Tourism is now the largest industry in the world, and as such, it has increasingly become of interest to scholars in a number of academic disciplines, such as anthropology, sociology, psychology, semiotics, communication and arketing. It is also the subject of analyses using interdisciplinary approaches, such as leisure studies, feminist studies, and cultural studies. Tourism studies have moved from being a relatively marginal aspect of the academy to one of considerable importance, and there are now departments devoted to studying tourism and many scholarly journals devoted to the subject.
Tourism scholars pay a great deal of attention to marketing and to different kinds of tourists and what they are seeking when they travel. The tendency is to focus on sociological topics involving tourism demographics and statistical portraits of tourists. There is also an anthropological approach to tourism that considers it as a cultural phenomenon. In recent years, a broader approach, involving a number of disciplines, has become important and one finds now, for example, psychoanalytic–semiotic studies of tourism being made. A good example of the semiotic analysis of a “foreign” culture is Roland Barthes’s Empire of signs (1982).
Tourism As A Social Phenomenon
Several years ago, more than 800 million people made trips out of their home country to another country, and while some of those trips might have involved traveling to a neighboring country or one nearby, a huge number of people traveled to distant lands. Traveling abroad is nothing new, of course. For as long as we have recorded history, people have wandered over the face of the earth, in search of food, lost cultures and civilizations, and adventure, or on religious pilgrimages – trying to escape from the routines of their everyday lives in search of that which is different or exotic. But the scope of international tourism is unprecedented and calls for serious investigation.
At one time, foreign travel was reserved for elites who had the time and money to be able to take the “grand tour” and see the world. In recent decades, as a result of the development of relatively inexpensive means of travel, such as airplanes, and new modes of tourism, such as cruise lines and package tours, more and more people are traveling further and further and tourism has become a mass market phenomenon.
The term “tourism” comes from the Greek word tornos, which means circle. Tourism is generally understood to mean traveling, for pleasure, to distant lands and then returning to one’s home city, making, in effect, a circle. The World Tourism Organization defines tourism as follows: “It comprises the activities of personal traveling to and staying in places outside their usual environment for not more than one consecutive year for leisure, business and other purposes not related to the exercise of an activity remunerated from within the place visited” (website).
This definition is much too broad and does not consider other important aspects of tourism, such as the notion that it is voluntary, is done for pleasure and amusement, is part of our consumer culture, and involves tourists returning to their point of origin after their travels. Sometimes it is difficult to differentiate between tourism and business travel, for a person who is traveling somewhere on business, which is the main reason for the trip, may spend some time as a tourist, and tourists may occasionally conduct some business while on their trips. For our purposes, tourism and travel will be considered as the same thing.
Tourism As Part Of Popular Communication
Tourism may now be seen as part of our consumer culture and, because it is so widespread, as a kind of mass culture or popular culture. As such, it is the subject of various kinds of popular communication. One finds advertisements for cruises, foreign tours, and flights to exotic destinations in our magazines and newspapers and on the Internet. In most newspapers there are special sections in the Sunday editions that deal with travel – both foreign and domestic. There are a number of American magazines, such as National Geographic Traveler and Travel + Leisure, that are of interest to tourists, and similar magazines exist in most countries.
There are an enormous number of websites dealing with every aspect of tourism, from finding flights to booking cruises and tours. In addition, there are sites where travelers can send back reports about their visits to various cities or countries. For example, on the Frommer’s website one can find hundreds of discussions on sites devoted to particular cities and countries. People planning visits to a certain city or country can ask questions and receive answers from others, and many people write involved descriptions of their adventures. There are radio and television shows devoted to travel, and there is a very large travel guide publishing industry.
When tourists visit other places, especially foreign lands, one of the things they do is shop for souvenirs and local products, so tourism is intimately connected with the everyday lives and popular culture of people in sites that are visited. In addition to shopping, tourists visit places to enjoy the food and entertainments found in them, since tourists are in search of that which is different.
