelled, over forty years ago, Americans were the dominant tourists. This was the world of Europe on $5 a Day and If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium. But it's very noticeable now that Americans are distinctly under-represented in world tourism whereas the young Irish and Australians and the middle-aged English are very prominent. (Actually a young Irishman gave me the greatest soundbite on travel I have come across. We were the only non-Chinese travelling in a train across Southern China, a landscape in which you could always see a block of flats, a factory and several paddyfields. I ventured the opinion that it was a boring landscape. He thought for a moment and said, "But it's interesting how boring it is". And so it was!) Clearly, for these cultures (and not for Americans) wandering is a literal and metaphorical rite of passage. With young Japanese women I often feel they have been subjected to some ancient curse which condemns them to wander the earth solemnly and silently. I climbed Mt. John in South Island alone, my partner having been injured. I was thoroughly enjoying my "solitude in the presence of natural grandeur" (to borrow a phrase from John Stuart Mill) when I realised I was sharing it with a young Japanese woman with a rucksack on her back who nodded politely. Far from detracting from the experience, I felt that her presence made it more real.

8. There are no limits to what can be an object of touristic attention. I remember the smirk on the BBC newsreader's face twenty odd years ago when it was announced that Bradford had appointed a tourist officer, so odd did it seem in the context of English culture that an "industrial" city should try to be of interest. Whereas now it would seem very odd for any city not to try to attract tourists. In assessing our own journey we created a "More things in heaven and earth" category to cover things we'd never heard of before we set off. The top two were the Sheepshearing Hall of Fame in Hay, New South Wales and the lavish-tacky oriental style cinema, now known as the Civic Theatre, in Auckland.

9. Notwithstanding 8 (above) there is an important element of pilgrimage about most tourism. There is one aspect of this which I find rather disturbing. It is that people who do not show any kind of reverence or religious feeling in their normal circumstances do so when presented with Ancient Egyptian symbols or Aboriginal painting. What I find disturbing is the underlying assumption that the ancient and the primitive provide the sole locations of the profound. Although not a believer I did find Choral Evensong at Christchurch Cathedral more moving than anything which ancient cultures had to offer.

10. If you assume that present trends continue and that tourism continues to increase throughout this century the question arises as to how it will change the world. Superficially, the evidence (such as the reaction to the tsunami) suggests that it will make us all more conscious of our common humanity. I certainly feel more compassion towards Galle, Sri Lanka because I have actually been to a cricket match there. But I think we must acknowledge that it works both ways, at least to some degree and remember that Norman Angell's The Grand Illusion, which argued that there would be no wars in the twentieth century because of our increasing interconnectedness, was published in 1910. On the other hand I feel more confident in believing that countries where people travel a great deal will benefit in many ways, including tolerance and relativism, the importation of ideas and the appreciation of what you already have. English food has surely gained enormously from this process already?

Lincoln Allison has recently retired as Reader in Politics, University of Warwick.


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An excellent 10 points. Thanks.
1) I spent many years snobbishly resisting the tourism experience. I wanted to be a traveller. Now, with what pleasure do I see the tour bus draw up at the hotel door and know that my feet won't ache with wrong-turns and mis-taken paths. I am even a "Twirly": a middle aged tourist who queues at the bus door ages before it is due to take us home, for fear of an adventure.
2) H Belloc said travel is wasted on the old: but surely that's wrong. A broke back-packer merely sees the bits of foreign societies he would loathe at home. Travel, like drugs, should be saved until one is forty.

Posted by: Richard D North at January 29, 2005 01:38 PM
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Tourism has an amazing impact on the political life of tourist destinations. Turkey is undoubtedly much more outward looking as a nation due to the huge tourist industry. The view of Europeans toward this controversial country ranges from the over positive (Nearly everyone who has visited) to the Midnight express (Most of those who haven't.

Posted by: EU Serf at January 30, 2005 10:32 AM
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Thanks for this intetesting and thought-provoking article.

If the world's economy continues growing so will tourism and the time available for travel. And, like rivers, as tourism broadens it will grow shallower. So I suppose the end will resemble Edinburgh's Royal Mile, which I recently revisited after a quarter centiury. Apart from the buildings it was all pre-digested, Disney-fied kitch -- oafs in wode posing for photos, cod-tartan everything and hordes of gawkers. Nothing authentic, and little historical either. One is happy that the mobs could see Edinburgh, but one is saddened by the Edinburgh that survives to greet them.

On another matter, tourists are driven by time constraints as well as the modern fashion against reflection and in favour of relentless efficiency in all things (so we ensure that when we take relaxation we do anything but relax). But we also hurry in order to see 'things' rather than meet people or experience different cultures or attitudes. The latter is more interesting, but for that one must take much more time, be more adventurous than ordinarily, and be somewhat clever to find suitable opportunities.


Posted by: s j masty at January 30, 2005 04:20 PM
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A wonderful summation of the questions raised by tourism. As an Australian who loves visiting Britain and Europe, I can say that all ten points resonated with me. My wife and I often discuss what it is we want from a holiday. Often we find ourselves actually "working at enjoying ourselves" and thereby realising that like all things that are worthwhile a good holiday requires a lot of effort.

But the most important distinction for us is that a holiday consists of spending money and not earning it.

On a 1989 visit to London my wife and I were walking through St Pauls when the tourists were asked to leave unless they wanted to attend the Palm Sunday service that was about to be held. Both of us were believers, but not actually practising Christians at that time. So we decided to stay for the service. Maybe it was a toristy reaction. However, I have to say that the service was the highlight of that trip. After it was over my wife turned to me said: Funny, I don't feel like a tourist anymore." And I don't think she was talking solely about that trip either, because since that time we have become semi-regular church goers.

Posted by: Peter at January 30, 2005 10:49 PM
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I like your ideas a lot. I just discovered The Muscat Declaration on Built Environments for Sustainable Tourism where some good strategies for a sustainable tourism (mainly in heritage cities) are adressed. You can read the declaration, signed by UNESCO and the WTO (from 2005) here: http://www.world-tourism.org/sustainable/doc/DeclarationOman-e.pdf !

Posted by: Matthias Ripp at May 10, 2005 07:30 PM
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My wife and I have often talked about whether we enjoy being tourists or not. Our fairly narrow definition of a tourist is a holidaymaker who goes with the crowd. Sometimes when we don't want to make any decisions or take any responsibility, we become tourists for the day, but more often than not you will find us trying to find restaurants, bars, attractions, whatever, where there are no other English accents to be heard. But I'm sure our day will come when we want somebody else to organise everything and we stay in true tourist hotels and visit all the tourist traps.

Posted by: Mike at June 27, 2011 11:12 PM
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