In defence (or praise) of tourism: an agreement

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In defence (or praise) of tourism: an agreement

Peter Smith

Director of Tourism

St. Mary’s University

United Kingdom


Professor Sharpley’s introductory essay is a welcome defence of tourism and a timely reminder that in academic studies the vilification of mass tourism has been the normative discourse for some time. Such is the extent of (mass) ‘tourism bashing’ the view taken by key critics of mass tourism cited by Prof. Sharpley, such as Poon (1993) and Croall (1995), will be familiar to tourism students everywhere. Tourism it seems is characterised as a sinner against host communities, the environment and what economic benefits it brings are minimal at best. In contrast in its various alternative and ethical forms tourism is frequently seen by academics and observers as a means to solve many of the developing world’s problems; not so much sinner as an answer to prayers. This contribution is less a rejoinder to Prof. Sharpley’s defence of tourism, which this author would endorse wholeheartedly, but more a call to be even bolder in our defence of tourism.


Prof. Sharpley usefully reminds us that for many in the West – and increasingly in emerging economies – today tourism is seen as an essential part of everyday (every year?) consumption patterns; package holidays are common for families in Europe and the US and air travel, in particular the growth in low cost airlines over the last 20 years, means travelling to the world’s great cities and sights is no longer restricted to the wealthy.

We may, as Prof. Sharpley suggests, be past the height of the mass/bad-alternative/good distinction yet certainly in academic studies, NGO advocacy and frequent broadsheet newspaper commentary, shrill criticism of mass tourism remains common. It has been suggested this negative assessment of mass tourism is now the normative approach in tourism studies (Sharpley, 2002; Liu, 2003; Butcher, 2007). Alongside the common critique of mass tourism over the last two decades academics have increasingly focused on developing the concept of sustainable or ethical forms of tourism, in contrast to mainstream mass tourism (Mowforth and Munt, 2009). There has been a growing literature on ‘ethical’ tourism that links the behaviour and purchasing habits of consumers to development outcomes in developing countries (see Patullo, 1996; Scheyvens, 2002; Weaver, 2008; Buckley, 2008; Pattullo and Minelli, 2009, Wearing and Neil, 2009, among others).

Perhaps it would be more accurate therefore for this debate to consider mass tourism being the sinner, or, as this contribution will argue sinned against.

As every tourism undergraduate is taught, mass tourism is bad. Prof. Sharpley cites Croall’s (1995: 5) characterisation of mass tourism that charges the activity with, ‘…ruining landscapes, destroying communities, diverting scarce resources, polluting the air and water, trivialising cultures, creating uniformity and generally contributing to the increased degradation of life on our planet’. It is worth repeating this quote here, as faced with these charges a more perfect candidate for a sinner would surely be difficult to find. Whilst this characterisation may seem a little exaggerated, throughout academic studies pejorative descriptions abound: one text used heavily on undergraduate first year courses bluntly asserts that that mass tourism developments, such as those in popular Mediterranean resorts, are a ‘kind of obvious environmental rape....’ (Cooper et al, 1993: 103). Similarly for a pioneer study that established the concept of the ‘new’ tourist, mass tourists consume in a ‘robot-like’ manner, lacking any consideration for the norms, culture and environment of the host community and country (Poon, 1993: 4). Here critique of the cultural practice of tourism merges into a dehumanising characterisation of tourists.

The shrill tone of these critiques was set early by foundational texts such as Turner and Ash’s (1975) The Golden Hordes and Krippendorf’s The Holiday Makers: The Impacts of Leisure and Travel (1987); both of which pioneered the more widely developed critique of mass tourism that now adds up to a significant body of work across a number of related disciplines. Prof. Sharpley asks why tourism is singled out for particular criticisms and not other industries or sectors - leaving this discussion to one side as it could be said other industries do face similar levels of criticism, for example the food industry (Ritzer, 1996; Schlosser, 2002) or supermarkets (Blythman, 2007; Simms, 2007) - for these authors, and much of the criticism since, mass tourism could be said to be the exemplar of mass society (Brooks, 2000: 205-206; Butcher, 2003: 23-24): consumption en masse. Kippendoff sees mass tourism as a, ‘restless activity that has taken hold of the once sedentary human society’ and results in damage to host communities and the local environment as mass migration encounters social and environmental limits (ibid: xiii). Whilst for Turner and Ash (1975) simply labelling tourists ‘hordes’ is sufficient to capture the negative view of mass tourism and tourists.

