What is tourism?

By | Category: Travel tips & opinions

A few days ago, the successful and influential author, J K Rowling (to whom the tourism industry owes such a great debt for the Harry Potter phenomenon that attracts so many tourists to different places around the world) announced that she would like to see volunteers refraining from travelling to and working in certain overseas orphanages.

Is this tourism?

The reason that was given was that volunteers might, inadvertently, supporting places that are cruel to children.


Rowling said that children in orphanages in poorer countries often still had parents – but they had been separated by poverty rather than the death of their parents. By volunteering, people were allowing this practice to continue whereas support should be given to alleviating the problems that lead to parents placing their children in orphanages in the first place.

I see her logic and I have no issues with this interpretation.

What I object to came later in her comments. She is said to have called the practice of people volunteering to work in orphanages as “volun-tourism,” and then went on to describe tours of orphanages by visitors as “orphanage tourism.”

My objection is to the increasing misuse of the word “tourism.” Yes, I can see how it creates a good headline and there is an ever-increasing coverage of tourism by the mainstream media but the word is being appropriated and distorted.

Or this? Macedonia- showing us another “face” of tourism!

My misgivings began a few years ago when the words “medical tourism” came into being to describe the practice of people travelling abroad to seek health treatment for their conditions.

Neither orphanage tourism nor medical tourism is tourism.

But what is tourism?

The United Nations World Tourism Organization defined it as “a social, cultural and economic phenomenon which entails the movement of people to countries or places outside their usual environment for personal or business/professional purposes. These people are called visitors.”

I find that too complex for us ordinary mortals and I don’t think I agree with it. Surely tourism is for personal purposes rather than business ones. that is unless you work in travel!

I think that tourism is where people move to places outside than their own homes, and to which they usually would not go, in order to sightsee, relax and explore the sights to be found in the place to which they have gone. It will probably be multi-purpose rather than singular in purpose.

Medical tourism doesn’t allow that to happen. Primarily you go to a hospital or medical centre, have treatment, recover and go back home. In my view, that visit is almost a business visit.

Orphanage tourism is travelling but not tourism. It might be part of a wider tourism visit although I find it unusual that anyone should think that a trip to an orphanage should make up any part of a holiday. It also seems slightly uncomfortable to me that in the twenty-first century anyone would want to see the suffering of others as part of a tourism visit. It harks back to the days when Georgians used to visit patients in Bedlam or when people went to see circus or fairground horrors like the bearded lady and Siamese twins still conjoined.

Krabi in Thailand is a poular tourist destination where peole go fr pleasure and relaxation.

Volunteer tourism is also likely to be single purpose because that is largely what you will do. Time off to see something else outside the time when you are “volunteering” is possible but limited. Primarily you are there to do a piece of work and enjoyment is limited to having done that efficiently and self-satisfyingly. At any other occasion if the work was done in the home country it would just be termed “volunteer work.”

Just as we know have expressions like “over tourism” and “tourism pollution” which are critical of tourism, the misuse of the word is likely to lead to even more derogatory thoughts.

Tourism was – just a decade or so ago – considered desirable in order to broaden a person’s horizons, to make them less parochial, to enable them to feel enjoyment, to contribute – even if only by their spending habits – to the place they were visiting and to relax in a manner suited to the individual.

More accurate descriptions need to be found rather than misusing the word.

If you enjoyed this post, please consider subscribing to the RSS feed to have future articles delivered to your feed reader.
Tags: , , ,