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Tourist Attractions: From Object to Narrative

Tourist Attractions: From Object to Narrative

by Johan R. EdelheimJohan R. Edelheim


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Tourist attractions constitute the metaphorical 'heart' of tourism. This book aims to both deconstruct and construct what tourist attractions are, how we perceive them and how we can enhance our understanding of what attracts us as tourists. The volume reaches beyond current ideas about the ways tourist attractions are created, shaped and packaged. It focuses on the importance and subjective nature of identity, memory, narrative and performance in the tourist experience to find new ways of analysing and managing tourist attractions. The book will appeal to researchers and students in tourism and destination management and heritage and indigenous tourism.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781845415426
Publisher: Channel View Publications
Publication date: 09/15/2015
Series: Tourism and Cultural Change Series , #46
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 5.98(w) x 8.67(h) x 0.81(d)

About the Author

Johan R. Edelheim is Director of the Multidimensional Tourism Institute (MTI), Finland. His research interests within tourism and hospitality include education, linguistics and cultural issues. He is an executive member of the Tourism Education Futures Initiative (TEFI).

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Tourist Attractions

From Object to Narrative

By Johan R. Edelheim

Multilingual Matters

Copyright © 2015 Johan R. Edelheim
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84541-544-0


Defining TAs

In order to lay the foundations for a new way of understanding attractions, an initial step that needs to be taken is to look at the existing ways that tourist attractions (TAs) are defined and divided into conceptual categories. I will investigate the benefits of dividing attractions into smaller, more manageable categories, but will also scrutinise the philosophical trap of reifications that management theory so often relies on. A range of alternative definitions that are in use in the tourism literature will be investigated here and I will propose a definition for the purpose of this book.

As I mentioned in the Prologue, it is common for research on TAs to mention how little attractions have been studied, and how few authors have problematised the concept of attractions. This is a fact that authors comment on in books about attractions (Fyall et al., 2008), chapters on attractions in textbooks (e.g. Dewhurst & Dewhurst, 2006; Robinson et al., 2013), as well as in articles (e.g. Lovelock, 2004). Peter and Helen Dewhurst state: 'the size, significance and diverse nature of the visitor attraction sector of the tourism industry make it both a complex and fascinating area of study, but also one where few broad generalisations are appropriate. Indeed, it could well be this latter point that has served to deter commentators from focusing on visitor attractions as a topic for research investigation' (Dewhurst & Dewhurst, 2006: 290). Then again, one could ask why attention should be placed on this element of tourism industries – it is just one element in a bundle of industries ranging from travel agents and transport operators to accommodation, food and beverage outlets, as well as retail businesses, just to mention the most common (Leiper, 1995). Each of the different business components is important for most tourism to take place, and so are the environments that tourism occurs in, be they ecological, economical, geographical, political, social, cultural or virtual. Tourism as a whole is made up of the aforementioned elements, which should be analysed and managed separately; that is why Neil Leiper referred to tourism industries, in the plural (see Hall & Page, 2010): to call it one industry is not helpful when trying to analyse and improve the final outcome – a successful holiday experience for tourists.

As Fyall et al. state: 'attractions represent a complex sector of the tourism industry [sic] and are genuinely not very well understood' (Fyall et al., 2008: xvii). Thus, coming back to the importance of attractions, without them there would be no point in tourism (Ioannides & Timothy, 2010), though without tourism there would be no point in attractions (Lew, 1987). There would be no reason to travel to distant (or near) places, and none of the other industries would survive without the interrelation between tourism and attractions. It is therefore essential that we study and try to understand attractions better. That is, what TAs really are.