Mass tourism has, of course, long been criticised and carefree holidaymakers openly despised for their leisure activities. In the nineteenth century, when Thomas Cook started taking groups of working-class people to the British seaside as part of the first organised package holidays, the well-off elites reacted with horror and disdain (Urry, 2002; Bull et al, 2003: 22-24; Holden, 2005: 28-38). The rise of seaside tourism in the United Kingdom prompted the clergyman-diarist Francis Kilvert to write in the 1870s that, ‘of all noxious animals, the most noxious is a tourist’ (Fussell, 1982: 40). Similarly in the early part of the 1920s and 30s the middle classes were alarmed to see the lower middle-classes following them to their regular European summer residencies; for the British poet Edith Sitwell, writing in the 1930s, tourists were ‘the most awful people with legs like flies, who come in to lunch in bathing costumes – flies, centipedes’ (Fussell, ibid: 41).

It would be too easy to dismiss such comments as outdated 19th Century snobbery and elitism unpalatable to meritocratic modern sensibilities; contemporary news reports from the UK demonstrate the degree to which such scornful sentiments remain alive and well.

‘British arrests soar 32% in Spain’, declared the BBC News in 2008, complete with video footage of drunken holidaymakers abroad (BBC News, 2008); The Daily Telegraph reported a ‘surge in arrests for badly behaving Britons in Spain’ (Daily Telegraph, 2008); The Daily Mail, never known for understatement, bellowed on its front page: ‘Shame of binge-drink Britons abroad’ (Daily Mail, 2008). Similarly the liberally-minded Independent reported: ‘Drunk and abusive Britons wreak havoc in Spain as 2,000 are jailed.’ (Independent, 2008). These 2008 headlines followed the publication of the UK Foreign Office’s British Behavior Abroad: Annual Report. According to the report, 17 million British tourists visited Spain between April 2006 and March 2007, a further 761,000 British people permanently resided there. France, the second most visited country by British tourists, received 14.8 million British visitors with 200,000 British people resident. A closer, and more sober, look at the Foreign Office figures confirms that over the 12 months to March 2007, a mere 2,032 British people were arrested in Spain out of a total of the 17 million visitors to the country. The equivalent figure for the previous year was 1,549 arrests, out of 13.8 million visitors. While a 32 per cent year-on-year rise in arrests seems pretty dramatic, the actual increase of 483 arrests, which came alongside an additional three million tourists, is barely worth commenting on; the figure of 2,000 arrests amongst 17 million British tourists in Spain is statistically negligible.

Similarly the figure of a 42 per cent rise in arrests in France actually accounted for just 153 Britons out of a visiting population of 14.8 million. This was an increase from 108 arrests amongst 11 million visitors during the previous year. Cyprus, where as a proportion British visitors were most likely to be arrested in the 12 months to March 2007 recorded only 377 arrests out of 1.5 million British tourists, which is at least consistent with the previous year: 330 out of 1.4 million visitors.

So the holiday destination where British tourists were proportionally most likely to be arrested during the time of the study recorded 377 arrests out of 1.5 million visitors - just one arrest for every 4,000 people who visited. There is also the fact that it is unclear from the Foreign Office figures how many of the recorded arrests ended in actual convictions. That didn’t seem to matter for the headline-writers taking their cue from academic critiques: mass tourists are guilty as charged.

With arrest numbers as insignificant as 2,000 out of 17 million, it is clear that there is something else behind the reporting and discussion of these figures. The handwringing news reports surely illustrate contemporary snobbery towards mass holidaymakers is as alive today as it was in Thomas Cook’s time.

It is striking, for example, that the figures for Spain - where there was a 32 per cent rise in arrests - dominated the headlines, rather than the statistically larger 42 per cent rise in France. This might be because a figure of 2,000 arrests is a more dramatic headline for a newspaper than a figure of 153; but it might also be because the car-driving families and genteel middle classes holidaying in Aix-en-Provence don’t quite fit the stereotypical picture of the mass holiday maker as easily as the people sunning themselves on the Spanish Costas or partying on a Greek Island.

