Tourism’s Slow Death

by Keith Savage · 27 comments

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It’s not that I love grandiose blog post titles, it’s just that I’ve had this massive concept in my head and getting it out feels like how I imagine it must feel to pass a kidney stone the size of a golf ball.

It is this thought: even as the tourism industry generates billions and trillions of dollars each year, it is evolving and heading down a path that will leave itself flapping in the wind, underutilized, and vestigial in the future.

Interested? Follow me.

A Hill of Beans

The economy has weighed heavily on the minds of most people over the last several years. When I hear “economy,” first I shudder (macro economics threatened to maim my college GPA) and then I think of dollars and cents. But there’s another currency of economy that many businesses deal in: the Experience Economy. You might recall my old post on experiential travel in which I cite a study by Pine and Gilmore. Well these same guys happened to write the book (literally) on the Experience Economy back in 1999.

Nicaraguan Coffee

The book was game-changing for business, and at its heart is a basic understanding of commodities, products, services, and experiences. The authors use coffee as an example to illustrate the differences: plain old coffee beans are a commodity, ground coffee in the grocery store is a product, simple drip coffee at the diner is a service, and fancy coffee drinks in the pleasant ambiance of a coffee shop is an experience. Over time, the influence of technology, competition, and increasing expectations of consumers can reduce products and services to commodities. The authors’ thesis is that we are living in the experience economy today, where businesses charge for the feeling that experiences provide and treat the other categories as commodities to be given away as facilitators for those experiences.

Still with me?

As Tourism Ages

As the experience economy matures, consumers drift away from manufactured “product” experiences toward authentic experiences. Sure, you can have that cup of coffee at Starbucks, or you could have it on a coffee plantation in Nicaragua. Travel is inherently experiential, but even the tourism industry is wrapped up in this theory and is shifting toward so-called “authentic tourism.” I can barely count the number of press releases I’ve read from national tourism boards stating their new strategic focus on cultural tourism/experiential travel/ecotourism/etc. Now I’ve ruminated extensively on the confounding search for authentic travel experiences, and there’s something very ironic about selling “authentic travel packages.” The mere thought creates a great void inside me. If there’s no feeling then it’s merely a product, something I’m drifting away from as a traveler, is it not?

As Tourism Ages

As I touched on in a recent post about travel and materialism, the tourism industry is just a different form of consumption. A provocative article on Samoan branding shared by Andy of 501places characterized travel as ruled by the same commoditizing and homogenizing forces that drive increased consumption in other industries. The markers of Western civilization are visible around the globe, from Tibetan kids wearing Nike shirts to McDonald’s restaurants in the South Pacific to Leonardo DiCaprio movie posters in Sofia. I’m not judging this expansion of culture, rather pointing it out as the vanguard of an onrushing monoculture.

Foreign Feelings

The idea that a single culture could take over the world terrifies me. I value the feeling of foreignness I experience when traveling. It always casts new light on old ways of thinking and makes me adapt to new situations. Tourism has long provided an infrastructure to make travel easier, but the signs of this infrastructure violate the foreign experiences we seek. Today, our ability to travel easily and relatively cheaply means we need less hand-holding and facilitation from tourism at large. So often I think about getting to places off the beaten path, “discovering” something serendipitously, and it feels like the complete opposite of tourism and “authentic travel packages.” One idea is that tourism has gradually moved from service to experience to product, a dangerous progression for an industry built around experiences.

Feeling Foreign

There will always be a need for some tourism infrastructure, don’t get me wrong. Many people want to travel without feeling like an alien. But what will the tourism industry do when the majority of people simply want an authentic experience, one that requires little third-party infrastructure or conjuration? In the process of ratcheting up my desire to travel, the signs of tourism, like a sea of billboards along the road, have robbed me of that sought-after feeling of cultural displacement. And it’s driving me away. I don’t need it as a service or a product, and lord knows the experience is less than satisfying.

Finally, why am I and so many others so desperate to “acquire” feelings through travel? Only those damned to live in a world with pre-packaged “authentic experiences” would ask such a question.

