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University of California Press
The Ethics of Sightseeing / Edition 1

The Ethics of Sightseeing / Edition 1

by Dean MacCannellDean MacCannell
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Is travel inherently beneficial to human character? Does it automatically educate and enlighten while also promoting tolerance, peace, and understanding? In this challenging book, Dean MacCannell identifies and overcomes common obstacles to ethical sightseeing. Through his unique combination of personal observation and in-depth scholarship, MacCannell ventures into specific tourist destinations and attractions: “picturesque” rural and natural landscapes, “hip” urban scenes, historic locations of tragic events, Disney theme parks, beaches, and travel poster ideals. He shows how strategies intended to attract tourists carry unintended consequences when they migrate to other domains of life and reappear as “staged authenticity.” Demonstrating each act of sightseeing as an ethical test, the book shows how tourists can realize the productive potential of their travel desires, penetrate the collective unconscious, and gain character, insight, and connection to the world.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520257832
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 05/19/2011
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.40(d)

About the Author

Dean MacCannell is Professor Emeritus of Environmental Design at the University of California, Davis, and is the author of The Tourist (UC Press).

Read an Excerpt

The Ethics of Sightseeing

By Dean MacCannell


Copyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-94865-5


Tourist/Other and the Unconscious

I am thinking of getting rich in order to be able to repeat these trips. —Sigmund Freud, letter from Florence to Wilhelm Fliess, 1896


In important ways, those of us who study tourism have been let off the hook by the magnitude of our subject. Few assessments have been made more often or contested less than "tourism is the world's largest industry." Several recent empirical studies qualify this statement, finding most trips classed as tourism began as family visits. If that is true, it would be no less accurate or more absurd to say "family is the world's largest industry." My central argument here is that tourism contains keys to understanding recent changes in the ways we frame our humanity, and key to understanding tourism are some delicate, decidedly noneconomic relations that I gather under the term "the ethics of sightseeing."

Tourism statistics usually do not distinguish between a trip to a trade show (or a family visit) versus travel for the sole purpose of enjoying a destination's beauty, culture, and amenities. From the industry perspective (which is increasingly also that of academic researchers) trips away from home are measured as X revenues from plane tickets, hotel bed nights, entertainment receipts, museum and other attraction entrance fees, and restaurant meals. Tourism is approached as an "industry" even though it is far more dispersed, diversified, and less concentrated than other industries. This would be a good thing if researchers adapted their studies to its unprecedented disarticulation. But tourism research today is mainly focused on market factors affecting competition for tourist numbers and dollars and creating successful tourist business models. Tourists themselves are taken for granted. Their relevant traits are their "free" time and disposable income. Whoever they might be, however their needs are met, and what ever the reasons for their travels, they continue to circulate by the millions with only temporary declines after natural, social, and economic disasters. They have been called "the golden hordes."

We know little more today about tourist experience and tourist subjectivity than we did thirty years ago. Tourism researchers conduct surveys, form and test hypotheses, undertake ethnographic field studies, and make mathematical models. They seem to assume, in Goffman's words, "If you go through the motions attributable to science, then science will result." From an industry perspective, "tourist experience" can be reduced to questions of whether the check-in clerk at the hotel desk smiled or not. Recent gains in knowledge about the tourist industry may be taking us further from what it means to be a tourist. Much is known about demographics, spending patterns, destination decisions, amenity satisfaction, and the like; almost nothing about the depths and intimate contours of tourist curiosity, subjectivity, and motivation. A casual attitude has taken hold—so long as the golden hordes continue to circulate, do we really need to know more about what is going on in the mind of the tourist or the relationship of tourist and attraction?

