Geography Of Tourism Research Paper

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Tourism geography is concerned with the place, space, and environmental aspects of tourism. While there is a distinctive field of tourism geography studies, with its own specialist journal, Tourism Geographies: An International Journal of Tourism Space, Place and the Environment (first published by Routledge in 1999), there are considerable overlaps with the interests of economic and cultural geographers. These have infused tourism geography with greater theoretical content in recent years, counter-balancing a more traditional emphasis on the empirical, allied to a concern for applied research. Tourism geography contributes to, as well as being influenced by, discourses on subjects such as globalization, representation, and sustainability. A review of the contribution of tourism geography and of its links with neighboring disciplines can be found in a special theme issue of Tourism Geographies (2000, Vol. 2, no. 3).

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1. Definition

An early issue in tourism geography has been the generic definition of tourism. Most definitions emphasize that tourism is characterized by nonpermanent moves, an intention to return home within a relatively short time period, and a purpose other than taking up permanent residence or employment. This gives rise to two main difficulties. First, there is no clear conceptualization of ‘permanence,’ and instead the pragmatic device of absence from home for at least one night but for less than 12 months is adopted both by academics and by the leading international tourism body, the World Tourism Organization. Second, the definition is chaotic in the way it bundles together diverse motivations and practices, ranging from business tourism, to education to pleasure. The relationship between tourism and recreation constitutes another problem area (Shaw and Williams 1994), for some forms of tourism activities are virtually impossible to differentiate from recreational activities undertaken by excursionists (or day visitors). In this instance, the case for a distinctive tourism geography lies not so much in differences in the content of the recreational practices but in the implications which follow from tourism involving overnight stays away from home.

It is the latter concern which, potentially, places tourism geography at the heart of tourism studies. While, technically, overnight stays could involve staying at a nearby hotel for a conference or a training event, or children ‘sleeping over’ at the homes of friends within the same town, there is an in implicit assumption that tourism involves more profound interactions between the destination and host areas. There are three main dimensions to this. First, there is an economic dimension arising from the expenditures related to the overnight stay (long distance travel, accommodation, meals, and other services) so that there are significant inter-regional transfers of income, and tourism becomes a potential economic development instrument. Second, travel brings individuals into contact with the ‘other,’ in the form of different cultures, with implications for both the tourists and for the receiving communities; there is a strong overlap here with the work of social anthropologists on hostguest relationships (Smith 1977). Third, tourism brings an additional dimension to the environmental impacts of human activity, resulting from the scale and intensity of travel, the redistribution of human activity across space, and a hypothesized change in attitudes to the environment amongst tourists when freed from the cultural constraints of ‘home.’

2. Changing Perspectives In Tourism Geography

In the twentieth century, the changing approaches to tourism geography research have broadly mirrored wider shifts in other social sciences, although the applied interests of many researchers has meant that these changes have attracted relatively little methodological debate. Nevertheless, there has been a shift from a largely inductive positivist framework to approaches grounded in political economy or cultural interpretation, although tourism geography remains methodologically diverse.

2.1 Spatial Models

Positivist approaches have mostly been inductive, but there are some notable deductive contributions. Foremost amongst these is a relatively neglected early paper by Christaller (1963), who is otherwise best known for his work on central place theory. This paper sought to conceptualize tourism flows from ‘central’ to ‘peripheral’ locations in Europe in terms of basic principles of accessibility, and—at least indirectly—was the forerunner of an array of models concerned with the spatial interactions between areas of tourist origin and destination. Pearce (1995) has developed a fourfold typology of such models. Models of tourist travel analyze the alternative routes which link places, and the volume and character of tourist flows along these; they are often informed by a distance decay assumption. Origin-destination models are more sophisticated in that they examine the flows to and from a multiple set of areas, and identify spatial hierarchies of tourist destinations. Structural models are concerned with the evolution of distinctive spatial structures in destination areas, reflecting the asymmetrical power relationships between tourists, the tourist industry, and the destination society. These relationships are often epitomized by the development of resort enclaves which are spatially, culturally, and economically isolated from their local milieu. Finally, evolutionary models—reflecting geographers’ time-space concerns—have examined the development of tourism spaces, especially resorts.

The most widely known evolutionary model is Butler’s (1980) resort life cycle model, which contends that resorts pass through a series of stages: exploration, involvement, development, consolidation, and stagnation, culminating in a number of alternative trajectories, ranging from immediate decline to rejuvenation. The key factors shaping the evolution of individual resorts are visitor numbers, the roles of local external entrepreneurs, competition, and the pressures on carrying capacity. The model is largely deterministic, but does acknowledge the role of human agency in the latter stages when alternative futures are possible, depending on the responses of the tourism industry complex. Although the model is more descriptive than explanatory, it has spawned a considerable debate as to the shape of the curve, the determinants of change, and the criteria for identifying turning points between stages.

2.2 The Political Economy Of Tourism

Since the 1970s, there has been a more critical approach to tourism geography which, initially at least, drew on the experiences of the less developed countries and on the political economy of development. De Kadt’s (1979) ‘Tourism: Passport to Development?’ argued for a more critical approach to understanding tourism impacts, but failed to offer a coherent alternative conceptual framework for this. Britton (1991), however, did set out such a framework, based on theories of capital accumulation, cultural capital, and the representation of place. This key paper developed two main streams of analysis—the commodification of culture and of place, and the particularities of tourism production within capitalist systems. These were explored through a number of case studies, such as spectacles and urban regeneration.

