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What is Tourism?

And Why Does it Matter?


What is Tourism?
English Duke's Grand Tour (Public domain from Wikimedia Commons)

We live in an age when anyone with a smart phone and opposable thumbs can book a flight and hotel room; and think he's planned a vacation. Give him a laptop, website and printer, and he'll believe he's qualified to call himself a home-based travel agent. Add a Fodor's or Lonely Planet pocket guide, and he'll feel he's ready to lead tour groups.

The digital revolution has empowered amateurs to perform many of the tasks of locating, comparing, planning and booking that used to be the travel agent's trade secrets. This leads some of those amateurs to ask "Why do I need to pay someone a commission to do what I can do for myself on the internet?"

The answer is that maybe they don't. An amateur with an iPhone can arrange a nice vacation for himself; provided he is content with a brand name destination and cookie cutter experience. That's enough for some folks. They're content to be vacationers and will spend their two weeks a year poolside at some spa or driving to Yellowstone. Forget about them. The future of the tourism industry lies with ... wait for it ... tourists. To succeed, tourism professionals have to help tourists understand how different they are from the vacationers who want only to get to a single destination and stay there until its time to go back to work.

The Oxford English Dictionary (2d ed., 1989; v. xviii) defines "tourism" as "The theory and practice of touring; traveling for pleasure. ... Also, the business of attracting tourists and providing for their accommodation and entertainment, the business of operating tours." A "tourist" is "One who makes a tour or tours; especially one who does this for recreation, one who travels for pleasure or culture, visiting a number of places for their objects of interest, scenery or the like." A "tour" is "...a circuitous journey, in which many places are visited ...." The word derives from the French word for round, and is related to turn and return.

Notice the distinguishing features of tourism. It involves (1) both the theory and practice of (2) traveling for pleasure, recreation or culture, and (3) visiting a number of places, by following a circular route that returns to the origin. These elements of tourism distinguish it from other types of travel, such as business travel, relocation, or a resort vacation.

The British invented tourism, by creating the Grand Tour. From the late seventeenth to the late nineteenth century, young British aristocrats completed their educations by making the Grand Tour of Europe, usually accompanied by an experienced relative, tutor or guide engaged to manage and direct the experience. These tours, which could last three or more years, included the major cultural and recreational attractions of Europe. Particularly popular were Paris, Rome, Venice, Florence, and Naples. The Grand Tour moved the young tourist outside of his comfort zone, while providing the guiding hand of an experienced traveler to help him make the most of the adventure.

Returning to our original question: Why would a person with a smart phone equipped with travel apps want to hire a travel agent or tour guide? In order to have an experienced professional apply her theoretical and practical expertise to help tailor a pleasurable and personally fulfilling tourism experience.

The theory underlying tourism is that a properly designed sequence of trips to exciting new places, conversations with interesting new people, and experiences of exotic wonder can, not only provide pleasure, but actually inspire and encourage personal growth. The modern travel agent, tour operator, or consultant creates value in the same way that a tutor, guide or companion did on the Grand Tour: by using their knowledge and experience to transform a generic, off-the-rack vacation trip into a carefully tailored, perfectly suited, life transforming experience. Your challenge is to help your clients understand the value of that work. Ours is to help you achieve that goal.

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