Now, I can imagine that some readers would protest at this stage, 'don't overestimate the importance of your topic', or something similar. There are still lots of things that make tourism worthwhile: visiting friends and relatives (VFR), attending events, being a volunteer in a developing country, studying in a foreign country or doing business away from home and having some leisure time on the side, for instance. I agree, each of these is a reason to travel and be a tourist but, –and this is where the importance of defining attractions comes to its fore – what are they really? Are we talking about tourist attractions or tourist attractors? Am I an attraction when my parents travel across the world to see me in Australia? Is the university that I am working at an attraction for the numerous foreign students who decide to do their degrees with us rather than in their home countries? Are the wildlife parks that my colleague travels to in order to work as a volunteer orang-utan carer an attraction? In my opinion, the answer is 'yes' to all of the aforementioned questions – but this is also where it is important to define tourist attractions. If just about anything, anybody and everything can be a TA, then it would be impossible to study it, manage it and improve it – correct, but that depends on how we define attractions, and how we construe them in our minds.

As I mentioned in the Prologue, the word attraction (to designate the attracting entity) is simplistic and thus not without disadvantages (Leiper, 2004). The words for 'tourist attractions' are equally problematic in other languages; the words in many Germanic languages translate literally as 'something worth seeing': Swedish, sevärdighet; German Sehenswürdichke it; Dutch Bezienswaardigheit. All of these words are informative as they literally state two main elements: the attracting entity can be seen and somebody has determined it is worth seeing. In many non-Germanic languages as well, the equivalent term denotes something that can be seen: in Finnish nähtävyys (something to see) and in Mandarin Chinese 'jingdien' (scenic spots) (Nyíri, 2006). But while it is common sense to think of entities that in an almost magnetic fashion attract tourists to them, or to think of entities that are worthy of being seen, these words simultaneously close out alternative attractions that cannot be seen, or that are controversial to different stakeholder groups, and potentially not 'worthy' at all to some. This is acknowledged by Richard Prentice when he states: '"attraction" is meant in no other way than to describe a site, theme or area which attracts visitors. ... It should not be taken to imply that these sites and the like are otherwise thought to be attractive' (Prentice, 1993: 39). I will return to the problem associated with the word 'attraction' towards the end of this chapter, where I discuss the TA system, but firstly let me explain why I refer to TAs rather than visitor attractions, and thereafter introduce how attractions are categorised and defined in the literature.

Tourist Attractions or Visitor Attractions?

I have decided to refer to attractions as tourist attractions (TA) rather than visitor attractions (VA). The reason for this choice is that the term tourist attraction is a global signifier. The term has clear connotations and it is descriptive enough to lead readers to an understanding of what is in question. It is, however, quite common, especially in the UK, to refer to visitor attractions in order to incorporate day-trip visitors who enjoy the attraction as well as travellers from further away (Swarbrooke, 2002). This is congruent with the definition of tourists (McCabe, 2009) proposed by the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO): people on an overnight journey at least 50 km away from their usual place of residence, while other types of visitors would be called same-day visitors or day- trippers (see Figure 3).

A reason why the UK, as a relatively small and densely populated country, uses VA might be the fact that day-trippers outnumber tourists staying overnight by a ratio of 11:1, at least in areas where attractions keep such statistics (Robbins & Dickinson, 2008: 112). Anna Leask states, indeed: 'The term VA is used in preference to tourist attraction, as this emphasises the role of the day visitor market in the successful operation of attractions, rather than simply focussing on the overnight tourist' (Leask, 2010: 155). The fact that Leask needs to specify that she refers to VAs is quite illustrative, because much general tourism research still happily uses the term TA. A reason could be that Leask refers to a specific set of TAs which are specifically attracting a certain day-tripper demographic, though this is unlikely, as she builds her research and conclusions broadly, on diverse categories of TAs. The downfall, however, with the term 'visitor attraction' is that it is simply an attempt to be specific and 'scientific' about some issues, while allowing for other irrationalities to stay unquestioned.