Britton’s work did inspire a more critical approach in tourism geography, although there has been relatively limited further development of a political economy framework. One major exception to this has been the work of Ioannides and Debbage (1998), whose book sought to integrate studies of tourism production with economic geography. Their own contribution to this volume analyzed changes in tourism production in terms of a shift from Fordism to post Fordism, drawing on regulation theory. Inevitably, they conclude that there are sectoral differences between, for example: airlines and tourism retailing, and that different forms of tourism production coexist at any one time. The underlying concern of this and other research on the tourism industry has been the requirement for flexible accumulation in the face of variable demand and labor intensive production (Shaw and Williams 1994).

2.3 Cultural Interpretations

Tourism geographers have a long-standing interest in the notion of place, and in the way in which tourism behavior is both shaped by and shapes places. They have drawn extensively on the work of sociologists, such as Cohen (1984), who emphasized that all tourists are seeking some degree of novelty and difference, whilst at the same time wanting to retain an element of familiarity. The way in which tourists balance these differing needs was used by Cohen to construct a typology of tourists ranging from mass to more individualistic travelers. This, and other, typologies have been important because of the way they highlight the relationship between the different forms of tourism consumption and their impact on destination areas.

The representation of place is also of central importance in tourism behavior. The search process before booking a holiday is strongly influenced by the media and other sources of images of the destinations, both formal and informal. These are important as they condition expectations, and therefore affect the actual holiday experience and the way in which this is evaluated. The notion of the tourist gaze, which has been developed by Urry (1990, p. 2), ‘presupposes a system of social activities and signs which locate the particular tourist practices.’ In terms of image, the tourist gaze is constructed through signs and signifiers in the landscape, with tourists being collectors of such signs. Tourist practices do not simply entail the purchase of specific goods and services but their practices involve the consumption of signs, which are constructed around and help to define notions of place.

One of the most interesting aspects of Urry’s thesis is that, in the late twentieth century, there was a change in the values held by tourists, and in the signposting of the objects to be gazed upon. The contrast between tourism as a separate sphere of social activity and the practices of every day life has greatly diminished. Tourism has become de-differentiated or merged with other activities, and this has contributed—at least in the UK—to a shift in interest from traditional seaside resorts to urban industrial heritage sites along with valued rural landscapes and cultures. More recent cultural interpretations have been characterized by broader concerns with the embodiment of tourism experiences (Crouch 1999).

3. Tourism Geography And The Challenges Of A Changing World

Tourism geographers are increasingly contributing to debates about the role of tourism in a changing world. Two themes are of particular note: the environment and economic restructuring.

In recent decades (i.e., the last decades of the twentieth century) there has been considerable research on the environmental effects of tourism, and geographers have played a key role in this. Mathieson and Wall (1982) provided an early and enduring review of the impacts of tourism. Most research, subsequently, has involved a refinement of the measurement of these impacts, through such techniques as carrying capacity, rather than advances in conceptualization per se. Most of the research has been in wilderness or other protected areas and there has been surprisingly little work on mass tourist environments. In the 1990s tourism geography engaged enthusiastically with the notion of sustainability, and a specialist literature has developed around sustainable tourism. Much of the geographical contribution has been at the level of advocacy, but a more critical stance is emerging (Hall and Lew 1998). Tourism geographers have argued for a more holistic approach to sustainability, which recognizes the links between the economic, social, and environmental dimensions. They have also become more critical of idealistic attempts to build partnerships of stakeholders, as evidence emerges of unequal power relationships within these.

Tourism geography is also engaging with economic restructuring, and this is particularly evident in urban areas. In the face of major declines in their traditional economies, many urban localities have looked to tourism as one, and often the leading, component in their regeneration strategies. Tourism has the advantages of being labor intensive, requiring relatively limited investment, and having the capacity to refashion place images so as to reposition localities in the wider map of economic opportunities. Tourism geographers have played a role in analyzing the social and spatial impacts of such strategies, whilst demonstrating that their success is in part contingent on place characteristics. Similar research also exists on the role of tourism in other types of place environments, including the rural and the coastal resort.


  1. Britton S 1991 Tourism, capital and place: towards a critical geography of tourism. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 9: 451–78
  2. Butler R W 1980 The concept of a tourist area cycle of evolution: implications for management of resources. Canadian Geographer 24(1): 5–12
  3. Cohen E 1984 The sociology of tourism: Approaches, issues and findings. Annual Review of Sociology 10: 373–92
  4. Christaller W 1963 Some considerations of tourism location in Europe: the peripheral regions—underdeveloped countries— recreation areas. Regional Science Association Papers 12: 95–105
  5. Crouch D (ed.) 1999 Leisure Tourism Geographies. Routledge, London
  6. Hall C M, Lew A 1998 Sustainable Tourism: A Geographical Perspective. Longman, Harlow, UK
  7. Ioannides D, Debbage K (eds.) 1998 The Economic Geography of the Tourist Industry: A Supply Side Analysis. Routledge, London
  8. de Kadt E 1979 Tourism: Passport to Development? Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK
  9. Mathieson A, Wall G 1982 Tourism: Economic, Physical and Social Impacts. Longman, Harlow, UK
  10. Pearce D 1995 Tourism Today: A Geographical Analysis. Longman, Harlow, UK
  11. Shaw G, Williams A M 1994 Critical Issues in Tourism: A Geographical Perspective. Blackwell, Oxford, UK
  12. Smith V (ed.) 1977 Hosts and Guest: The Anthropology of Tourism. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia
  13. Urry J 1990 The Tourist Gaze. Sage, London
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