Recent reports assert that people from different backgrounds experience travel differently. Not all these studies can be dismissed as merely tautological. Tom Selanniemi asked Finnish husbands and wives to keep vacation diaries of their feelings. Both husbands and wives expressed pleasure on letting go of responsibilities, but wives reported greater plea sure. Wives were also more likely to write about their mildly transgressive behavior (sleeping late, eating or drinking too much) because it was more of a novelty to them. Thus the "same" vacation was not actually the same for the woman as for the man. In a massive study of tens of thousands of visitors, Erik H. Cohen discovered sharp differences in the ways Jewish youth from the United States, France, and Eastern Europe experienced Israel. This, even though the heritage tours they took were organized by the same company and had substantially similar itineraries and programmatic content. Eastern Europeans uniquely claimed that after the tour they were less proud of being Jewish. They were also the most enthusiastic about the prospect of eventually emigrating to Israel. Go figure. Social class and ethnicity also make a difference—not always in expected or consistent ways. Upper-class British gentlemen willingly sit upon rough ground when the occasion (bird watching, hunting, picnicking) calls for it. However, according to my colleague, landscape architect Walter Hood, working-class black American women refuse to sit on the ground, even well-kept turf, because it is "dirty." Perhaps English gentlemen think themselves to be existentially so much removed from dirt that intimate physical contact with it cannot possibly contaminate them.

I highlight these findings to mark my intent to go in the opposite direction. My aim is to show that beneath every difference in age, gender, ethnicity, sexual preference, nationality, et cetera, at a level that is ineluctably human, there are subjective kernels insulated from the influences of demographics. This is not to suggest that demographically driven insights are wrong or trivial, only that they are not germane to the questions I ask.

My interest began when I noticed the monumental indifference of the world's great attractions to social divisions within the multitude of tourists. I am drawn to the peculiar tendency of sightseeing to democratize desire. When I visit one of the great global attractions I find a vast throng of every imaginable human type: men and women, adults, youths, and children; Europeans, Americans (North, Meso-, and South), Africans, Asians; Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, Christians, atheists. Mark Twain told of trying to keep his eyes on the attractions at the 1867 Paris International Exposition. Whenever he saw something of interest he was immediately distracted by the more interesting tourists passing by. Successively he saw "a party of Arabs" in "quaint costumes," "some tattooed South Sea Islanders," "the Empress of France," a "Turkish Sultan," and "an old Crimean soldier" with a "white moustache." The middle classes and above are overrepresented in these throngs but the working classes and below are never absent. I encounter nearly penniless students at famous attractions in every corner of the world. The black gang members I worked with in the Philadelphia jails were intrigued by my descriptions of Paris and confessed a desire to go there to see it for themselves when they got out. An old Papuan in Dennis O'Rourke's film Cannibal Tours earnestly explains to the camera that the only difference between the Europe an tourists and his people is money: "If I had money I would be on the boat traveling to Europe to look at them."

While I understand how it is supposed to work in principle, I do not believe we are all equal before the law in practice. We are all equal before the attraction. There is no one so poor as to be precluded from sightseeing. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, without money or prospects, walked from Geneva to Paris. His account of what he saw and experienced is now an indispensable part of our literary heritage. One need not be white or wealthy to desire to see the South Pole. One need not be a man to desire to fly around the world. Any day of the year, weather permitting, a tourism researcher can position herself mid-span on the Golden Gate Bridge and observe every kind of human being passing by: males and females and transsexuals from every corner of the globe, homeless and billionaires, every age and every ethnicity, the so-called "disabled," the content and the suicidal. Even the blind express enthusiasm for sightseeing on the bridge, which they experience as a unique combination of undulating movement, low frequency vibrations, humming sounds, the excited cries of other tourists, and wind that comes from below.

The democratization of tourist desire is the reason I depart here from current practice in cultural studies, which foregrounds gender, class, and ethnicity as "in de pen dent variables" du jour. It has been amply demonstrated that these do influence the ways tourists "process" their experiences. Knowledge of external factors that can be used to divide tourists is crucial to destination marketing and will perforce continue to grow. What will not advance, unless attention is specifically directed toward it, is understanding of the kernel of human subjectivity at the heart of sightseeing.