If 'visitor' is a more inclusive term than 'tourist', why then is the metaphor attraction retained? An attraction is metaphorically attracting people somewhere, but not in actual terms (Leiper, 1995). An attraction is a reified noun, derived from the verb 'to attract'. The point here is that management literature commonly reifies social entities as things (e.g. to organise – organisation; to manage – management; or to visit – visitor), without realising the logic trap behind that. Davis Brown highlights that no entities – including TAs – simply come to exist; rather, they are 'brought into existence' (Brown, 1996: 43). By deconstructing this often taken-for-granted view of an abstract entity – an attraction – we can appreciate that it is, in reality, only a reified noun. A tourist attraction is only an entity, or a noun, as far as language users accept it as such. The way that reification has taken place is through a range of narrative strategies, which need to be considered separately in order to highlight that they still only describe an abstraction or an action, not an object. This is also one of the aims I have in utilising narrative analysis in this book. The deconstruction of the narrated elements that construct tourist attractions as reified nouns allows alternative interpretations and understandings to emerge.

But let us return to why I am using 'TA' rather than 'VA' in this book. If someone happens to live close to an iconic TA, such as the Great Wall of China, Walt Disney World in Florida, USA, or the Great Barrier Reef in Queensland, Australia, and visits it for recreation purposes, they are then, according to the UNWTO definition, 'visitors', or day-trippers, rather than 'tourists'. This is because they do not fulfil the definition of what a tourist is (away from home overnight and at a certain distance from home) and the term 'visitor attraction' shows its relevance. However, the word 'tourist' carries also with it unfortunate connotations of mass tourism, with associated low-class, cheap and frivolous amusements (Leiper, 2004). In the words of Scott McCabe, research into 'the overwhelming pejorative use of the word tourist ... [would enhance our] understanding in how tourists construct their activities and those of others as social practice' (McCabe, 2009: 26).

Leiper suggested that common-sense understandings of the different words 'tourist', 'tourism' and 'travel' and their underlying meanings are not enough to have a strong basis from which to study tourism academically. For example, he traces the etymology of the word 'travel' from the French word travail, originally meaning torture, later labour and now travel. Until the 19th century, travelling was typically torturous, in physical and mental senses. So 'travel' suggests labour whereas 'tourism' suggests a form of leisure, in which respect they are opposites (Leiper, 1995: 12). 'It is possible, therefore, to define being a tourist in terms of what it is not: travel which is "forced" in that there is a lack of choice' (McCabe, 2009: 30). Through these hermeneutic etymological descriptions it is possible to highlight why there is an underlying status difference reflecting how a person taking a journey is described.

But the difference in meanings of the words 'tourist' and 'traveller' can also be traced on a different axis, which separates high art/culture and low (popular) art/culture. In his provocative text, Brian Wheeller argues: 'it is not too hard then to (simplistically and erroneously?) align high art/culture with travel and the traveller and, conversely, low art/culture with tourism and the (mass) tourist. Both unbridgeable, the traveller/tourist divide is as deep and wide as the high culture/low culture chasm' (Wheeller, 2009: 194). High Art institutions such as the opera, ballet, galleries and museums are often also considered tourist attractions, but, again, especially in the UK, call themselves visitor attractions. Would tourists not be interested in museums? What then about theme parks? The term commonly used in the USA is 'tourist attraction'; indeed, the specialist industry magazine on theme parks is called Tourist Attractions and Parks (Emerson, 2010).

The well known divide between people calling themselves travellers rather than tourists is commonly known as 'tourist angst' (Redfoot, 1984), and I suggest that this same angst is also here in action. By referring to TAs as VAs, all stakeholders involved – management, tourists and others – can imagine that they are part of something more 'worthy' than what the despised tourist would be interested in. I will not allow this traveller/tourist dichotomy to be an issue. My perception is that people who travel for recreational purposes are tourists, regardless of the mode they travel by, the arrangements through which their journey is planned and booked, the accommodation they use or the type of attractions they visit. There are many types of tourists, and numerous niche descriptions have been created (and similarly many to distinguish the 'mass tourist' from other types of tourist) but, in the end, they are all tourists and the attractions they are motivated to visit are therefore tourist attractions.

