I just returned from the annual meeting of the Association of American Geographers in Seattle, WA. This annual geography-love-fest drew some 7000 geographers (mostly university and college teachers and students) and included some 3,500 presentations. Among those presentations were 107 papers that included the keyword "tourism". You can search and view the abstracts for those 107 papers here: http://www.aag.org/cs/annualmeeting/pastprograms.
These numbers are typical of past AAG meetings and makes this conference among the largest tourism conferences in the world. I, personally, was involved in 10 sessions in one way or another -- as a session organizer, chair or presenter. In fact, in addition to the 107 papers with the keyword "tourism", there are discussion panels on tourism-related topics and many more papers that cover tourism in peripheral ways (such as the papers in a session on "Creating Sense of Place"). Given the large number of concurrent presentations, what I typically do is just look at the tourism sessions and try to attend as many of those that I can. I will be blogging about the AAG more in the future, as I work through all my notes.
For this blog, however, I want to talk about one of the discussion panels that I organized. Panel sessions are different from paper sessions in that the presenters do not submit a formal abstract, but instead put out ideas that generate audience discussion. The panel session that I am focusing on here was on the topics of "The Best Tourism Places". It was run in a Pecha-Kucha (http://pecha-kucha.org) format, which allows 20 slides and 20 seconds of talking per slide. The format forces the presenter to be highly focused on the presentation (preventing tangents) and highlights the most important themes of their talk. I first saw this presentation format at last year's meeting of the American Planning Association in New Orleans and though I would try it at this year's AAG.
The Best Tourism Places session turned out to be a blast! I had asked everyone to make the last slide in their presentation a list of what makes the best tourism places, though not everyone actually read or remembered my instructions. I went first and found it very demanding, exhilarating, and fun. I talked about Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Sabah, Malaysia, which is one of my favorite places. I selected KK because it is a major tourist destination that offers a range of opportunities for different types of tourists, from the recreational-leisure tourist to the avid cultural and environmental explorer. My own conclusions were that the best tourism places had the following characteristics:
- Sensual Diversity: Sight, Taste, Smell, Touch
- Landscape Diversity: Physical and Human
- Experiential Diversity: Both Predictable/Safe and Unpredictable/Risk
- Mixed Accessibility: Mostly Easy, Some Challenges
- Local Authenticity: Local Tourists and People at major sites
- Tourism Incognita: More mysteries around every corner
Much like what I did with Kota Kinabalu, Jamie Gillen (Auburn University) presented the sights, sounds and tastes (in photos, at least) of Singapore, the diversity of which made it one of the best tourism places. And similarly, David Truly (Autonoma Universidad de Guadalajara, Mexico) talked about a recent trip he made to Bali, arguing that the best tourism places are those that support and enhance the "vacation" experience, which he associated with the concept of markers specific to the destination: landscape markers, cultural markers and lifestyle markers. These markers, or iconic symbols and landscapes, reinforce the special qualities of the tourist destination. (It was just a coincidence that Southeast Asia appeared so prominently in this Pecha-Kucha session, though as one of my major research areas, I can see why!)
Somewhat contrary to the examples of KK, Singapore and Bali, Dallen Timothy (Arizona State University) defined the best tourism places as those without any tourists, for which he used trips he has made to Bhutan, the Shan State of Myanmar (which I was also on), and a private tour of the back-region of the Vatican as examples where tourists never go. Entrance into the "back-region" has long been argued to be one of the ultimate goals of most tourists because it is considered to offer a more "authentic" experience.
Authenticity, however, is a very personal experience. Sanjay Nepal (University of Waterloo, Canada) described a trip that he made to the walled city of Lo Manthang in Upper Mustang in Nepal. For him, this was one of the best tourism place because of its blending of dramatic natural and cultural landscapes, a sense that this was an ancient and timeless place, elements of sacred geography, and feelings of uniqueness, exclusivity (visited by few other tourists), and adventure (in just trying to get there). In a similar vein, Albina Pashkevich (Dalarna Univesity, Sweden) talked about her research into seasonal workers at the Kiruna Ski Resort in Sweden, and how Kiruna has become a special place for her through her research encounters and personal experiences there. For both Albina and Sanjay, the places they described became special through their personal existential encounter with a destination.
Dan Olsen (Brandon University, Canada) interpreted my task for this panel as a focus on how we create lists of different types of Best Tourism Places, showing a wide range of examples from the Internet, from the most green destinations to the best travel photographs. He concluded with the questions: Who creates these lists? Who chooses the criteria upon which these lists are based? Who is the intended audience? Why are these lists developed in the first place? Do these lists “work”?
These questions could also, of course, be asked of all the presenters on this panel session. And that is exactly what David Weaver (Griffith University, Australia) did as he led a lively discussion of the presentations. A good part of the discussion focused on how we, as tourism geography researchers, perceive and define the places we study and visit. We tend to be biased toward "allocentric" destinations -- trying to avoid mass tourism and seeking out back regions -- and one wonders how that might bias our research and writing. I also wonder if the same type of session by business school academics would have resulted in more mass tourism examples?
This blog is cross-posted on the BlogNotions - Hospitality Blog