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The Tourist Gaze by John Urry | Summary and Analysis

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Tourism
Wordcount: 1915 words Published: 4th Jul 2018

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Critically consider the argument that Urry’s concept of the ‘tourist gaze’ places too much emphasis on the visual.

Urry’s ‘tourist gaze’ remains one of the most influential concepts in tourism research. The ideas developed by Urry are still widely quoted and relevant today but a major criticism of his work is that too much emphasis is placed on the visual aspects of being a tourist rather than the whole experience. This essay will investigate this claim before concluding whether or not this is the case.

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In order to do this, this essay will be broken into several parts. The first section will look at what the ‘tourist gaze’ actually is. It is important to have a definition of this term before proceeding with the rest of the assignment. The second part of this essay will draw on wider academic research to test whether or not Urry’s ideas do place too much emphasis on the visual. The final part of this essay will bring together all the arguments to form some sort of conclusion.

In order to fully understand the ‘tourist gaze’ it would be useful to have a clear understanding of what a tourist is and what tourism as an activity is. Turner et al. (2005) define a tourist as, “someone who has travelled to another place for a brief sojourn, an experience that necessarily entails a distinct period of transition and discontinuity from the everyday world” (p. 11). Urry (2002) describes the act of tourism as, “a leisure activity which presupposes its opposite, namely regulated and organised work. It is one manifestation of how work and leisure are organised as separate and regulated spheres of social practice in ‘modern’ societies” (p. 2). The environments that these tourists visit are subject to what Urry (1990) has described as the ‘tourist gaze’. Urry states that tourists are, “directed to features of the landscape that, which separate them off from everyday experience. Such aspects are viewed because they are taken to be in some sense out of the ordinary”. The tourist and the viewpoints are manipulated, “so that the gaze falls upon what the gazer expects to see” (Turner et al, 2005: 11). Most of the time this gaze is from a static location but if it is mobile then it is directed from an insulated environment such as from a train window or a sign-posted route. The tourist only sees what they are supposed to see. Urry (1990) states, “the typical tourist experience is…to see named scenes through a frame, such as the hotel window, the car windscreen or the window of the coach” (p. 100). In a sense, real life is suspended or hidden away in these places so that the tourist can gaze upon what upon they expect to see. For example, in the Lake District in England, houses can only be built to very exacting specifications with traditional methods and materials. This helps to preserve the traditional look of the area. This expectation has been built up by promotional material such as brochures and adverts on the television. Goss (1993) argues that tourism marketing provide tourists with representational images of the places they are about to visit and this helps form an imaginary construction for the tourist. Culler (1981) argues that tourists read the landscape for anything that represents these pre-established notions.

In The Tourist Gaze, Urry (1990) states that when we go away and become tourists, “we look at the environment…we gaze at what we encounter…and the gaze is socially constructed” (p. 1). Perkins and Thorns (2001) state that there is no single uniform gaze, rather it is, “varied temporally and across social groups and that the concept of the gaze encapsulates tourists’ experiences and is an interpretation of the things they seek and do when on holiday” (p. 187). Perkins and Thorns (2001) go on to argue that, “the gaze is a concept which comprises a way of looking at the world which simultaneously forms what is seen and the way of seeing” (p 187).

There have been numerous criticisms leveled at Urry’s concept of the ‘tourist gaze’. Perhaps the most common one and of most interest to this essay is that the gaze doesn’t fully capture the tourist experience. Perkins and Thorns (2001) argue that there needs to be more of a focus on the concept of the tourist performance because in places like New Zealand, tourists are more about ‘doing’ rather than simply ‘seeing’ or ‘gazing’ and, “thus about putting their bodies into tourism in a way that is not reflected in much of the analysis arising from a focus upon the tourist gaze” (p. 199). This criticism highlights an important change in the tourism industry. This is the search for authentic experiences and the search for experiences that invigorates all the senses. Thrift (1999) suggests that tourists want ‘contact’ with their surroundings. This contact goes beyond the visual realms as suggested by Urry. As Franklin and Crang (2001) point out that tourists, “are seeking to be doing something in the places they visit rather than being endlessly spectatorially passive” (p. 13). Franklin and Chang go on to suggest that tourists have become bored by the gaze.