This search for what is different can range from visiting countries where the differences are not great to countries where they are very great. Thus, for example, a person from the United States who visits western European countries would find different cultures (and a person from western Europe would find the United States different), but the difference would not be as great as visiting a country such as India, where there are enormous differences in language, food, religion, architecture, and dress.
We can suggest that there are polar opposites – the everyday and the exotic. The everyday, at one extreme, represents one’s own culture. In the middle there is the “different,” which represents cultures that are different from ours but not in radical ways. And the exotic represents cultures that are distant from ours in almost every way. If we take the United States as representing the everyday pole, we can see that England, France, Italy, and other western European countries are different in many respects, but not radically different from America – especially in their popular culture. Thailand, Bali, and India, would represent the other pole, the exotic, where most aspects of everyday life are very different to life in America (Berger 2004, 33).
When people travel, they tend to spend much of their time involved with the popular culture and everyday life of the places they visit. Statistics reveal that shopping is the number one activity that tourists engage in when traveling. Popular culture can be defined for our purposes as all that which is not elite culture (opera, classical music, great works of art, and so on). An important aspect of popular culture involves media and what has been described as mass-mediated culture. Many tourists do sample elite culture when they are in distant lands – they may go to an opera, visit museums, or attend concerts – but much of their time is spent shopping, sightseeing, visiting places of touristic interest with good photo opportunities, enjoying popular entertainments, and dining where they can sample the local cuisine.
The growth of the Internet and the development of mass media mean that the exotic is becoming more and more familiar, and many people can now see when they watch television or go to films how people in other cultures live. Television programs on travel and films that take place in exotic countries have led to many countries becoming “hot” popular tourist destinations. One important matter for tourism scholars to investigate is the impact of tourism and first world mass-mediated culture on third world foreign cultures. Is first world popular culture destroying popular culture in third world lands, or have they learned how to adapt it to their own needs? Much of the discussion of “cultural imperialism” is theoretical in nature and the subject of continual controversy and debate.
Some theorists, such as Claude Lévi-Strauss, suggest the world is becoming a “monoculture.” The implication of this notion is that as the world fills up with Starbucks and fast food outlets, that which is distinctive in foreign lands, whether different or exotic, will diminish or disappear. This is an important question for tourism scholars, for if tourists are in search of that which is different (and authentically different), there will be no reason to travel if the world becomes a monoculture. Tourism scholars face the problem of determining to what degree cultures are losing their identities, or, if not, how they are dealing with the impact of mass media and mass tourism. There is also the question of what impact tourists have on the places they visit. Many scholars have been interested in the effect mass tourism has had on Bali, for example, and there is a good deal of debate about whether tourism has been good or bad for Bali.
Related to this matter is the question of authenticity and the development of what might be called “tourist traps,” namely faked or imitated cultural practices. There is also the broader question of the importance of simulations in life and the impact that simulations are having on tourism and on everyday life everywhere.
Scholars studying the impact of tourism and popular or mass-mediated culture on other lands need to be familiar with the popular and everyday life of the cultures being studied, and find ways of assessing how cultures change and the degree to which they change. These are methodological problems of considerable importance – problems that call for a multidisciplinary perspective and a broader approach to tourism studies than tends to be the norm now.
- Barthes, R. (1982). Empire of signs (trans. R. Howard). New York: Hill and Wang.
- Berger, A. A. (2004). Deconstructing travel: Cultural perspectives on tourism. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.
- Berger, A. A. (2005). Vietnam tourism. Binghamton, NY: Haworth Press.
- Berger, A. A. (2007). Thailand tourism. Binghamton, NY: Haworth Press.
- Berger, A. A. (in press). Bali tourism. Binghamton, NY: Haworth Press.
- Boorstin, D. (1961). The image: A guide to pseudo-events in America. New York: Harper and Row.
- Lévi-Strauss, C. (1974). Tristes tropiques: An anthropological study of primitive societies in Brazil (trans. J. & D. Weightman). New York: Atheneum.
- MacCannell, D. (1976). The tourist: A new theory of the leisure class. New York: Schocken.
- World Tourism Organization. At www.worldtourism.org, accessed October 2, 2007.