ASA07: Thinking through tourism

10th - 13th April 2007, London Metropolitan University, UK

The topic chosen for the 2007 conference, Thinking Through Tourism, provided an opportunity to review the place of anthropology in the interdisciplinary study of tourism, and the impact of tourism on the methodology, theoretical development and practice of anthropology as a discipline. Panels, papers, posters, films and audio-visual presentations addressed the following themes:

Cultural ownership

One central set of issues raised in the course of anthropological studies of tourism concerns the ownership and control of cultural sites and artefacts. Considerations of cultural ‘heritage’, for example, inevitably provoke questions about whose heritage is being considered and how, and by whom, it is identified and described. In a world in which tourism and the various cultural industries associated with it play significant roles in many national and regional economies, the political-economy of cultural ownership has become of interest to anthropologists interested both in particular localities and in the articulation of these within wider global structures. The political mobilisation of culture is an aspect of the broader debate about cultural ownership and control that is of considerable interest to those interested in the relation between culture, cultural symbolism and political conflict. The study of museums and the representation of cultural objects also raise questions about cultural ownership, not only of the objects themselves (an issue of increasing concern in an age of discussions about the legitimacy of possession and restitution) but of the narratives that the objects, and the explanatory texts used to explain them, tell the visitor.

Tourism, politics and development

Questions of power, politics and development have been present in the anthropology of tourism since the earliest studies of its ‘impact’ on host societies. However, these issues have often been marginal to the more central concerns to do with cultural change, authenticity and commodification. Early understandings of the interaction between tourism and processes of development drew upon detailed ethnographic case studies which often viewed tourism as a threat to ‘host’ cultures while broader generalisations, influenced by world systems and dependency theories, envisaged local communities as passive victims of capitalist modernisation. More recently these theoretical and empirical approaches have given way to recognition that the power struggles and forms of exploitation and inequality associated with tourism are far more nuanced and influenced by specific socio-historical contexts than earlier models led us to believe. Furthermore, the spread of neoliberal capitalist globalisation has precipitated the rise of new forms of social polarisation and the emergence of qualitatively diverse relations of production and exchange in resort environments. Its has also transformed the role of the state, as it adjusts to the forces of global competitiveness as well as the demands of different ethnic, social, religious and kinship groups seeking to influence particular tourism development outcomes.

Exploring the relationship between tourism, politics and development invites us to subject notions of ‘underdevelopment/development’, as well as the discourses and power struggles associated with current neoliberal development interventions linked to such initiatives as ‘pro-poor tourism’, ‘community tourism’ and ‘eco-tourism’, to critical scrutiny. Panel proposals are thus invited which seek to consider the contribution of anthropology to an understanding of politics, power and development as they are manifest in and are shaped by tourism, as well as the contribution that tourism anthropologists can make to the sub-disciplines of political and development anthropology. The value of an anthropological perspective also lies in its ability to shed light on the ‘intimate’ spaces of power and struggle which does not privilege the agency of the state and/or capital and which takes into account the manner in which power relations are interwoven with, for example, kinship, ethnic, and gender relations.

Potential themes which might be explored under this heading might include: tourism development and social change (for e.g. labour relations, migration, family/kinship structures, gender relations); the diverse interactions between globalisation, markets and tourism; the relationship between tourism, the state and a wide variety of non-state institutions, in particular the construction of specific development discourses and the influence of individual and collective power struggles on the tourism policy and planning environment; and tourism, regionalism and nationalism. Of equal interest, given the turbulent protests associated with the ‘anti-corporate globalisation’ movements, are the themes of civil society, social movements and grass-roots opposition to tourism, as well as anthropological perspectives on the relationship between tourism, political violence and terrorism.


