Urban Tourism Essay

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Urban tourism refers to a variety of social practices and institutional forms that involve the production, representation, and consumption of urban culture, history, and environment. In conventional accounts, tourism is a set of discrete economic activities, a mode of consumption, or a spatially bounded locality or ”destination” that is subject to external forces producing impacts. Other research, in contrast, conceptualizes tourism as a highly complex set of institutions and social relations that involve capitalist markets, state policy, and flows of commodities, technology, cultural forms, and people. One can find conceptualizations of tourism as a search for authenticity; an expression of leisure and performative identity; a malevolent form of colonialism; a form of pilgrimage to culturally significant places; a type of ethnic relation; a force for historical and cultural commodication; and a process of mobility and demographic migration. In John Urry’s famous concept of the ”tourist gaze,” tourists view or gaze upon particular sites and sights because ”there is an anticipation, especially through day-dreaming and fantasy, of intense pleasures, either on a different scale or involving different sense from those customarily encountered” (1990: 132).

One major debate in tourism studies concerns whether tourism is a global process of simulation that reflects and reinforces people’s alienation from society   and    social   relations.    Early, Dean MacCannell (1973) developed the concept of ”staged authenticity” to refer to the manufacturing of local culture to create an impression of authenticity for a tourist audience. MacCannell conceived of culture as primordial and viewed tourists as alienated consumers who strive to experience an authentic experience and encounter with authentic sites, objects, or events. In contrast, Ritzer and Liska (1997) maintain that rather than seeking authenticity as MacCannell suggests, people prefer inauthentic and simulated tourist attractions and experiences because these can be made to be highly predictable and efficient vehicles for delivering fun and entertainment. Other scholars have used the concept of Disneyfication to examine the spread of Disney theme-park characteristics to cities and urban culture. This city-as-theme-park explanation suggests that urban cultural spaces are being refashioned to attract visitors and enhance entertainment experiences through the production of fake histories and phony cultures that masquerade as ”authentic.”

In contrast, more recent research eschews a conception of tourism as eroding urban culture and examines the ways in which tourism practices invigorate local culture and relations. Gotham (2007) has elaborated on the concept of touristic culture to examine the actions of local elites in using tourism practices, images, symbols and other representations to build a New Orleans community identity during the first half of the twentieth century. As he points out, powerful groups and organized interests often deploy symbols and imagery in an attempt to unite local citizens and build a supportive constituency for tourism development. Tourism practices can support and invigorate existing modes of authenticity, help reconstruct old forms of authenticity, and promote the creation of new meanings of authenticity and local culture. Rather than viewing authenticity as immutable and primordial, Gotham examines the process of authentication, focusing on how and under what conditions people make claims for authenticity and the interests that such claims serve. Findings suggest that tourism discourses, practices, modes of staging and visualization can shape and constrain the availability of symbols and themes people use to construct meanings and definitions of authenticity. The implication is that tourism discourses, practices, and framings can mobilize people to create new authenticities, reinvent culture, and foster new conceptions of place identity.


  1. Gotham, K. F. (2007) Authentic New Orleans: Race, Culture, and Tourism in the Big Easy. New York University (NYU) Press.
  2. MacCannell, D. (1973) Staged authenticity: arrangements of social space in tourist settings. American Journal of Sociology 79 (3): 589-603.
  3. Ritzer, G. & Liska, A. (1997) “McDisneyization” and ”post-tourism”: contemporary perspectives on contemporary tourism. In Touring Cultures: Transformations in Travel and Leisure. London: Routledge.
  4. Urry, J. (1990) The Tourist Gaze. Sage, Thousand Oaks, CA.

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