“Capitalism is desperately trying to re-make all of tourism in its own image. But it has not yet fully succeeded in doing so.” Interview with Dean MacCannell

Dean MacCannell (Washington, 1940), trained in anthropology and with a Phd in sociology, is Professor and Chair Emeritus of the Department of Environmental Design and Landscape Architecture at the University of California at Davis, United States. He is the author of The tourist: a new theory of the leisure class (Schocken Books Inc, 1976), which is considered to be one of the seminal works of the Anthropology of Tourism. His other most famous works are Empty Meeting Grounds (Routledge, 1992) and The Ethics of Sightseeing (UC Press, 2011).

Interview conducted via mail in September 2017.

Image: Kultura Garaikidearen Nazioarteko Zentroa

Within the context of the current post-crisis global market that is deeply affecting the urban level, is it possible to equitably redistribute the wealth generated by tourist activity? In this respect, what are your views on the uses the so-called “sharing/collaborative economy” has been put to (Airbnb, Uber, etc.)?

DM – Internal to late capitalism, equitable schemes to redistribute the wealth—e.g., strong private sector labor unions, worker owned cooperatives—are increasingly rare. In the larger picture of current global markets, tourism is actually the least centralized major “industry.” It is not dominated by a few dozen global actors like automobile manufacture, or pharmaceuticals. A local small business owner with little backing and only family labor, or perhaps a few employees, can still operate a successful boutique hotel, café or restaurant and make a decent living for herself and her workers.

A hopeful dimension of the tourist economy is that small, locally owned and operated businesses are widely regarded as key components of “local color,” what makes a community or region distinctive and attractive. The big hotel and transportation chains that siphon tourist dollars away from the local economy and into the coffers of remote corporations can try to offer a simulacrum of “local color” and other enticements but their fit with tourist motivation and desire has always been rough. Corporate tourisms’ only survival strategy has been to destroy all authentic local markers and replace them with simulacra.

So far, the emergent “sharing/collaborative economy” appears to be on the side of the corporate take-over of tourism, i.e., a step backward, not forward, in wealth redistribution. Uber, Airbnb, Huffington Post, et al. have proven themselves to be ‘happy-face’ “communitarian” labels for some of the most exploitative schemes capitalism ever came up with. The pioneer here was Arianna Huffington who built her news empire using what was technically voluntary slave labor, offering unemployed writers an “opportunity” to “share” their work, paying her “collaborators” nothing, before selling the website for over $300 million and keeping all the money for herself. In graduate schools of business in the United States, Uber has become a case study of “toxic corporate culture.” It makes its profit off the misery of over-educated, under-employed drivers who provide all the investment in the fleets of vehicles, all the labor, and shoulder 99 percent of the legal liabilities. Airbnb has driven up the cost of rental housing to the point that the middle class, artists, and certainly the working class, can no longer live in some destination cities like San Francisco.

In recent years the hotel industry has grown around the world, often leaping out of its traditional areas (coastal resorts, city centres, etc.) into other urban areas. Simultaneously, vacation home rentals are gaining ground on the residential uses of housing. In this context, in which tourism has been replacing other presumably more stable forms of inhabiting the city, who are the hosts and who are the guests? What does authenticity means?

My demographer colleagues tell me that no European or North American city has ever been able to maintain its population size with a birth rate equal to its death rate. If our cities are maintaining their population size, or growing, it is from constant in-migration and people settling out of the migrant (and occasionally the tourist) streams.

There have always been hotels and inns in cities for visitors on business and for prospective migrants. And while these hotels were not necessarily made for tourists, tourists before and after Marco Polo checked into them. Urban differences have always been an endless source of fascination and curiosity for visitors from afar since cities were invented.

But you are right to be concerned about some new formations that result from recent schemes to transform cities (or parts of them) into constructed tourist destinations—the city as theme park. Theoreticians of commercialized leisure openly advocate for urban re-design that changes the city from a place that has organically grown up around the needs of the people who have settled there, to a place that is artificially constructed around the supposed desires of tourists. They suggest that a tourist from suburbia wants to consume urban life as an exotic spectacle. They believe that cities should be re-framed as spectacle to enhance their competitiveness as tourist destinations.

