From edition

Confronting the Tourist Vision

John Urry, The Tourist Gaze. Second Edition.Thousand Oaks, California: Sage, 2002;

Mark Gottdeiner, The Theming of America: American Dreams Media Fantasies and Themed Environments, Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 2001;

Dennis R. Judd and Susan S. Fainstein (Editors), The Tourist City, New Haven, CT : Yale University Press, 1999;

Dean MacCannell, The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999;

John Hannigan, Fantasy City: Pleasure and Profit in the Postmodern Metropolis, London: Routledge, 1998.

The subject of tourism is both ubiquitous and nearly invisible in public discourse. A standard topic of conversation among middle class professionals, including academics, concerns where one has recently traveled, whether for vacation, a business meeting or a conference. At the same time, tourism rarely seems to merit the serious discussion given issues of housing, environmental degradation or education. The familiarity of tourism makes it appear unimportant and hides its power.

The four plane crashes on September 11, 2001 temporarily exposed this power. Afterwards, several airlines faced economic ruin and Rudy Giuliani used patriotism in trying to attract tourists back to New York City. Despite this, few probably recognize tourism as the behemoth it is. According to the World Travel and Tourism Council it employs more workers around the world than any other economic sector. Moreover, unlike manufacturing, which is often noisy and obtrusive, tourism blends smoothly and imperceptibly into our surroundings. If anything, for middle class city residents, it brings benefits like fine restaurants and museums. So why be concerned about its growth?

Fortunately, several recent books have begun to examine the significance of tourism’s growing omnipresence. The most wide ranging is John Urry’s The Tourist Gaze, a substantially revised edition of a book first published in 1990. Like Dean MacCannell’s The Tourist originally published in 1976, Urry’s book takes tourism as a framework for understanding larger social trends, but MacCannell links the experience of the tourist to modernity whereas Urry links it to postmodernity.

For MacCannell, tourism is a way for people to overcome the confusions of the modern world. By compartmentalizing elements of this world, sightseeing helps organize a tourist’s perception of an otherwise highly disorganized society. Moreover, the observation of “authentic” experiences in distant locations reassures travelers that beyond the superficiality of their everyday lives, a true world still exists. Urry does not deny that tourists often claim a desire for the authentic, but he doubts this is the organizing logic of tourism. What distinguishes tourism for Urry is its break from the everyday routine. Not only does it place people in a different environment, but it encourages an alternative way of looking at the environment: in short, a tourist gaze.

According to Urry, there are aspects of the tourist gaze that prefigure the experience of postmodernity, so in order to understand the tourist gaze it is useful to understand the transition from modernity to postmodernity. For Urry, modernity involves cultural differentiation both horizontally–“the separate development of a number of institutional and normative spheres, of the economy, the family, the state, science, morality, and an aesthetic realm”–and vertically–“between culture and life, between high and low culture, between scholarly or auratic art and popular pleasures, and between elite and mass forms of consumption” (76). Postmodernity Urry describes as a decline in the barriers between these realms. This decline, or de-differentiation, is in part linked to the growth of mass media. Media have provided access to the culture of the elite, reducing the distinctiveness of their lifestyles. Linked to this is the idea that “the media have also undermined what is to be thought of as properly backstage, as what should be kept private and what can be made public” (83).

For Urry, the media also play a crucial role in creating the tourist gaze. Media structure what the tourist chooses to visit and how the tourist looks at a particular site. What MacCannell calls the marker, whether on location–a sign describing what the visitor is seeing–or off location–a photo or description in a guidebook–are essential to defining the tourist’s landscape. These markers can make the most unspectacular locations worth seeing. Guidebooks equate the value of seeing an empty field, where an especially bloody battle took place, with the value of seeing a famous painting. The tendency to aesthetically equate all aspects of the environment is one important way the tourist gaze is postmodern. Something similar happens when the tourist decides to take a photograph. Through the camera lens a private residence, which appears quaint but has no historical significance, can be valued as much as the Notre Dame Cathedral. In fact, it may be more valued because every tourist will see Notre Dame, but few may stray from the dominant itinerary to find a house with a unique design.

But do the memories of a place or the notions that trigger the desire to travel have to be visual? Why must sight be privileged over other senses? Urry responds to these questions in part by historicizing the tourist gaze. As the scientific method began to privilege visual observation over common knowledge, the purpose of travel in Europe shifted from learning about others through oral histories to describing foreign landscapes. In the eighteenth and nineteenth century depictions of nature took on an aesthetic quality associated with romanticism. The emergence of tourist institutions like the railroad and the modern hotel increased access to these newly aestheticized landscapes, and the camera created images to remind travelers of past trips and inspire future ones.