Where do you think the tourism industry fits in this day and age? Are you conflicted like me?

Listening to: David Gray and Stars of the Lid

Original photo by madiko83, mhaithaca, cfinke, and ScottSchrantz, respectively, via Flickr under Creative Commons

RyanNo Gravatar October 19, 2010 at 11:54 AM

I couldn’t have come across this thread at a better time as I am currently traveling on a career break with my fiancé, trying to wrestle with the same issue. This post and these comments have been very eye-opening. Admittedly, my travel experiences, so far, have been limited (ahem…1 month), yet I’d say I agree there is a seemingly limitless number of definitions, perceptions of, and degrees-of-desire for authentic travel. As with anything else of importance, it’s a cosmos of intersecting spectrum–enough to make one’s head spin. On one end, certain people will always want to go on cruises–it’s convenient, many places are visited in short period of time, oh…and, don’t forget, the pizza is available 24/7. So those, and similar travel packages, aren’t going away anytime soon. However, at this moment in my life (young, healthy, financially poor but spiritually rich), I think, Keith, you and I subscribe to a similar version of authentic travel. For me, going off the beaten path to experience new and diverse places is desirable for two reasons that I can think of right now: 1.) it’s usually cheaper. Traveling the world is the greatest, so I want to spend as little as possible, whenever possible, so I can continue doing it for as long as possible. And 2.) there’s always something more inherently satisfying about achieving a travel experience that you had to work hard for. Taking the less toured route, I have found myself navigating confusing (often uncomfortable) public transportation, clumsily speaking to locals with limited knowledge of the local language, and eating in local eateries along the way. And you know what? Voila, cultural immersion! And that’s before even getting where I’m going! That said, we just stumbled on a “Target-ish” mega-retail grocer called Jumbo around the corner from our hostel here in Chile, and I was literally giddy to buy a bag of BBQ baked lays potato chips. So, maybe it’s all about having a balance–a healthy dose of the the exotic with the occasional availability of the familiar. To each his own, I guess. To me, for now, my baked lays…

My most recent post covered this topic:

Love the blog Keith. Best of luck with your trip!

Keith SavageNo Gravatar October 20, 2010 at 1:35 PM

Ryan – thanks for the provocative comment. It sounds like we do share many of the same thoughts on authentic travel. That said, I’m trying disabuse myself of the very notion of “authentic travel” because, to some degree, it implies that certain places are authentic and certain others are not. I feel that following this belief will be fraught with dissatisfaction and unhappiness.

As a traveler, you make your own authenticity. The question is do you want a truly authentic or unique experience, or are you trying to recreate some half-remembered image lodged in your brain courtesy of media? Me, I blame Indiana Jones. Just kidding, but we do create preconceptions of places and subsequently seek to experience those preconceptions in the flesh, whether or not they’re plausible.

As far as your Lays are concerned, I think we all need to be comforted. Whether that’s familiar food, music, faces, or Hulu, it doesn’t matter. They all serve the same purpose: to settle down the vibrating anxiety of culture shock, that our conception of the world is but one bubble in an ocean of billions.

Fights to JohannesburgNo Gravatar September 7, 2010 at 4:22 AM

No doubt we are losing our culture now as we are forgetting what we are and being inspired with the other cultures.

GuideGecko Singapore TouristNo Gravatar August 29, 2010 at 11:12 PM

Travelling gives the opportunity to learn from locals. It is obvious that people have different perception. You may get beaten by their thoughts and actions. It’s all about adapting to the people and circumstance! Because of these trivial stuffs, I don’t think that the tourism is dying!