In an influential volume, Dennis Judd and Susan Fainstein, provide a blueprint for constructing The Tourist City. They explain that urban “tourist bubbles” should be zoned and developed to enhance the tourist experience. According to their program, the “bubble” should have an up-scale, inward facing atrium hotel, a shopping mall that features internationally recognized brand merchandise, a major sporting event venue, an anchor attraction like a world-class aquarium, and opportunities to have one’s picture taken in a restored historic district or a neighborhood constructed to look like a “historic” district. The restaurants should offer “exotic” cuisine but not so authentic as to offend an unknowledgeable palate. The authors go on to say that any local residents who might provide a discordant note, especially all evidence of poverty and/or manual labor should be barred from the tourist bubble “except when engaged in historical enactment or entertainment.”

To the extent that this kind of development gains traction, we will have cities that are inauthentic from both the host and the guest perspective. Ethical sightseers have never wanted to “replace presumably more stable forms of inhabiting the city.” It is precisely different ways of inhabiting the city that the ethical tourist comes to see, to learn about, and to carry away as an enlightening positive or negative example. Community organizers seeking to block this kind of development will find an army of strong allies among the tourists themselves. I don’t travel to Paris to see a replica of Paris. I do that in Las Vegas.

Since the 1970s, the anthropology of tourism has presented countless cases of touristification, normally starting out as a “tourist-less” situation moving towards “tourist-full” one. Is the discipline able to think of and attend to the opposite process, that is, the possibility of de-touristification?

You are right that almost all of the early anthropological case studies were about what happens to the local culture when a place begins to attract tourists. It has not been the anthropologists’ role to develop models of how successfully to attract tourists. But recently some younger anthropologists have begun to do studies of “niche” tourism that seem to me to be mainly driven by questions coming from commercial concern about tourism development.

Anthropologists could have a role in creating models of how effectively to repel tourists. This does not strike me as a particularly difficult task, and in coordination with community leaders and/or activists, there is little reason why it could not go forward apace.

The first necessary step is to recognize that there are two diametrically opposed kinds of consciousness, desire and motivation that are both called “tourism.” Each type of tourist consciousness has completely different relationship to culture (both the host culture and their own) and each has completely different infra-structure supports. Once the dominant type of tourism at a particular destination has been identified, and an analysis of its infra-structure supports are completed, strategies for shrinking it or shutting it down completely should be evident.

Type I: An original form of tourists’ motivation is simple curiosity about oneself and humanity, an interest in seeing some thing, from the past or in the present, that promises a new opening or insight on one’s own culture. The original set of tourist attractions stick out because they permit us to breach our own cultural boundaries and revise our sense of space, time and identity. Behold: not everything has to be the way we always thought it had to be; things are different here, but interesting and demonstrably livable. Different cultures, as symbolized in the attractions, can model for us ways of re-thinking our lives. Not just in fantasy, but in lived reality. I am describing the ethical tourists, the kind that have been wandering around Barcelona, Paris, Venice, etc., for several hundred years and continue to come today, deterred only by the growing numbers of the second kind of tourist and capitalist promotion of ersatz attractions.

Type II: A second ideal type of tourist appears to be motivated by a fantasy of escaping all confines of their culture and every other culture. They see their life in common with others as too confining, even crushing and their desire to go on tour is supported by a fantasy of total existential escape. They think that once they leave home they are released from normative obligations to themselves and others. From their perspective, they are travelling to no-places, ‘utopias’ that seem completely beyond any established social order and their locked-in place in it. One filth-strewn beach is as good as any other for drunken sex with a stranger. Their resorts could be anywhere, their cruises could be to nowhere. So long as the “package” promises relief from everyday responsibilities and duties toward oneself and society.