Additionally, I am sure everybody has experienced being a 'tourist in their own backyard' at some stage, such as when showing visiting friends around the local region, even if neither the distance they travelled nor the time stayed meets the UNWTO definition's criteria. The familiar places that one might see every day in one's daily commute take on a new meaning when experiencing them 'through the eyes of a tourist'. The Germanic expression for attractions, 'something worth seeing', is potentially better, but it is not without its own problems. The fact is that local pubs, shops and markets, which generally have simply utilitarian purposes for local residents, may be well 'worth seeing' and act as equally important attractions as some physical objects in the area for tourists. Pat Yale suggests that an attraction is 'something that is likely to persuade someone to travel away from their home. This generally excludes local sport centres, shops and entertainment facilities' (Yale, 2004: 2). However, texts related to attractions are consumed or created by all guests, regardless of whether they come from close by or far away – it is based on individual interpretations.

Finally, it is an unnecessary complication in English to change a known concept in order to be 'more inclusive', or maybe less inclusive, when this new nomer is not as applicable in other languages. The word 'tourist', or derivations thereof, works well in many other non-Latin-based languages, such as Swedish, Finnish and Indonesian, whereas 'visitor' loses any association with tourism. This is the reason why there is no need to divide TAs and VAs. The definition towards the end of this chapter will explain this in more detail. Ultimately, students at universities study 'tourism', not 'visitation' and there are courses in 'tourist management', not 'visitor management' – to call the attractions that tourists are motivated to travel to anything but 'tourist attractions' is therefore impractical.

Tourist Attraction Categories and Typologies

It is common to come across typologies and classifications of attractions that aim to divide different kinds of attractions into smaller, more manageable entities. Alan Lew suggests that 'no single agreed-upon typology of attractions exists to conduct an inventory, in part because most places have their own distinctive qualities' (Lew, 2000: 73). On the basis of an earlier article (Lew, 1987), he goes on to suggest that there are three basic types of attraction inventory: nominal or ideographic, cognitive, and organisational. The most basic definitions, which follow Lew's nominal/ ideographic inventory, simply divide attractions into natural on the one side and human-made on the other (Tourism Western Australia, 2006); however, the fallacy of this simplification is quite evident by now. Building on this simple division, but with some refinement, authors have suggested attraction typologies with three or four parts, as shown in Table 1.

Ideographic categories define and specify TAs according to different specific attributes, such as castles, churches and cathedrals (Lew, 1987). Further divisions of attractions into smaller entities can be found within niche tourist sectors such as heritage attractions (see, for example, Ioannides & Timothy, 2010; Prentice, 1993). Tourism New South Wales, in its accounting booklet for attraction businesses, clearly distances itself from the suggestion that events can be regarded as attractions, generally because the accounting principles of something continuously operating compared with something that is temporally restricted are too varied (Deloitte, 1999: 6).


Excerpted from Tourist Attractions by Johan R. Edelheim. Copyright © 2015 Johan R. Edelheim. Excerpted by permission of Multilingual Matters.
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Table of Contents

PrologueChapter 1 - Defining TAsChapter 2 - Managing TAsChapter 3 - Maintaining TAsChapter 4 - Reading TAsChapter 5 - Forming TAsChapter 6 - Forging TAsChapter 7 - Experiencing TAsChapter 8 - Performing TAsChapter 9 - Remembering TAsEpilogueReferences

What People are Saying About This

Juergen Gnoth

This book is a milestone for tourism research. It makes post-modern thought accessible for both mature students and managers and meticulously applies theory to practice through worked examples. Both Husserl's phenomenology and Rojek's constructivism come alive and challenge the practitioner to identify how destination and tourist co-create the attraction.

Anna Leask

A fascinating and, at times, provocative combination of personal and theoretical insights into tourist attractions and their place within broader cultural contexts. An examination of tourist attractions from an alternative perspective, thus making this a relevant read for those studying, managing and experiencing tourist attractions in all their variety of form.

Tazim Jamal

This clearly detailed book makes an immensely valuable contribution by providing two distinct but complementary perspectives that are rarely encountered together: comprehensive knowledge of the ways in which attractions are defined, managed and studied, followed by critical analysis that helps to identify the socially symbolic meanings and political agenda that surround them. Both are jointly essential for responsible development and management of tourism attractions.

Customer Reviews