Thursday, March 17, 2011

Tourism Incognita - The Importance of the Unexpected

My email inbox these days seems to be overflowing with more "all-inclusive" travel deals than I have seen in a long time. All-inclusive experiences are certainly attractive -- no need to think about anything other than getting to your destination resort. They are also very popular -- as evidenced by the continual growth in cruise ships, the ultimate all-inclusive experiences. Unfortunately, they are also the ultimate in predictability, efficiency and control -- the hallmarks of hypermodernity, and what George Ritzer and Allan Liska (1997) called "McDisneyization". While I appreciate efficiency, because it often costs less, and I try to avoid bad surprises as much as possible, I find that what I most enjoy and rememver about travel are experiences that are unexpected , unplanned and sometimes out of control.

A couple of years ago I took an Alaska inside passage cruise, from Vancouver, BC to Anchorage, Alaska. We were on one of the major cruise lines, which my wife loves because we only need to unpack our bags once. For our daily port experiences, however, I wanted to try to get away from the cruise mobs, but I still wanted to make the most of my limited time in each port of call. So I used an company that specialized in working around the cruise lines in booking local tours for cruise ship passengers. I did this for two of our three stops, Ketchikan and Skagway. In Ketchikan we did a rainforest natural area hike with a small group of people (8 to 10), which was nice, but also something that I think could have been easily done on one's own. In Skagway we took the obligatory (and scenic) White Pass and Yukon Train ride, for which I do not think there is a way to bypass the cruise mobs. However, the most memorable experience of the entire cruise was our stay in Juneau. 

Being a relatively larger place, I was determined to rent a car and explore Juneau on my own. They do not make it easy for cruise passengers to rent cars in Juneau! The car rental places are nowhere near where the cruise ships dock. I was too cheap to take a taxi for this one day rental, and instead took a public bus, which got me close, but I still had to hike a ways to get to the rental place. Having the ability to explore Juneau on our own, however, made a world of difference. We visited the Mendenhall Glacier, but we were on our own schedule, and beyond that we just drove north out of town looking to see what we could find. It was an overcast day, with some rain and drizzle now and then, but the scenery was fantastic and there were hardly any other people in sight! Among our stops was the Shrine of St. Theresa, which is a very unique old church on a small island connected to the mainland. And we also found some good, local food places.

So why was Juneau so special? What Juneau offered, that Ketchikan and Skagway did not was an opportunity to explore what geographers have long referred to as Terra Incognita. In the Age of Exploration (16th and 17th centuries) European cartographers marked the yet-to-be-explored places on maps as Terra Incognita. In 1947, the geographer John Kirkland Wright opened his presidential address to the Association of American Geographers with the words:

Terra Incognita: these words stir the imagination. Through the ages men have been drawn to unknown regions by Siren voices, echoes of which ring in our ears today when on modern maps we see spaces labelled "unexplored," rivers shown by broken lines, islands marked "existence doubtful."
Today, Terra Incognita still holds an important role in the travelers experiences of place. Travel and tourism today are usually taken to places we know. However, even in these known places, there are many geographies and experiences that are beyond the tourism mob, that are unknown and that offer opportunities to experience Terra Incognita

While we focus on the all-inclusive known when we purchase our travel experiences, it is equally important to make room for the unknown and the unexpected. I argue that it is even vital to have such experiences to have a full and deep experience and appreciation of a place. This requires an openness to risk, to serendipity, to personal transformation, to a special kind of Tourism Incognita, which those of us who study and promote tourism need to be more aware of.
As the author and poet Carl Sandburg once said, "Nearly all the best things that came to me in life have been unexpected, unplanned by me". After all, isn't this why most of us, both tourism professionals and tourism consumers are drawn to travel in the first place?


Ritzer, G., and A. Liska. 1997. "'McDisneyization' and 'Post-Tourism': Complementary Perspectives on Contemporary Tourism." In Touring Cultures: Transformations of Travel and Theory, edited by C. Rojek and J. Urry. London: Routledge.

See also: Robinson, M.B. 2003. The Mouse Who Would Rule the World! How American Criminal Justice Reflects the Themes of Disneyization. Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture, 10 (1) 69-86.

Wright, J.K. 1947. Terrae Incognitae: The Place of the Imagination in Geography. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 37(1): 1-15.