Responding to criticism that his concept of the tourist gaze is too broad, Urry describes ways it can vary. He notes the gaze can vary according to purpose, for example, whether travel is for education, health or simply pleasure. It also shifts depending on if the site is meant to be seen alone, as romantic inspiration, or in a group, to feel the excitement of a crowd. Urry goes on to describe the spectatorial gaze–acquiring sites as in an itinerary–the reverential gaze–looking at a shrine–the anthropological gaze–interpreting the cultural symbols of a place–the environmental gaze–observing conservation practices–and the mediatized gaze–recognizing a location famous for being on television or other media.

In some ways this last type of gaze has surpassed all others since so many aspects of a location are now highly mediated. It would be hard to separate the influence of mass media from the experience of most contemporary tourists. Even if their motivation is educational or spiritual, they are likely to have also learned about a location they plan to visit from multiple sources, ranging from travel magazines to network news. The proliferation of channels on cable, including ones dedicated just to travel, means there are many opportunities to gaze on locations before they are visited. The popularity of “reality shows” like “Survivor,” “The Amazing Race,” “Road Rules” and “The Real World” might be explained in part by the experience of travel they give the viewer. Perhaps most significant, the World Wide Web now provides live images from places across the globe.

Urry recognizes the increased prevalence of media images in daily life and argues this prevalence is largely responsible for a new phase in tourism or potentially the end of tourism as a distinctive phenomena. To understand what Urry means by the end of tourism it is useful to consider his history of the British seaside resort. When it emerged in the nineteenth century it was a place for residents of the city to escape their routine. Visitors could play sports, socialize with strangers and find entertainment. In the late twentieth century these resorts began to decline, in part because many elements of these resorts are now incorporated into daily life. Entertainment can now be found just by watching television. This also means tourists have a greater desire for something that stands out. Because they have so much greater access to diverse types of scenery and entertainment via the media, average tourist locations, like the seaside resort, become tedious.

On the other hand, the media savvy tourist often begins to look at what previously might have appeared ordinary with new appreciation. Just as the camera helped to aestheticize all aspects of tourist locations, the prevalence of visual media in daily life have made almost anything a potential spectacle. Contemporary tourists can recognize the media’s role in constructing a spectacle and appreciate it as a spectacle. Precisely because they reject the pursuit of “authenticity” they celebrate the obviously false as well as the mundane. But this attitude does not just apply when these tourists visit a new location; it now shapes how they experience elements of everyday life. Thus, postmodern tourism de-differentiates the distant from the local. In this sense, tourism might be at its end.

Another way tourism might be coming to its end is through the increasing signs of mobility found in so many locations. It has long been true that traveling on the New York Subway is like traveling the world. In the span of a few miles one can step into neighborhoods dominated by Greek, Indian or Columbian culture. This experience of an international city can now be found beyond the large cities of the East and West Coast. For example, in St. Paul Minnesota a large Southeast Asian population supports the publication of several Asian weeklies, Spanish language radio stations cater to a growing Latino population and a group of Somali immigrants has transformed strip malls near the Mississippi into African markets.

Juxtaposing the tourist experience to the immigrant experience reveals how increased global mobility has different causes and consequences for different populations. The refugee from war torn Sudan should not be equated with the wealthy German tourist to Los Angeles.   Some forms of mobility are forced, others freely chosen. Moreover, whether it is travel for pleasure or travel to escape violence, a large number of people simply lack the resources to go anywhere.

The implications of mobility also vary along gender lines. The itinerant traveler is often romanticized as tough and independent, but this is a masculinist image. Urry writes, “If these [nomadic] metaphors are re-coded as paparazzi, homeless drunk, sex-tourist and womanizer, then they lose the positive valuation that they have enjoyed . . . The mobile tourist gaze presupposes immobile bodies (normally female) servicing and displaying their bodies for those who are mobile and passing by” (160).

Urry’s book is impressive in its breadth, but this breadth corresponds to a somewhat scattered style. Many theories of tourism are introduced and then left undeveloped. For example, in chapter one he contrasts “mass consumption” with “post-fordist consumption” but this contrast is not explored in any of the later chapters. Similarly, he often makes a provocative observation on a topic only to drop it for a new topic. In the concluding chapter he begins by describing the dramatic growth of new technology, such as mobile phones and the Internet, suggesting they have an important impact on tourism, but he does not explore what this impact might be. Instead, he goes on to discuss the growth of tourism reflexivity and tourism related journals, and then he jumps to comparing exiles and tourists. This is all done within a page and a half.