MacCannell (1989) states that, “touristic consciousness is motivated by its desire for authentic experiences, and the tourist may believe that he is moving in this direction, but often it is very difficult to know for sure if the experience is in fact authentic. It is always possible that what is taken to be entry into a back region is really entry into a front region that has been totally set up in advance for touristic visitation” (p. 101). Urry fails to notice the distinction between authentic experiences and inauthentic ones. MacCannell (2001) believes there is a second gaze, one that is in a way suspicious of the totally visual elements of the tourist gaze. The second gaze is where the tourist is aware that, “something is being concealed from it…the second gaze knows that seeing is not believing. Some things will remain hidden from it…The second gaze turns back onto the gazing subject an ethical responsibility for the construction of its own existence” (p. 36). MacCannell (2001) finds the concept of the tourist gaze as defined by Urry too narrow a concept and argues that it is, “a blueprint for the transformation of the global system of attractions into an enormous set of mirrors to serve the narcissistic needs of dull egos” (p. 26). Nicholson-Lord (2002) is in partial agreement although he also takes issue with the concept of the second gaze as well. He argues that, “tourism is a powerful cultural solvent; it takes customs and beliefs that are locally rooted and distinctive, puts them into the global blending machine and turns them into liquefied gunk to which a mass market has been primed to respond” (p. 24).

Although MacCannell is arguing for the need for a wider experience than Urry suggests, they have both been criticized by those who suggest that they focus too exclusively on the tourist experience and the subjectivity of the tourist. Little mention is given to the subjectivity of the host. In a world where affluent tourists are able to seek out experiences and gaze upon sights in worlds that are just becoming open to them, little mention is given to how this affects the host cultures. Bianchi (2001) states that, “in a world of hyper-mobile capital, instant communications and the mass movement of peoples, international tourism encapsulates the contradictory forces at play in today’s world. These are mobility and freedom for the wealthy few, and immobility and impoverishment for the disenfranchised many” (p. 16). This imbalance is completely ignored in the work of Urry. It would be fair to argue that this is because he places too much emphasis on the visual for the tourist and not enough on looking at the wider impact of tourism on the hosts. As we move into an age of more ethically aware tourism, this becomes more of an important concept. Of course, Urry would argue that there is no single gaze and that this movement to more ethical tourism is just simply a different gaze for a different type of tourist but the fact that he ignores the impact of tourism on the host cultures is evidence that his preoccupations are elsewhere.

The tourist gaze as a concept is a helpful one when studying tourism. It helps us to understand how tourism has evolved and changed over the past few decades. It also helps us to understand how we as tourists act as players within a larger system that has been created to match our expectations of what we want to see on when we go on holiday with the supposed reality of what is actually there. It helps us to understand all the visual sign-posts that are created to help match up these two worlds, the reality and what we expect to see. However, this concept does have some limitations. Although it tries to be all encapsulating, trying to explain all our visual experiences by saying that people from different classes seek different things and gaze on different things when they go on holiday, it is still too narrow. It fails to really encapsulate the entire essence of tourism which is the experiences that you have that can’t be explained away as simply visual. This essay has touched on the notion of performance and contact. This is what tourism is all about. It is about the experiences that you have that come from the smells and sounds and the activities you partake in in the place you are visiting. Of course the sights play a huge part in this but they are not the whole experience.

Another place that Urry’s concept falls flat is his failure to look at tourism from the point of view of the host culture. In this day and age where we are becoming more ethically aware in everything that we consume, including our tourism, this is quite a big failure of the concept. It’s preoccupation on the consumers and how they are being manipulated with no mention of how these consumers impact on the cultures that they visit. Urry’s concept is still useful but it is getting less and less relevant in today’s market.

Bibliography and References

Chin, C.B.N. 2008, Cruising in the Global Economy: Profits, Pleasure and Work at Sea, London: Ashgate.

Franklin, A. and Chang, M. 2001, The trouble with tourism and travel theory?, Tourist Studies, 1(1), 5-22.

Goss, J. 1993, Placing the Market and Marketing the Place: Tourist Advertising of the Hawaiian Islands, 1972-1992, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 11, 663-688.

MacCannell, D. 1992, Empty Meeting Grounds: The Tourist Papers, London: Routledge.

McGuigan, J. 2004, Rethinking Cultural Policy, London: McGraw-Hill International

Perkins, H.C. and Thorns, D.C. 2001, Gazing or Performing?: Reflections on Urry’s Tourist Gaze in the Context of Contemporary Experience in the Antipodes, International Sociology, 16(2), 185-204.

Thrift, N. (1999) ‘Still Life in Present Time:The Object of Nature’, conference paper presented to Sociality/Materialism The Status of the Object in Social Science, Brunel University, UK 9–11 September 1999.

Turner et al. 2005, The Tourist Gaze: Towards Contextualised Virtual Environments, Kluwer.

Urry, J. 1990, The Tourist Gaze, London: Sage.

Urry, J. 1992, The Tourist Gaze “Revisited”, American Behavioral Scientist, 36, 172-186.


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