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Travellers to Antique Lands

Many years ago, when I was a very green tourism consultant (as opposed to a green-tourism consultant, of which more later) a tourist board officer startled me by using the term business tourism. This sounded oxymoronic. What could be further from the normal sense of carefree holidaying than to go somewhere for business purposes?

In fact, the word tourist was coined in the late eighteenth century with the literal meaning of “one who tours”. However, very quickly this gained the related sense of “one who tours for pleasure or recreation” that has dominated in the two centuries since. Tours then were for the wealthy, and were generally quite lengthy, in part because it took so long to get anywhere interesting. The sons of the British aristocracy and gentry were sent on such tours of the more culturally-significant parts of Europe, particularly Italy — the Grand Tour — often accompanied by a tutor, as a kind of extended finishing school. In practice, many of these excursions were a licensed rampage through the local inns, brothels and gambling dens as a well-recognised way to let a young man sow some wild oats before settling into domestic respectability back in Britain. (There was good reason why the tutor was humorously termed the bearleader.)

So the concept of the tourist as a nuisance and a parasite upon his host country did not take long to establish and the word was almost from the beginning used in a deprecatory sense. There’s even another of those half-jocular irregular conjugations: “I am an explorer; you are a traveller; he is a tourist”. Along with increased travel opportunities provided by the railways from the middle of the nineteenth century onwards went bitter criticism of the extent to which the tone of hitherto secluded and select resorts was being lowered by the incoming middle classes, what the Alpine Club called the “cocknification” of the Swiss mountains. And with much greater justification, critics have railed for more than half a century at the effects that mass tourism has had on the culture and the environment of the destination countries.

A number of other terms have been formed in the past two decades using tourism or tourist as one of the elements. Twenty years ago, there were just the two I’ve already mentioned. The next that I became conscious of was heritage tourism, which I can’t remember coming across until the late 1970s. This phrase implied that the visitor was actively seeking out evidence of the country’s cultural and historical past. But the word heritage in that compound is itself of relatively recent development in this specialised sense. It is not included in the OED’s entry for “heritage”, which was written about the turn of the century, and in fact only came into common use in Britain in the sixties. Many people met it for the first time during European Architectural Heritage Year in 1974, which also introduced the new concept of the heritage centre to Britain (the first two being in Chester and York) which contain exhibitions interpreting the cultural and historical past of a locality. The growth of commercially-oriented heritage-based tourism attractions was so great in the seventies and eighties that the journalist Robert Hewison wrote an influential book in 1987 entitled The Heritage Industry (a phrase which itself became a pejorative term much employed since), expressing distaste at what he saw as the exploitation of the heritage as a bland commercial product through trivialisation, distortion and the removal of anything the least controversial or disturbing.

There is also some dispute over the meaning and scope of the word heritage itself. This is well illustrated by comparing the definition in the Ninth Edition of the Concise Oxford Dictionary: “A nation’s historical buildings, monuments, countryside, etc., esp. when regarded as worthy of preservation”, with its equivalent in Chambers 21st Century Dictionary: “A nation’s mark of history, such as stately buildings, countryside, cultural traditions, etc seen as the nation’s wealth to be inherited by future generations”. That additional phrase “cultural traditions” brings the definition much closer to the one that most people engaged in heritage-based tourism would employ. Strangely, the Concise Oxford entry for heritage centre says: “a museum focusing on the cultural heritage of the surrounding area”. This is better, though it also causes me to tremble a little, since the one thing a heritage centre is not is a museum, because by definition it does not contain a curated collection of objects. But perhaps that should be dismissed as the pedantic reaction of a specialist.

It may be due to the urgent impulse of some writers to classify and pigeonhole, but there has since the 1970s been something of a growth industry in creating terms which further sub-divide and identify heritage tourism. We have had cultural tourism, industrial tourism, literary tourism, military tourism, and urban tourism among others. A related term is farm-based tourism, in which visitors stay on a working farm, even helping with farm chores; other names for this are agrotourism and agri-tourism. That these are largely the jargon of the heritage-based tourism trade is shown by the rarity of the related forms in tourist — terms such as agrotourist or military tourist are almost never seen.

Though the word tourism retains the idea of “vacation; recreation” in all these compounds, another small group has come into use in which the word returns to its roots and, as in business tourism, implies “travelling for the purpose of” with little or no suggestion that the person is actually on holiday. The most controversial of these is sex tourism in which men travel, usually to some developing country, for the express intention of obtaining sexual services, frequently with children. The British government has been troubled in recent years by what it calls benefit tourism, in which individuals travel to Britain from other countries, usually from elsewhere in the European Union, to obtain free medical attention or to take advantage of the British welfare system to obtain what was until recently called unemployment benefit (it is now officially the job-seeker’s allowance, but let’s not delve into the political implications of this change of terminology). A more benign term is health tourism, in which people travel to obtain medical attention not available in their own countries, or which is obtainable more cheaply, or accompanied by greater privacy. This is a thriving business, with some hospitals having links with hotels so that patients can have good attention and facilities during convalescence. Some — an example is a large private hospital near Glasgow — even have restaurants and a hotel on site.

But perhaps the most significant set of new compounds relate back to fears about the effect of tourism on local communities. We have for more than a decade heard much about sustainable tourism, in which governments, tourism bodies and commercial operators are supposed to work together to safeguard resources. The idea is to limit tourist numbers to those which places can entertain without degrading the quality of inhabitants’ lives or of the tourism experience, to protect local cultures against the adverse affects of undue commercialisation of their heritage, and to ensure that it will be possible to obtain a long-term economic return from investment. A related idea is ecotourism, in which visitors seek out the wildlife and landscapes of their destination in an ecologically sound manner that safeguards it for the future. Yet another is green tourism in which tourism operators make use of environmentally-appropriate means to provide services. These three terms shade into one another and are frequently misunderstood or deliberately misused by more unscrupulous operators to gain commercial advantage.

The strangest member of the set is space tourism, in which people will be fired into low Earth orbit for a few days to experience a truly unEarthly experience. The only problem is that, as with all other forms of tourism, we take our cultural preconceptions with us — it has been reported that a Japanese company developing this newest form of leisure travel has insisted on installing a karaoke bar ...

Perhaps one day communications will be so good that we shall all be able to stay at home and experience our destination through virtual tourism in which electronic visualisation simulates the experience of actually visiting places. It won’t be so much fun, but it will be the ultimate in sustainable tourism.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.

Page created 30 Nov 1996; Last updated 29 Mar 1997