While skipping over a topic he often directs the reader to other works, by himself or others, for further elaboration. He begins the final paragraph of his book by saying, “Elsewhere I discuss how notions of chaos and complexity can help to illuminate the unexpected, far-from equilibrium movements of social and physical processes that currently rage across the globe” (161). Presumably he believes this theory cannot be explained adequately in a few short sentences, but if it is relevant to the book’s argument, more must be said to explain this relevance.

In contrast to Urry’s wide reaching approach, Mark Gottdeiner’s The Theming of America. explores in depth one element of contemporary tourism: the increased use of themed environments. The themed environment’s first major success can probably be attributed to Walt Disney, who created an amusement park based more on imaginary places than thrill rides. The concept has expanded dramatically in the past twenty years so that many shopping, entertainment and eating establishments now promote a single theme. Examples include the Rainforest Cafe, where animated parrots and simulated thunder entertain diners, and Niketown, which surrounds its sporting goods with video screens dramatizing athletic achievement. According to Gottdeiner, themed environments emerged out of the growing need for twentieth century capitalism to market the symbolic value of their goods rather than the use value. “The key economic relation of the consumer society is not the exchange of money for goods, as it was in the nineteenth century, but the link between the promotion of desire in the mass media and advertising, and the commercial venues where they can be purchased “(Gottdeiner 2001: 68). In this sense, theming is just an extension of advertising.

Yet, theming is more powerful than traditional advertisements because it appears to simply be part of the environment. The oversized billboards on Times Square may be all encompassing, but the visitor recognizes them as advertisements and therefore can bracket their message. In contrast, every aspect of Planet Hollywood’s interior is designed to reinforce the Planet Hollywood brand name and inspire the purchase of T-shirts, baseball caps and other souvenirs.   Gottdeiner argues the singular focus on consumption harms the vital role that public space plays in society by restricting the diversity of people’s expression. “Primed at home by mass media for self-realization through consumption, people enter the pseudo-public space of the themed environment without either the political or the social desires that their counterparts in earlier epochs may have had. They pursue self-fulfillment in these places in the only way allowed, through the realization of the consumer role” (Gottdeiner 2001: 162).

Gottdeiner’s argument could be strengthened by distinguishing between different types of themed environments. To be surrounded within a restaurant, sporting goods store or amusement park is different from walking within a shopping mall or downtown tourist district. In the first case you have only one brand to choose from, but in a shopping mall you can enjoy the theme of the mall as well as brousing multiple competing themes of the stores within the mall. In a tourist district designed around a single theme, such as South Street Seaport in New York, the environment cannot be regulated and controlled as much as in a mall, so visitors can more easily stray into other neighborhoods or look at something other than shops, like the view across the East River. Of course, nowhere can these environments compel people to buy things, but some environments provide stronger encouragement than others.

If one took the differentiation of themed environments further, one might ask, what environment is not themed? Every restaurant tries to create an atmosphere, often connected to a location: Thai restaurants have travel posters for Thailand, British pubs hang maps of England, and French bistros paint the Eiffel Tower on their walls. In fact, themed environments may be viewed as a central product of the tourist gaze. The tourist visits Paris expecting to see streets lined with cafés and patisseries. New York is associated with Times Square and horse drawn carriages riding through Central Park. Thus, even the most “authentic” New York Deli cannot escape the theme it embodies.

Perhaps a distinction can be made on how distant the theme being constructed is from the “real” heritage of a place. In MacCannell’s Epilogue to the 1999 edition of The Tourist, he bemoans the replacement of distinctive tourist locations by corporate constructions. “The corporate effort to re-manufacture and re-distribute ‘Planet Hollywood’ type symbols of locality and distinction seeks to replace the local and make a product or procedure of corporate capitalism the ‘other’ in every interaction” (199). He finds most disturbing the appropriation by several Las Vegas hotels of themes from other cities. Hotels such as New York-New York, Paris Las Vegas and the Venetian replicate on their interiors the cobblestone streets and little store fronts of an idyllic urban past. But do most people really go to these hotels thinking they have experienced New York or Paris? And isn’t part of the “heritage” of Las Vegas precisely the creation of false replicas? Obviously, these hotels show no signs of the class conflict linked to these cities’ histories, nor do they contain any signs of poverty and homelessness. They are also in climate-controlled interiors not too distant from the ringing and flashing of slot machines. Who could forget they are in Las Vegas?