The capacity of places, objects and certain types of persons to ‘enchant’ has been of anthropological interest from the early days. For Fraser, for example, the possibility that strangers possessed powers to enchant influenced the shaping of practices of hospitality in the ancient world. In the contemporary world tourism is an industry substantially shaped by ideas, values, and symbolic structures, the purposes of which are to enchant: to attract, to shape imaginations and interpretations, and to enhance processes of cognitive and emotional transformations. Several anthropologists have pointed to the ‘totemic’ quality of tourist attractions and sites, and the reasons that these are able to enchant tourists are clearly matters of interest as much to the marketing departments of tourist locales as to anthropologists and semiologists. The field of enchantment thus encompasses the study of tourism attractions, of hospitality, of the stranger, and of the understanding and analysis of souvenirs and other examples of tourism ephemera. It is of interest to a wide range of actors and institutions engaged in tourism and concerns competing systems of aesthetic and commercial value. It also bears on a subject that lies at the heart of anthropological interest and yet remains curiously understudied, namely the nature and formation of pleasure.

Tourism as ethnographic field

Anthropology has been slow to engage with the phenomenon of mass tourism. Despite some early studies such as Nunez' 1963 paper on 'Weedendismo in a Mexican Village', attitudes towards tourism, as towards anthropology in the Mediterranean region, where European package tourism took off, were strongly conditioned by the prevailing view that '... anthropology is only anthropology if it is done very much abroad, in unpleasant conditions, in societies which are very different from the ethnographer's native habitat, very different from the sort of place where he [sic] might go on holiday' (Davis People of the Mediterranean 1977). Growing anthropological interest in tourism over subsequent decades arguably mirrors the processes of critical renewal taking place within anthropology more generally, where we see the collapse of analytical categories such as 'home' and 'the field', 'researcher' and 'researched', as well as the implicit temporal categories of '(modern) present' and '(traditional) past' underpinning them.

Exploring tourism as an ethnographic field, therefore, invites us to examine not only applications of ethnographic method to tourism processes, but to reflect on tourism as an anthropological object and what it tells us about the theory and practice of anthropology in the conditions of 'supermodernity', mobility and globalised relationships of which tourism is, perhaps, the quintessential expression. Panels convened under this topic might consider how anthropology makes its object within the field of tourism through the critical analysis of categories of 'host', 'guest' and 'stranger', and the mediation of relationships both within discrete tourism encounters and over extended intervals of time and space. The position of the researcher within this nexus of relationships, and in particular the kinship between anthropologist and tourist, and between ethnography and travel writing, are clearly of relevance here. The physicality of the tourist experience – and also of the research process – can also be explored under this rubric, in panels which investigate the role of the scopic, the olfactory and the auditory, in relation to memory, spatial, bodily and representational practices. Panels might also take up this theme in connection with the material culture of tourism, the circulation of objects, and the significance of souvenirs, postcards and other tourist ephemera. Finally, panels are also invited which consider the methodological and ethical challenges of tourism research, and innovative responses to them.


If mobility is an inherent quality of globalisation, then tourism embodies not only a particular category of mobility, but is also a privileged field within which the meanings and practices associated with a wide range of mobilities are subject to transformation, redefinition and renegotiation. One such variety of mobility, and perhaps that most immediately associated with tourism per se, is as a form of transient consumption, bringing to the fore a number of central issues surrounding the creation and consumption of commodities, places, cultures and identities. Linked as it is to specificity of places, the tourist product itself is not movable; it is people rather than goods which are imported and exported to the point of consumption. Both places, and the people they contain, are made and remade to capture these flows of transient consumers. To be a tourist then is to be mobile and also to become involved, even if only superficially, in the worlds and lives of others.

Panels might address the conceptualisation of mobility in terms of globalisation and cultural change, networks and interconnectedness; the emergence of new cultural practices and ‘hybrid’ forms of culture, in relation both to movements of tourists and of the migrant workers who service them. Panels might also consider the way in which other forms of mobility – such as pilgrimage, migration and asylum – become subsumed within the category of tourism – or resist incorporation into this category. The role of borders and borderlands, the relationship between tourism and diasporas, the denial of mobility to certain categories of would- be travellers and tourists, and the specific forms of mobility available to others, are further themes which can be taken up. Panels are invited that seek to develop theoretical models of such phenomena, as much as those which are empirically based.