This is not to suggest all tourists are the same "underneath." Far from it. My aim is to explore differences in the ways tourists see and experience attractions in de pen dent of how much or little wealth they possess, in de pen dent of their ethnic background, or their gender. Crucial to any ethics is an assumption that no one should be excluded from the ethical field, that is, there should not be different ethical standards for rich and poor, men and women, black and white.

This is a study of the responsibility we take, or do not take, for our sightseeing choices and our subjective assimilation of tourist experience. Sightseeing is one of the most individualized, intimate, and effective ways we attempt to grasp and make sense of the world and our place in it. Sightseeing is psyche. Sightseeing/psyche can be shaped by the design of attractions engineered to enhance, repress, enable, or mystify tourist enjoyment. This enjoyment, the engineering intended to shape it, and our ethical responsibilities for what we take away from our travels are the broad themes here. The ultimate ethical test for tourists is whether they can realize the productive potential of their travel desires or whether they allow themselves to become mere ciphers of arrangements made for them.

Sightseeing is among the best ethical tests humans have devised for themselves. It is an ancient and ubiquitous experimental mode we can fall into at any moment and take our companions with us—"Look! Did you see that?" It is done badly without social consequence and well without reward. While its usual objectives are monuments and details of the social and natural worlds, history and culture, its influence can be intensely personal and private. The domain of its influence is on conscience and character.

Crucial to an ethics of sightseeing is the imagination needed to bring fresh meaning to a tourist experience. This is severely tested at major sightseeing venues where the same vista has been taken in millions of times across hundreds of years—for example, standing at the rim of the Grand Canyon at sunrise. Two individuals, demographically identical, can form profoundly different impressions that are nevertheless far from unique or idiosyncratic. It may seem impossible for the tourist in this situation to see, say, or think anything new. The ethical demand, in part, is for tourists to discover ways to relate to their own subjective grasp of an attraction. Or, to their failures to understand. Children and adults learn most about their own psyche and the world as they acknowledge they do not completely "get" what they are witnessing, though in these circumstances, the child may have a comparative advantage for new self-awareness. Tourists of any age, ethnicity, class, or category discover something about themselves and the world by acknowledging the gap that separates them from the other-as-attraction. There is nothing in this gap but the entire field of ethics.


There is no ethics without the presence of the other, but also and consequently, without absence, dissimulation, detour, différance, writing. —Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology

For present purposes I define the act of sightseeing as effort based on desire ethically to connect to someone or something "other" as represented by or embodied in an attraction. This effort is couched in hope that good will come from it, not harm. I willingly stipulate that not all tourists make a strong effort and they often fail to "connect." This has been noted by every critic of tourism and sightseeing, which is as close as the current literature gets to an ethics of sightseeing. What often happens is a tourist's desire for the "other" lacks passion—like a man who makes a pass even though he has no real interest in his date, only because he believes he is expected to make a pass. There may be no specific desire to see the Mona Lisa beyond the fact that it is something one is supposed to, or expected to see when visiting the Louvre, which is someplace one is supposed to visit on a trip to Paris. Merely discharging one's tourist obligations is not ethical. Even failed tourists confess a desire to really experience and grasp someone or something "other," especially the highlighted attractions everyone is supposed to see.

What is the "other" of tourist desire? Three de cades ago the figure of the "other" appeared in humanistic and social theory. In cultural studies, "other" usually refers to a human subject or subjectivity currently undergoing intellectual rehabilitation. The "other" is any one of a number of human types that were historically undervalued, denigrated, ignored, and otherwise marginalized by dominant academic discourse—women, people of color, gays, the poor—who now receive belated attention supposedly recognizing their value and restoring their dignity. The negative status of the "other" is a lingering diffuse effect of the arrogant old Western ego which rated everything other as lesser by definition. All negativity surrounding the "other" needs to be precipitated before the concept is useful for a theory of tourist experience. Tourists hold "the other," or believe they hold "the other," in a positive embrace.