In my aspect, it’s actually growing. I can see increased tourist destinations and travellers. Many of them are down to earth and adjustable! So they can enjoy any kind of situation.
Great Article! I really appreciated

SofiaNo Gravatar August 29, 2010 at 11:34 AM

Sometimes the thoughts hits me too, that a single culture could take over the world.
But then again, I think that culture is very important for people, if they lose their culture they lose a part of themselves, of who they are.
In Sweden we have a lot of immigrants and foreigners, and many of them actually get closer to their culture here than they ever were in their home land. I see it in myself too when I travel. I start to miss all the typical Swedish things that are typical to our culture, things I’ve been taking for granted.
In that perspective, I don’t think we’ll lose our culture completely, but I do think that we will and already have lost a little bit…perhaps partly because of tourism.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar August 29, 2010 at 2:27 PM

Hi Sofia – interesting and (mostly) optimistic observation. I like how you point out that immigrants get closer to their culture when they are in foreign lands. It makes me think of all the Irish bars in America, how the Irish culture has been kept alive here. But there’s a danger in this, too, that whatever’s kept alive will come to define the greater culture (i.e., Irish bars and drinking).

The Photo HuntressNo Gravatar August 27, 2010 at 7:22 PM

Hello Keith,

I really enjoyed reading your blog. Now for the topic at hand “authenticity” in the tourism industry. I live in Hawaii the home of the genuine and authentic Hawaiian experience. If you believe that I have a volcano for sale. But still people seem to enjoy the manufactured luaus, the hula dancers and the slice of pineapple on every plate. People that want an ”authentic travel package” are taking a vacation… period. Getting off the beaten path is a completely different experience as you well know. To each his own I say. There is room for everybody to experience travel in whatever way makes them comfortable and happy. Personally I like to wing it. That’s my idea of travel, but that’s just me.

Travel Today

In our bad economy people are staying home. They are visiting their own countries, their home states or enjoying what their cities have to offer. There is a lot to see in your own backyard if your willing to look. The blending of cultures is not a bad thing. I grew up in California and I am of Latin descent. Believe me when I tell you this. The flavors and nuances of my heritage are still alive and kicking in my home state. Cultures are not lost as long as a family embraces the difference and are proud of who they are. I am an American and very proud of it and I am sure this is a common place fact among people of this world. You may laugh but when asked “Where are you from?”… I say Earth. lol

I probably did not answer your thought provoking post. But there is no real answer, is there. ~ Velia

“We change, whether we like it or not” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

Keith SavageNo Gravatar August 30, 2010 at 11:08 PM

Hi Velia – I’d say I’m being sentimental in this post and the Emerson quote beautifully illustrates this. Thank you. I’m lamenting a possible future, one that you point out wouldn’t be bad to some degree.

There is no answer because everyone has their own answer to the central idea of this post.

Kelley at GlobalBasecamps.comNo Gravatar August 24, 2010 at 6:44 PM

Very thought provoking…”authentic travel packages” is pretty much an oxymoron. I don’t feel like tourism industry is dying because a lot of people, especially first time and infrequent travelers still want a lot of support. Our travel specialists work really hard to manage a lot of factors to make sure both novice and experienced travelers have opportunities for authentic cultural investigation, but as you have said before it ultimately depends on the traveler’s mindset.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar August 30, 2010 at 10:59 PM

Hi Kelley. I’ll need to check out Global Basecamps in more detail. I’m curious to learn more about your authentic cultural investigations. You might be right – there are always more and new travelers who will desire the tourism industry’s product.

Raam DevNo Gravatar August 24, 2010 at 12:00 AM

Very thought-provoking post, Keith!

I think as technology continues to proliferate the world, many things we encounter while visiting foreign countries will become familiar. On the other hand, mobile technology is also allowing people to stay connected and work at home without moving their entire families to the cities, which is good for preserving the “authentic” countryside.

I share your distaste for a “one world culture”, but in the long-run (I’m talking hundreds of years), I think it’s inevitable barring any major disaster that slows progress. Sad yes, but inevitable.

I think geographic differences will slowly become the reason why people travel for vacation. Even if you remove the major cultural differences, the geographic differences are enough to make for an interesting experience.

