Sociology and Tourism

Sociology and Tourism


Sociologists have shown a keen interest in
tourism since the turn of the twenty-first century, when the focus of sociology expanded beyond the themes of work and labour to examine people’s leisure activities. Sociological inquiry into tourism has primarily
been concerned with the role of tourism within
modernity, found in the work of key theorists such as Daniel Boorstin, Dean MacCannell and John Urry. For Boorstin, tourism was the natural extension
of a society that had grown accustomed to being bombarded with fake and contrived replications of reality, mainly due to the eruption of advertising in the 1950s and 1960s. Boorstin claimed that in America, the reproduction
of an event or experience had become more thrilling and exciting for people than the
experience or event itself. The obsession with image had led to the
construction of what he termed ‘pseudo events’,
or events which were staged and constructed purely for the sake of media attention, without any intrinsic value of their own. Boorstin argued that society’s obsession with the
simulation of reality is the manifestation of people’s desire to disengage with the banality,
messiness and sometimes even horror of the real world, and instead lose themselves in the illusions provided to them by the media. In this context, Boorstin suggested, tourism
becomes yet another way for people to access a hyperreal, simulated version of reality that offers
all the excitement of travel, with none of the problems or grittiness that ‘real’ travel brings with it. For Boorstin, tourism effectively shielded people
from the regions that they visit, by providing them with a contrived version of the region that
replicated what the travellers feel they ought to see and experience, instead of the reality. He suggested that tourists experience only an
“environmental bubble” of the comfortable and n on-threatening Western hotel, as well as
constructed tourist attractions and activities, while remaining isolated from the local people and environment. In contrast, Dean MacCannell claimed that rather
than seeking simulation of reality, tourists are actually searching for authenticity when they
travel. Like Boorstein and other early sociologists of
tourism, MacCannell connected the desire to travel with people’s alienation from their labour. Unlike Boorstein, MacCannell did not view tourism
as an integral part of modern life, but as an escape from the unease, dysfunctionality and a lack of meaningful and authentic connections between people characterizing modernity. In other words, MacCannell felt that modernity
had created an inauthentic world, and tourism gave humans an avenue to disengage from the
problems of modernity, and re-engage with more authentic and ‘real’ ways of living through an experience akin to a pilgrimage. MacCannell does note that this ‘true’ authenticity
is out of reach of most tourists. He developed the notion of “staged tourism” to
describe the process that followed, whereby local people may stage a display of ‘authentic culture’ for the tourists in order to appease their desire for a pre-modern authenticity. The ‘real lives’ of locals occur backstage, out of
sight, and they choose how they want their culture to be experienced by tourists through this
‘staged authenticity’. MacCannell’s introduction of the concept of
authenticity had wide-ranging impacts on the sociology of tourism at the end of the twentieth century. Increasingly, however, the sociological study of
tourism has moved away from the question of authenticity, primarily because of two important developments: the post-modern turn in Western tourism, and the rise of non-Western tourism. Authors such as George Ritzer and Alan Liska
apply Ritzer’s McDonaldization thesis to tourism, to argue that the desire for fun and enjoyment has become a substitute for authenticity. They use Disney World as an example of a
rationalised theme park, and suggest that “post- tourists” seek out inauthentic and artificial
environments in order to explore more extreme versions of the simulated reality they have
already experienced at home. They add that the McDonalidisation of tourism allows tourists to participate in the simulation in predictable, safe and low-risk ways. Another important sociologist in this field is John
Urry, who introduced into tourism discourse Foucault’s concept of the “gaze.” In contrast to Boorstin and MacCannell, Urry did
not attempt to explain tourism as a response to
the problems of modern life. Instead, Urry located tourism squarely within
modernity. He saw it as a positive phenomenon that
emerged as a result of labour movements that
won holidays for workers and the democratisation and increasing accessibility of
travel. He was, however, interested in how Western tourists travelled and, like MacCannell, was concerned with the question of authenticity. Urry’s “tourist gaze” can be understood as a set
of expectations that tourists place on local populations in the search for having an “authentic” experience. Urry argues that the tourist gaze is created
through the tourist wishing to experience something different from their everyday life. Local populations reflect back the “gaze” by
fulfilling the expectations of tourists, for the sake
of the business they bring with them. The significance of tourism for many countries’
economies means that local people are forced into a dynamic where the performance of cultural “authenticity” becomes necessary for economic reasons. On the plus side, the tourist gaze can also
function to enhance ethnic and cultural identity in situations where traditions have been lost or abandoned as a result of colonial and imperial processes. This ‘tourist gaze’ has been criticised, though, for
reducing cultural expressions to commodities. The commodification of cultural expression
means that some cultural expressions become monetarily more ‘valuable’ than others, leading to other expressions falling into disuse if they cannot attract the same level of tourist interest. The danger then is that the local inhabitants of a
tourist destination – the objects of the tourist
gaze – perform the cultural patterns and behaviours that satisfy tourists most, while those that do not satisfy tourists disappear. In this sense tourism becomes a form of
colonialism, with wealthy tourists actually shaping the culture and even everyday life of the places they choose to visit.

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