Review of ‘Tourist Cultures: Identity, Place and the Traveller’

While tourism is one of the defining features of contemporary society and an important source of economic growth, its study has remained relatively marginalized within the social sciences. However, since the 1980s a substantial body of literature crossing the disciplines of tourism studies, sociology, social psychology and geography has developed (p. 2), leading to insights regarding the form and function of tourism as an industry and a social practice. In drawing upon this interdisciplinary body of work, Tourist Cultures highlights the main debates and different theoretical approaches which have been applied to tourism. In bringing sometimes opposing perspectives together, the authors argue for an approach to tourism which is subject and space centred. In so doing, they offer a theoretical perspective which is capable of dealing with tourism’s complexity and which reaffirms tourism as an important area of sociological study.

Tourist Cultures outlines tourism as a form of social interaction that is highly relevant to the construction of individual identity and space. Separated into two distinct parts – ‘Tourist Selves’ and ‘Tourist Spaces’ – one of the starting premises of the book is that tourism requires a holistic approach that takes into account both the macro dimensions of structural power relations but also the micro level of daily lived experiences and interactions. In taking the macro and the micro into consideration, the book provides an approach to tourism that is sensitive to global structures as well as class, gender, race and ethnicity, and the power relations that structure these social differences, but also an approach which makes room for agency and resistance through embodied interaction in tourism space. While various scholars have suggested that global tourism leads to the domination of local cultures and in turn their homogenization, Tourist Cultures provides an alternative perspective, suggesting instead that the complexity of interactions that occur between tourists and the toured in local tourist space can lead to a hybridization of culture (p. 106-109) – or “tourist cultures” – which transcend notions of domination.

In seeing tourism as a form of social interaction one of the book’s main tasks is to challenge the idea that tourists are only “flâneurs” – visitors to space that merely gaze upon its otherness and the ‘Others’ who occupy it (p. 6-8). Instead the authors introduce the idea of tourists as “choristers”, individuals who not only gaze, but also interact and engage with places and local inhabitants (p. 11-12) and, in so doing, (re)construct their individual identities while simultaneously helping to (re)produce tourist space and tourist cultures. Thus, the book argues that one of the main impetuses behind tourism is its ability to act as a source of identity construction. Tourists travel to experience ‘Other’ space and people, a process which is thought to give them greater insight into themselves and allow for personal growth and change (p. 36). However, in traveling to experience ‘Other’ space and people, tourists do more than construct their “traveller identity” (132-133); through their interactions they play an important role in constructing the symbolic meaning of travel space and the cultures found there. In this regard the authors draw upon geographer Soja’s concept of “thirdspace” – the simultaneousness of space as being both real and imagined (127) – in order to highlight how tourism space has both tangible and intangible dimensions and how these dimensions interact with, help form and are formed by the various people(s) who inhabit it. These processes are exemplified through discussions of female sex tourism, backpacking, virtual tourism, as well as tourism in natural and urban spaces.

This process, as the authors outline, is imbued with power relations. Dominant discourses of the ‘Other’ help to shape tourists’ expectations and interpretations of their travel experiences. However, in following the social interactionist perspectives of Mead and Giddens, Tourist Cultures makes room for subjective interpretation and embodied actions which can, ultimately, challenge and alter dominant discourses. The authors argue that how people interact and live in physical space helps to create its “social value” – the “meanings people attach to place” (p. 11). Forms of tourism which see local ownership and involvement in tourism production and allow for social interaction based on mutual respect are presented as having the ability to reaffirm local value while at the same time allowing for dynamism and change as a hybridization of cultures takes place (109).

While a complex theoretical work, Tourist Cultures is well-written and easily assessable to the new tourism researcher. In providing a more nuanced and flexible framework for understanding tourism based on social interaction, Tourist Cultures offers a way out of dichotomous thinking which has often trapped tourist scholars. While this theoretical perspective is refreshing in that it also seeks to go beyond discussions of tourism as good or bad for local communities and cultures, the specificities of how local resistance can take place remains relatively undeveloped. Thus, while the authors highlight local ownership and forms of tourism that make room for interaction and the development of social value as a route to sustainable tourism, the difficulties in fostering these forms of tourism are only briefly touched upon. In this case, while the argument is made that analyses which take into account both macro and micro levels provide for a more thorough understanding of tourism’s complexity, the book’s prime focus remains on the micro level which leads it to under assess how the global political economy of tourism may affect possibilities for, and forms of, local resistance. In the end, while the idealism of the book is attractive, further empirical support is needed to help lend it credence.

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