Had these figures been published on other social or cultural phenomenon: domestic crime, political voting intentions or race or gender issues, for example, then it is likely academics in the field would pore over the figures; deconstruct them in all their detail and offer trenchant critiques. Here, with mass tourists in the firing line, the news reports tended to confirm pre-existing prejudices and were left completely uncontested.

It is of course the case anyone who has visited, worked or even carried out academic research in a major holiday destination will confirm drunken young tourists sometimes behave badly, even criminally and cause friction with host communities, yet these incidents are normally worked out locally with little fuss or lasting consequences.

It goes without saying that tourist behavior is only one small part of a much wider academic critique of mainstream tourism; a critique that deals with a whole range of very serious social, cultural and environmental issues. That said, in terms of the question of mass tourism as sinner, the example is illustrative of its standing in much contemporary commentary and academic writing.

Tourism as sinner

Prof. Sharpley cites the work of environmental journalist and ethical lifestyle columnist Leo Hickman (2007). Hickman’s contribution is instructive as it could be said to bridge the gap between academic and broadsheet newspaper columnists despair with tourism. Hickman deals with the more serious problems tourism brings; travelling the world reporting on many of these blights, particularly in developing countries: water shortages, poor waste disposal, poor working conditions, threats to natural parks and sex tourism are all he discussed in all their unsavoury detail. This echoes much of the academic critiques of mass tourism familiar to readers of this journal (among others see: Patullo, 1996; Scheyvens, 2002; Weaver, 2008; Buckley, 2008, Wearing and Neil, 2009; Pattullo and Minelli, 2009). Yet like much of the academic research, Hickman’s account is one-eyed. The methodology – locate, research and report - the victims of tourism seems designed to uncover what the author (or researcher) wants to discover: that tourism can be, well, very bad. However, for every put-upon individual or host community Hickman visits – or indeed academic case studies research and report - an equally readable (or empirical) account could be given of those that have gained through tourism.

For example, returning to the mass tourism developments that Cooper et al, (1993: 103) state have destroyed areas of the Mediterranean, the same points could have been levelled at Spain in the 1970s. Prof. Sharpley correctly states that on balance mass tourism to the Spanish Costas should be seen as a positive influence. Tremlett (2007: 96-129) offers a very readable account of the development of tourism on the Spanish Costas; he cites the example of Benidorm (being so iconic of mass tourism there is even a UK comedy programme titled Benidorm following the antics of mass tourists and expatriate British people) once a ‘modest beach-side village’ the city now boasts 38,000 hotel rooms with Paris and London being the only places in Europe with more overnight accommodation. Benidorm could be said to have kick started the growth of mass tourism to Spain in the late 1960s and 70s under the Franco dictatorship. Today, 53 million foreign visitors a year holiday in Spain and it is estimated that more than 11 per cent of the Spanish economy is generated by tourism (Tremlett, 2007: 106). Whilst Benidorm and surrounding area may not be to everyone’s taste, the mass tourism boom benefitted Spain greatly and, in part, was responsible for making the country the modern European state it is today. With unemployment in Spain currently at a post-democracy high of 27 per cent (rising to 57 per cent among people under 26) like other Southern European countries with economies in the doldrums, such as Portugal and Greece, increasing numbers of mass tourists are more likely to be welcomed at the moment than rejected due to the negative impacts (El Pais, May 2013).

Developed tourism markets like Spain have their own set of issues and in the literature most of the studies of tourism’s negative impacts tend to relate to studies drawn from the developing world. Here most of these negative impacts could be better understood as being a consequence of a lack of economic development. There is no automatic reason why a hotel in Cancun or Goa should take water away from local people, any more than a hotel in London or New York takes resources away from residents in those cities. And perhaps it is not always necessarily a bad thing if governments in the global South decide biodiversity should take second place to human-centred economic development that favours raising living standards, infrastructure development or urbanisation.

Tourism as Saviour?

