Monday, October 24, 2011

Crossing Chasms: The Role of Distance in Tourism

Over the years, tourism scholars have come up with a large number of different ways to segment tourist markets so that different products can be more precisely targeted to potential travelers. Probably the most famous of these is Stanley Plogs division of the both travelers and destinations into “psychocentrics” (associated with security, familiarity and mass products) “allocentrics” (associated with risk taking, extocism and niche products).  Although a lot of different terms have been applied to this safety-risk dualism, with the goal of showing nuances, the fundamentals of the dichotomy have remained consistent.

Like others, I am not going to venture far from the basic model, but I do hope to provide some insights by introducing a perspective that has not, to my knowledge, been suggested before.  That perspective is the concept of “distance”. There are essentially three forms of distance: Geographical, Social and Psychological. Each of these can tell us something about the different ways people travel.

Geographical distance is based on absolute measurements on the planet earth, measured in miles or kilometers. For tourists, it becomes quickly complicated by complicated roads and pathways between where we are and where we want to go.  GPS receivers and online maps help us to navigate in a mostly more efficient and timely way, assuming they are based on current and correct geographic information. 

However, for tourists, a more desirable route may be one that encompasses certain kinds of scenery or attractions, which can be highly subjective to the individual tourist. What is happening here is the transformation of geographical distance into social and psychological distance.

Social distance is how the majority of people in a society define the distance between one place and another. This can be totally different from geographic distance. Political borders, for example, are a more formal social structure that has a huge impact on travel distance – both actual and perceived. One reason, among many, is that political borders increase the time it takes to get to a place, which is often be a more important distance factor than actual geographic measurements. 

Another example is the distance between different socio-economic groups in a society. We talk, for example, about the huge distance between the privileged lives of those in houses on the hill (the upper class) and homeless street life on skid row. We talk about not wanting to go to certain neighborhoods for safety and cultural.  These perceptions, while grounded in society, also have major psychological components.

Psychological distance is how our brains perceive distance. We can only see clearly over a fairly short distance (even with glasses on). In addition, our brains can only comprehend and process a somewhat limited amount of information. Where we focus our eyes is what we cognize and remember the best.  While we see the background and larger context of objects, elements in that broader scan are not stored in detail in our memory.

For tourists, this means that we can only comprehend a selected part of the destinations we visit. To fully appreciate requires time, repeated visits, curiosity, an openness to the unexpected, and patience. Most mass tourists are not able to devote themselves to a place in these ways, and so the tourism industry does its best to help direct a short term focus on immediate objects in front of the tourist – not in the distance.

Together, geographical distance, social distance and psychological distance contribute to making a lot of travel a short-sighted experience, even when we travel far (for the psychocentrics among us).  On the other hand, some travel can traverse great chasms and lead to unknown worlds, even if the actually journal is very close (form allocentrics).  It all depends on distance to which the tourist is willing to go….

(also posted at

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