A helpful book for tourism studies, though not intended as such, is Edward Said's Orientalism. Said aimed to counter the damaged identity of the largest category of "other" in Western letters: occidental/oriental. He documents a pervasive tendency in Western literature to attribute negative traits to the "Oriental." Theoretically, by "other" Said means every not-occidental people or place on earth. In practice, his illustrations and examples are drawn from the Muslim Middle East. He provides a catalogue of pejorative characterizations of the "Oriental" in Western writings that emphasize the "Oriental's" general turpitude and willingness to accept despotic regimes. A vast literature has been perverted to justify the subjugation of this "other" by imperial Europe and the United States. Orientalist literature and the policies it supports aim to demonstrate that Arabs and others under colonial regimes are better off than they would be under their own homegrown despots. Recent history amply demonstrates the continued salience of Said's Orientalist hypothesis.

Said was aware of the other side of Orientalism, the positive side, what can be called the tourist version, the allure of the Near East and beyond—the Near East as attraction, as the birthplace of religions, the cradle of civilization. Still, he does not let off the hook Westerners like Lamartine, Chateaubriand, Flaubert, even Herodotus who went to the Holy Land with unalloyed enthusiasm for what they would find. He suggests that putative enthusiasts use the poverty they observe to inflate their own value, and Oriental excess to accentuate their own modesty and prudence. He acknowledges positive Orientalism while making the point that it too has been historically co-opted as justification for European conquest and domination—for example, the crusades and today's oil wars. The ultra-touristic version of the Near East proffers an endless open air bazaar by day and the romance of men on stallions, dancing girls, hashish, and moonlit oases at night. He excuses himself from serious engagement with this version saying, modestly, that it is beyond the scope of his study: "Why the Orient seems to suggest not only fecundity but sexual promise (and threat), untiring sensuality, unlimited desire, deep generative energies, is something on which one could speculate: it is not the province of my analysis here, alas, despite its frequently noted appearance." Alas, yes, but also an opening and opportunity for those who study tourism and ethics.


Excerpted from The Ethics of Sightseeing by Dean MacCannell. Copyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Prologue: I Was a Tourist at Freud House, London

Part One. The Ubiquitous Tourist and Postmodern Paranoia
1 Tourist/Other and the Unconscious
2 Staged Authenticity Today

Part Two. Recent Trends in Research and the New Moral Tourism
3 Why Sightseeing?
4 Toward an Ethics of Sightseeing
5 Trips and Their Reason

Part Three. City and Countryside as Symbolic Constructs
6 The Tourist in the Urban Symbolic
7 Looking Through the Landscape

Part Four. The Imagination Versus the Imaginary
8 An Imaginary Symbolic: From Piranesi to Disney
9 The Touristic Attitude: Acceding to the Imaginary
10 The Bilbao Effect: Ethical Symbolic Representation
11 Painful Memory
12 The Intentional Structure of Tourist Imagery
13 Tourist Agency

Appendix: Tourism as a Moral Field

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"Provocatively illustrated and supported by excellent references. . . . Highly recommended."—Choice

"MacCannell acts as an erudite and entertaining companion throughout this discursive and profound text."—Metapsychology Online Review

"Intellectually stimulating, the product of a prodigious intellect, the book is provided with illuminating sidebars, brilliant notes to chapters, as well as a comprehensive index and bibliography."—Annals of Tourism Research

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The Ethics of Sightseeing 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
snash on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I gave up 3/4 through the book. There were a couple of intriguing concepts in a sea of hog wash. The disconnected social and psychoanalytical theories were apparently thrown in for effect because I could find no connection, one to another and heaven knows what the author's point was. He didn't even define ethical and used it several different ways. Points made in one chapter were refuted in the next. I could rant on but I'll stop.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Is at reenforcements res. One. If you need help.