Nor does it follow that that various alternative tourism models provide a better outcome for host communities. Indeed the impacts on local people are often assumed rather than researched (ATLAS/ TRAM, 2008: 39). It yet it might be worth interrogating the claims made for the alternatives put forward to mass tourism. This literature on ethical tourism tends to focus on small-scale, community oriented tourism that explicitly aims to promote both conservation and community well-being goals (Butcher, 2007; Mowforth and Munt, 2009). Such an approach almost always leaves the poor in the rural developing world to the vagaries of small-scale market-based solutions. Any traveller to a developing country will witness budding local entrepreneurs operating small-scale businesses along the lines of Rosa Vasquez’s ecotourism tours in Costa Rica, as reported by Hickman (2007: 263). We may wish them good luck, but the fact remains that small businesses of this type, or NGO funded projects, bring minimal benefit to local communities and fail to transform the economies or infrastructure of developing countries in any meaningful way. This is tinkering at the margins, at best; better than nothing perhaps but also a very limiting development agenda.

More common is the poor rural community reliant on NGO-funded tourism projects. From the reams of case studies examined in tourism journals or NGO assessment reports, rarely is there an example of a project breaking free from aid funding and becoming free-standing, operating under the control of the local community and generating sufficient independent income, along the lines that any undergraduate student is taught is the model of sustainable tourism. Many such projects simply rely on revenue from NGO funding directly.

It may well be the case that NGOs aim to assist and empower communities in the developing world in contrast to the commercial mass tourism operations, however, this arrangement frequently involves community cooperation based on a pre-existing agenda rather than being premised on host communities’ right to shape and define development agendas (Diprose, 2012: 190); perhaps no more or no less than under a mass tourism development. The possibility that indigenous people might not share the same concerns held by NGOs and advocates based in the West is rarely considered in the literature. For example, Smith (1992: 136) in a classic study of tourist development in the Philippine island of Boracay is typical of the criticisms of tourism, concluding that tourism has created, ‘massive physical and social problems’ and that, ‘physical visitor impact during the three years from the inception of record keeping to the time of this field study had been essentially all negative’. Yet in the same study Smith notes that for local people, ‘the tourist presence was viewed in positive terms’ (Smith, 1992: 152). Furthermore, following extensive empirical research in to the opinions of the local population, Smith concludes, ‘overall, Boracayans like and want tourism for social as well as economic reasons” (Smith, 1992: 153).

It is difficult to agree then that the various alternatives put forward to mass tourism are really any better; in fact they are frequently much worse in delivering real benefits to host populations. It is only by reducing the scope of enquiry to the local, often through concepts such as ‘community participation’ (Fennell, 1999; Scheyvens, 2002; Fennell and Weaver, 2005; Jones, 2005), an extremely localised interpretation, that any benefits are judged. This localised focus rejects any wider consideration of communities linked at regional or national levels, thus assessments of any meaningful gains from tourism, mass or otherwise, are at best limited.


Whilst there are certainly many problems with the mass tourism model, it remains the case that despite the numerous studies that report the negative impacts of mass tourism on host communities and the environment, it is not ‘a spectre haunting out planet that will destroy us (Croall, 1995: 1) or the cause of ‘social, cultural, economic and environmental havoc’ (Poon, 1993: 3).

Most, although not all, of the studies of the negative impacts both on host communities and their immediate environment relate to examples in the developing world. Unfashionable as it may be to argue, these problems tend to be structural and social in origin rather than a consequence of tourism. These undoubted problems can normally be solved through transformative economic development rather than curbing tourism, which is for many communities a vital source of income.

As Prof. Sharpley reminds us, mass tourism frequently brings much needed income and jobs to destinations and it does foster social and cultural exchanges some good, some bad. We should welcome this and should challenge the false distinction made in tourism academia between new or enlightening travel and sinning mass tourism.

Returning to the example of the growth of mass tourism in Spain in the 1970s, the sight of northern Europeans in bikinis on Spanish beaches sent shivers down the spine of local reactionary clerics, moving one Father Aparicio Pellin to write in The Problems of Youth (1960), ‘Oh! If they erected a black cross on the beach for every mortal sin committed there, the beach would have more crosses than grains of sand’ (cited in Tremlett, 2007: 105). Today the language of sinning may have changed, couching criticisms of mass tourism in cultural or environmental terms rather than an appeal to modesty or religion, but the sentiments remain much the same.


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