Perhaps more troubling than the construction of obvious replicas like those in Las Vegas are themed environments that hide their fictional content. The preservation of historic districts is an important strategy used by cities to attract tourists, but disturbing elements of history are frequently erased to make a location more attractive. In places like Monterey’s Cannery Row buildings with the facades of sardine factories contain shops and restaurants that evoke the romantic image of a simpler life depicted in novels by John Steinbeck. Ever since tourism replaced canning as the primary economic source residents have debated how Cannery Row should best be preserved. Most recently a residential and shopping complex was approved after nearly ten years of bitter struggle. Opponents argue it is both environmentally unsound and harmful to the area’s historic character. Proponents say historic elements will be preserved and the development will remove the last signs of blight along the Row. Both claim to have the best plan for presenting an authentic depiction of history. However, as several commentators have pointed out, to truly simulate history would require re-creating the blaring noise and awful stench of sardine processing that few tourists would tolerate.

The incorporation of historic elements, which are meant to be educational, with the refined image of a shopping mall would seem to epitomize the de-differentiation Urry describes as postmodern. In the book Fantasy City: Pleasure and profit in the postmodern metropolis John Hannigan argues “edutainment” is one example of the “convergence of consumer activity systems” found in many tourist districts. He likewise argues these districts are postmodern since they are “constructed around technologies of simulation, virtual reality and the thrill of spectacle” (4). However, Hannigan rightly notes that spectacles of this nature could also be found in nineteenth century exhibitions. Indeed, “edutainment” was a central aspect of these exhibitions as they celebrated technological innovations, and were these exhibitions not a symbol of modernity? This is not the place to debate the postmodern/modern divide, but it seems troublesome to the categories when something appears to fit both so well.

While the postmodern label is problematic, arguing for the novelty of these tourist districts is not. The growth of these districts and the importance they play in contemporary cities is linked to demographic trends. After the loss of residents and industry caused the decline of downtowns, cities turned to tourism as a strategy for revitalization. The Tourist City, a collection of essays edited by Dennis Judd and Susan Fainstein, is an excellent survey of the concerns surrounding this regeneration. Judd provides one of the most provocative concepts in his article on ‘tourist bubbles.’ According to Judd, ‘Where crime, poverty, and urban decay make parts of a city inhospitable to visitors, specialized areas are established as virtual tourist reservations. These become the public parts of town, leaving visitors shielded from and unaware of the private spaces where people live and work’ (36). Several chapters examine how tourist bubbles protect visitors not only from the less pleasant aspects of a city but also from the negative impact tourists can have on the city. While the tourist sees the glitter and excitement of Las Vegas, Orlando or Cancun, they do not see the problems for the environment, the lack of affordable housing or the decline of public services that tourism can create.

There are positive stories in the book, such as the assessment of Boston by Bruce Ehrlich and Peter Dreier. They find that because Boston worked to preserve historic neighborhoods, tourism is dispersed throughout the city. But here too, housing in the city is unaffordable for large numbers of service workers and many neighborhoods such as Roxbury, Dorchester and South Boston remain isolated from tourists.

So, how in the end do we evaluate the increasing importance of tourism? Fainstein and David Gladstone emphasize in their essay the limits of merely critiquing the commodified environment. They write, “Underlying this critique of tourism is an unspecified utopia of unmediated experience controlled by the visitor and visited and a corresponding devaluation of those who achieve pleasure from trips to Disney World or the many Hard Rock Cafes” (30). More important from their perspective is considering the impact of tourism on social equity. Some indicators of this equity are, “the overall number of jobs going to local people, especially low-income and minorities; the proportion of jobs that lead to advancement; wage levels; and tax revenues contributed to the general fund” (32).

Fainstein and Gladstone argue that focusing on the consequences for locals is more practical than trying to make sure the tourist learns the truth about a location. The nature of the tourist is to seek a fantasy space, as Urry says, something out of the ordinary.   But what if this is an outdated vision of a tourist? If many sophisticated tourists today recognize the falseness of a typical tourist environment, perhaps there is a way to encourage tourism without constructing a bubble. Moreover, isolating shopping and entertainment in a tourist district makes it easy to point to the concrete benefits of tourism while potential negative effects–a decline in public space, a lack of affordable housing, a strain on natural resources–are harder to see, not only for visitors but also for locals, because these effects are more dispersed. In short, the struggle to assure tourism has an equitable impact requires considering the image created by neighborhoods where tourists visit. It must be clear to tourists and residents alike who is benefiting from tourism. The agenda of the books reviewed here, to bring the importance of tourism to the surface, must be extended to the larger public if this powerful economic and cultural force is to be equitable.

Paul Mason Fotsch teaches at California State University, Monterey Bay, and is a member of the P&C Santa Cruz Editorial Collective

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