For example, I grew up in the northeast United States and that last photo in your post is very reminiscent of the area I spent the first 27 years of my life. However, I’ve been living in India, Vietnam, and Nepal for the past six months and when I saw that photo, it looked more foreign and “unusual” to me than anything else! I’ll be returning back home in a few weeks and my own home country now feels more foreign and alien than the third world countries I’ve been living in. And that’s after only six months.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar August 30, 2010 at 11:05 PM

Hey Raam, really interesting point about geographic differences being the driving factor of choosing travel destinations. But man, that’s a bleak view of the future. Hard to disagree with it, but I have faith in humanity’s desire to protect culture. I think some cultures will surely disappear, as they are today, but others that are more technologically advanced(?) would be able to stem the tide. I’m not sure technology is the right angle there, but do you get my meaning?

DaveNo Gravatar August 22, 2010 at 9:06 PM

I love seeing this kind of post, we the responses are as well though out as the original post. Travel and tourism are almost as old a set of co-joined industries as you can find. From the earliest days of the Roman empire people where drawn to travel (even at the risk of their very lives) to see the new and exciting discoveries and conquests of the empire. We today may need to go through some changes and restructuring of our conceptions of what travelers what, but I believe we will continue to shift with the times and survive.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar August 30, 2010 at 10:52 PM

I agree with you Dave. Excellent comments here. Thanks!

jessievNo Gravatar August 22, 2010 at 3:39 PM

what i love about traveling is that 5 people doing the same thing will have 5 different experiences, perceptions – even photos. it’s all about what WE bring to the table.

now, i, too, try to get off the beaten path, so we can move more slowly. slow travel, for us, is a good thing for many reasons – my disabilities, traveling with an 8yo, etc. but it also gives us a chance to learn from locals, even if for a bit. that, to me, is the essence of travel.

great article!!

Keith SavageNo Gravatar August 29, 2010 at 2:32 PM

Hi Jessie – you are exactly right in your first paragraph. I struggle to remember this and I’m always thankful for the reminder. The world is what you make of it.

Andy JaroszNo Gravatar August 22, 2010 at 11:00 AM

Without wishing to repeat the previous excellent comments, I do wonder we need to consider our definitions of tourism, and of the tourism industry as a whole. Taking it from your implied perspective Keith I agree that there is a growing commoditisation of the ‘authentic’ experience. Visiting the hill tribes in Thailand, the South African townships, the Brazilian favelas, or joining in the Maori hangi, are all sold as authentic experiences, packaged up and made as comfortable to the western visitor as possible. Does that provide the visitor with the real flavour of life for those people? Of course not. Do these tours bring in as much benefits as they should for the local people? Again, it is rarely the case that they do. But perhaps for many tourists that limited exposure is quite authentic enough. What some might consider a tacky show will be a highlight of a trip for others that can change their lives in its own way. We are all touched differently by the same events.
Tourism for all of us means something different: exploration, relaxation, opening new perspectives, escaping from making decisions for a week or two. We all set off with our own agenda, while the tourist industry tries to create products that will slot into those plans and give us what we want. Those of us who travel independently to less obvious destinations might sometimes be guilty of seeing the travel industry through our own little bubble. 90% of the travel consumers will still want their decisions made for them and will not expect to be forced out of their comfortable shell when they step off a plane (or onto a cruise ship).
Enough rambling from me. A thought provoking and intelligent post as ever (and thanks for the mention).

Keith SavageNo Gravatar August 30, 2010 at 10:56 PM

Great points, Andy. You made me think that perhaps I’m just seeking something real and not produced for me, the tourist. Why? I don’t know yet.

I agree that for many, those packages will be enjoyable and sufficient. And that’s ok.

Your perspective is sending me on another train of thought – thanks!

pamNo Gravatar August 21, 2010 at 4:56 PM

I think what I’m missing here is a definition of “tourism infrastructure”. I traveled with a group tour in SE Asia — we arrived two nights early and stayed in a hotel frequented by Hanoi businessmen and their purchased companions. Experience? Pretty real. Infrastructure? Well, the place was booked for us by the tour company, it’s not like we sought some “off the beaten path” flop house frequented by locals.

Also, I often suspect that we are disingenuous about “authenticity”. We decide that our experiences are more real when there’s no plumbing or things are less than pretty. We’re bummed out by Tibetan kids in Nikes, but why shouldn’t they have good running shoes too? Monoculture is a drag, but oh, we love cold storage so we can have food that doesn’t make us sick and lightweight performance attire made in Cambodia factories and branded with The North Face or Patagonia or whatever.