The first step any community or a region needs to take in shrinking tourism would be to make a determination of which type they want to discourage. Because the measures needed to reduce their numbers are very different.

The public and private tourist sectors appeal to the first kind of tourist motivation by maintaining monuments, parks, museums, historic sites, and scenic landscapes. The infra-structure needed is clarity in public transportation signage, knowledgeable guides and detailed information, and hotels, restaurants, and cafés accessible to visitors from every social stratum.

The tourist industry appeals to the second kind of tourist motivation by offering all-inclusive resorts and “cruises to nowhere,” and for those who can’t afford a cruise to nowhere, crowded charters to the Costa del Sol. The infra-structure needed is cheap charter flights, hotels that accept over-crowding in the rooms, lax standards for public alcohol and recreational drug consumption, etc.

The negative impacts of both kinds of tourism can be mitigated by encouraging off-peak travel and requiring completion of on-line courses in local behavioral norms and standards before booking travel arrangements, or as a condition of hotel check-in.

The second type of tourists can be discouraged by local venders agreeing to raise the rates on everything—food, drinks, lodging—all at once and across the board. They could start low at, say five percent, and then slowly increase until they find a “sweet spot” where they are making the same profits from 30 percent fewer tourists.

And/or, local ordinances against public drunkenness, nudity, beach fires, noise, could be rigorously and visibly enforced: arrests made, fines levied, jail time. If tourists arrive by car, municipalities can reduce the amount and convenience of street parking for those not displaying a local resident’s permit. Etc. This is not really difficult.

How does “sustainable tourism” fit within the de-growth picture? Can we actually think of tourist cities without the aggressive eviction of people? What changes are required for this? Would you argue that we will eventually have to head towards this cooling-off scenario?

I hope an eviction scenario will not become the only solution. Most places on earth do not attract tourists in large numbers. An ideal would be for the places that do attract tourists disproportionately to be reverse engineered so the tourism sector shrinks numerically if not necessarily economically. I suspect that little would be lost economically if cities definitively turned away from the tourist bubble type of development and invested only the kinds of amenities that benefit their own residents—better local transportation, cleaner streets, higher quality parks and museums, etc. I have always held that the mark of a healthy tourism sector is one where both tourists and local residents can be found eating in the same cafés and restaurants, riding on the same public transportation (like the Athens Metro, or San Francisco’s Cable Cars), going to the same museums, festivals, and other attractions. Ethical sightseers from every social class emphatically do not want touristic contrivance. They come to see local life as it is really lived, and the attractions as they are experienced by the locals. A contraction of the tourism sector around these kinds of cross-over amenities and attractions would be beneficial to both tourists and locals and certainly more sustainable than what we are seeing today in many places.

From the local standpoint, little or nothing would be lost, and much would be gained, by discouraging the tourists who come only to get drunk and stink up the place. There are some tourist destinations that seem to condone boorish tourism, like Florida beach communities during college “Spring Break.” So long as there is sufficient local support for it, these kinds of communities can take up the slackers.

As a rule of thumb, any kind of tourism that is not rigorously “site specific,” anything that can just as easily, or more easily, be done someplace else, should be discouraged. This would tend to distribute the tourists and their positive and negative impacts more equitably.

I absolutely agree that we need to enter into a cooling off period especially in those places of highest negative impact.

In the light of today’s international tourism and its implications everywhere, which positive aspects of tourism do you think are worth holding on to?

Capitalism is desperately trying to re-make all of tourism in its own image. But it has not yet fully succeeded in doing so. Ethical sightseeing is one of our last refuges, where we can escape capitalism’s demand that we give into its unrealizable fantasies of limitless enjoyment. The global system of attractions, continues to reflect what is left of a symbolic order not completely dominated by capitalism, myriad variations on the theme of human relationship. If we are to get through this historical moment with our humanity intact, it will largely be thanks to ethical tourism. That’s what the proponents of nanotourism and contents tourism are trying to put back into the tourist experience—the human as opposed to the consumer.

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