Performing Tourism Notes and Reflections

Note for new readers: This summer I’m collecting data for a research project I began last semester called Performing Tourism: Authenticity, identity, and mobility among youth travelers. To find out more about the project, scroll through earlier posts or check the Performing Tourism category. 
Wow, where to begin?

There is so many more dimensions to tourism than I thought there would be. Vaguely, I knew that the travel industry was big and influential. But now I’m beginning to see how the act of just one person moving from their home territory can have repercussions around the world. Tourism is more than just a business. It creates lifestyles that entire families will live for generations (think running a hotel or hostel in a small town). It puts value on skill sets that would otherwise be arbitrary (like the ability to create tens of mostly identical small wooden monkeys in a few days). It has the power to change the way famers do their business (we visited a coffee farm that went organic to set themselves apart and now make a large percent of their income from paying foreign volunteers). 


Agriculture Eco Tourism. I’ve seen this word in a few places, most recently as a sign on a fence of a local farm we passed. Since coming on this trip, I’ve realized that almost anything can be turned into a type of tourism and be given a name. There’s drug tourism, resort tourism, surfing tourism. (Remember, I define “tourism” as just the act of leaving your home environment for more than 24 hours voluntarily and for pleasure.)
My interviewees are here for a variety of reasons. Some are taking a gap year before university. Some are taking their kids traveling for the first time, and come to Costa Rica because it’s said to be an easier place to travel with children and will work their way up. (Security is a mass tourism trait, by the way.) Others just want to see a sloth once in their lifetime. They come on their own, they come with friends, they come with family. They come for the national parks, for the drug therapy camps, for the Segway tours.

(Really. In Quepos, the town we’re in right now, you can take a Segway tour of the beach.)

“I personally believe ecotourism is an incredibly powerful tool for conservation.”

Mark Wainwright

I’ve been curious about how tourism has affected conservation efforts. I think a good way to see the possible effect of tourism on environmental protection is to look at the difference between Costa Rica and Panama. They’re very similar geographically and I think similar politically, but the difference between the two countries when it comes to conservation is striking. 
In Costa Rica, there are signs all over the place asking people to watch and take care of the environment, not to throw trash, to respect the place. In Panama, I don’t remember any such efforts. On the contrary, trash litters the streets and it’s hard to find biodiversity because it’s been over hunted or otherwise destroyed. 
How much of the push to conserve Costa Rica has been due to 1. Locals recognizing the value of conservation, 2. Locals recognizing that the tourism-dependent economy relies on tourists who like to see signs of conservation, 3. Foreigners who who notice the same as locals in 2 and come to run hostels and research field stations, and 4. Foreigners who value conservation for conservation’s sake and come to one of the most biodiverse places in the world to protect it?
One thing I’ve realized since arriving here is that the push for ‘progress,’ development, and unsustainable production (mostly agriculturally) was due almost entirely to the actions and influences of “first world” nations like the US, Spain, and presumably England. The push for conservation is said to have started also with activists from these nations, in the 50s and 60s by foreign couples and groups who did things like buy huge tracts of land and keep it undeveloped. For example, the watershed of Monteverde was preserved by American Quakers fleeing the draft in the 50s, and the Children’s Eternal Rainforest was actually created with money raised by school children in Sweden and matched by the Swedish government and impressed adults around the world. 
Many questions to be answered!
On goes the research. 

Performing Tourism | The Basics

*This interview is adapted from a late night conversation with David. I figured it hit most key points of my research. If you have questions, feel free to email me at!

So Phoebe, I hear you’re doing a research project?

Yep, I’m doing a research project on tourism! I’m analyzing the types of tourists there are in the real world, putting them into categories like Mass, Alternative, and Mass Alternative (which are all categories already known in the field) as well as my own category of Hybrid––the modern youth traveler (i.e. Backpackers, volunteers, untrained English teachers, ext). Then I categorize them by the types of authentic they’re looking for (Constructed, Objective, Existential…) I’ll be doing a case study on University of Arizona kids.

Can you elaborate on the authenticity part?

Absolutely, it’s what I’ve been interested in since I went to Panama. What do people look for when they travel? Why do they leave their homes in the first place? For some, it’s the reversal of their socioeconomic status. Low income, working class people (*rich enough to travel and pay for say, a resort, after saving for a period of time), get to go somewhere and be treated as kings, while high income people visit the slums, live in a hut, eat street food––for a day or two. Then, they both go back to their regular lives. For others, it’s a desire to get to know another culture, to understand the bigger picture. They’ll tell you they want the “authentic experience.” I call that Constructed Authenticity, because they’re after that community that hasn’t been changed through time or affected by globalization… that village that still lives without internet (although neighboring towns have it), without proper sanitation systems (the way they’ve lived for centuries!), without health care, etc. But although it’s not authentic at all to how people would be living there if they didn’t rely on income from the tourist industry, it’s still sold as culturally authentic, the real deal, “untouched,” “pristine,” even as your tour of 20 is ushered out and then next group is welcomed in, only the first of many more that day. For some people, that really is what they want, and it’s the type of authenticity sold by mass tourism agencies. Then there’s [Actual Authenticity] (still working on a name), which is the true and natural state of a place. If the town is well off enough, roads will be paved, internet providers will set up shop, there will be health clinics, people will eat food shipped in from other places. But that’s not as interesting so it’s mostly ignored. I’m still a little unsure about Existential Authenticity––it’s something to do with not the physical state of the location the tourist goes, but the meaning that the tourist creates for themselves. That meaning can be build out of what they’ve been told in the past and present. For example, ‘If you visit Ghana and do service work, then you’re a good person’ is one message we internalize, and so we go to Ghana and dig a latrine, paying a pretty penny for the privilege, but then…. build this image of ourselves, of the community we went to to do this work, etc, based on everything but reality… ? Tricky concept.

That’s fascinating! How do you define a tourist? Anyone who visits a place outside their home city? State, country?

Hahaha that’s the big question left to answer, especially because “tourist” carries so many connotations. Many people will do whatever possible to avoid being labeled as such, and so many organizations advertise that their travelers are *not* tourists, but rather _____, which makes defining the term very complicated. One definition of a tourist is “a person who travels outside of his normal environment for a period of more than 24 hours.”(Mathieson and Wall, 1982: 1) Right now, I’m looking for a term to define somebody who is away from their home community voluntarily for any period of time. I think I’ll go with Traveler (“a person who is traveling or who often travels”, where ‘travel’ is defined as “make a journey, typically of some length or abroad”.) A ‘tourist’ can be defined as “a person who is traveling or visiting a place for pleasure,” so I usually use that to talk about somebody traveling in the Mass, Alternative, or Mass Alt. categories, like somebody backpacking through or participating in a short term voluntourism adventure. Traveler I mostly reserve for a currently uncategorized person, or somebody like a long term trained ESL teacher abroad or businessperson. 

[What defines tourism] seems like a very important classification for your paper (presumably there will be a paper involved). Are you mainly sticking to people using organizations, then?

Yep, there will be a paper :) And I’m presenting next month at a U of A conference for first years. It is important, which is why I’m leaving it for last when I have the most information and for now just studying all ‘travelers’ who are going from one place to another for recreation (including voluntourism). I will be studying a lot of people through organized … organizations :P right now because they’re the easiest to track and find the materials they’re reading pre and during trip. Individual travelers are certainly something I’ll look at, but I’ll have to rely on the data that I collect this summer while traveling through Costa Rica and Panama to tell me why they’ve chosen to travel, where they’re going and why, what kind of resources they used to prepare for the trip, what kind of traveler they identify as, etc.


Have questions of your own? Email me at!