I’m more conflicted about our attitudes and definitions than I am about the role of tourism as a commodity. If we let others define our experience, it’s even more of a commodity. But if we buy tourism as a product and then, just see what happens, well, anything can. And does, often.

LaurenceNo Gravatar August 21, 2010 at 5:32 PM

I have to agree with you Pam. As “independent” travellers I fear we run the risk of trying to somehow elevate ourselves above the “tourist” status, attempting to find some sort of magical cultural experience that is somehow more “authentic” than some other experience. Tourism is, for me, anything that differs from my normal life. So anything can be tourism really. My normal life, however I define it, experienced by someone else, could be a touristic experience also. Although I’m not sure there are tour groups lining up to sell it as yet…

Keith SavageNo Gravatar August 30, 2010 at 10:51 PM

Hi Laurence, this post was not written with the idea of traveler vs. tourist in mind. Many of my posts are born out of an attempt to understand what I’m feeling. I recently read a quote from Rolf Potts that said something along the lines of people who travel and seek authentic experiences are trying to recreate an image that was imparted to them through media or other means when they were younger. It’s a bitter pill to swallow, but it rings true.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar August 30, 2010 at 10:48 PM

I think, for me, it’s about being confused/conflicted rather than disingenuous. There’s a level of “otherness” ascribed to traveling that, when in the presence of monoculture, simply isn’t there. If it’s the “otherness” that you were seeking it makes sense to be disappointed.

I think of tourism infrastructure as accommodations, restaurants, tours, etc. that exist to smooth the transition to a foreign culture. In the context of this post, I was thinking about one country’s (USA) tourism infrastructure appearing throughout the world (to make Americans’ travel easier).

LaurenceNo Gravatar August 21, 2010 at 3:28 PM

This is a thought provoking post, but ultimately I’m not sure I agree with the direction it suggest tourism is heading in. I believe that the vast majority of the travelling public will continue to want their hand holding when it comes to their holiday time, and that tourism infrastructure will remain in place to do this. Even as people search for more authentic experiences from their holidays, wanting, as you suggest, that home ground Nicaraguan coffee, they will, for the most part, be happy to have the experience as part of a Home Ground Nicaraguan Coffee Tour. Whilst I have no doubt that more and more niche operators will appear to fill a need for “off the path” tourism, I don’t believe that “tourism” is going to die out. Although I guess it depends on how you define “tourism”.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar August 22, 2010 at 10:31 AM

Hi Laurence, it’s a valid view that you have, and you could very well be right. This post is a bit like shaking the magic 8 ball. Ultimately I’m wondering if and when there will every be a backlash to the industrialism of experience.

I don’t think I stated this clearly in the post, but I don’t believe the amount of worldwide travel will decrease. I’m suggesting that the way we travel could diverge from the existing “rails.”

Nomadic ChickNo Gravatar August 21, 2010 at 2:47 PM

There seems to be a sense of injustice to your post. This trend in tourism could probably be blamed on your sound evidence, but cheaper airline tickets and increased numbers in the backpacking culture are also in the mix. The tourist companies have to respond to the call. Does it take away from what you crave, or me? I’m not so sure. The world moves forward, will be different than it was 2 years ago, or 1 year ago. My god, I realized the other day how rapidly Cambodia is changing. They now have 5 banks, which sprouted in 5 years. When I was there in 2003, not many travelers came or bothered, ATM’s were unheard of. I’m learning quickly that authenticity can be perception.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar August 21, 2010 at 3:00 PM

Hey Jeannie, great comment. I think authenticity is exactly perception. And since the perception of each person is different, there is no one monolithic Authenticity out there. What I see with tourism is the perception of authenticity from a relatively small number of people peddled on the globe’s stage.

Rolf Potts has written several pieces in which he describes (if I’m remembering this correctly) travel as a common attempt to experience authenticity that we acquired from media sometime during our lives.

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