Tourism, Place Making and Mobility: An Interview with Alan A. Lew

This is part of our special feature on Tourism: People, Places & Mobilities.


Alan A. Lew has been a leading figure and prolific writer and editor in the field of tourism for decades. In this conversation for EuropeNow Campus, he spoke with me about the state of tourism studies around the world and what it means to be a tourism scholar today, highlighting the difficult endeavor of defining what a tourist is and pointing to the emergence of promising areas of research for the future.

Hélène B. Ducros for EuropeNow

EuropeNow How long have you been involved in the study of tourism and how did you come to be interested in it?

Alan A. Lew I was originally a geographer and I still am. I pursued my BA at the University of Hawaii at Hilo. Living on the “Big Island,” tourism was the last thing I wanted to study. I wanted to stay away from tourists. But in graduate school at the University of Oregon, while studying for a masters degree in urban planning, I got involved in a consulting project in the Cascade Mountains for a lumber community whose mill was closing down. They were looking at ways to revitalize their economy and among them was tourism. This is when I first realized that tourism brought together everything I was interested in. I have traveled a lot throughout my life, since childhood when I traveled with my family. Through those travels I developed an interest in other places and in understanding the places I was visiting and experiencing. Tourism brought together my love of travel, and my interest in places and in urban design. I especially saw the strong connection between place making, urban design, and tourism. At the time, I was also interested in environmental perception. Much of tourism is about how people experience places, what motivates people to experience places, and to seek out new and old places. I have been doing research on tourism for forty years and it has sustained my interests since that first project in Oregon. Today, tourism is becoming more important every year as more people around the world travel and more places around the world develop and manage tourism.

EuropeNow Why do you think tourism has become such a significant topic today?

Alan A. Lew There seems to be something about human nature that makes most of us, although not everyone, want to travel, to experience new places, to see new things, and to have a change from the environments we live in, whether we love our homes or hate them, it does not matter. We want and we like diversity. Travel expands people’s horizons, including their view of who they are as individuals, what the world is like, and what possibilities exist in the world. Even when tourists just want recreation and may not really be interested in culture or learning, they are still going to different places and expanding their horizon. I think that the tourist experience has the potential to positively impact their mental state and self-view. People in the most remote places in the world tell me they love to travel and they dream of seeing the world. Our world is getting smaller as we gain exposure to the broader world beyond ourselves through cell phones or the internet. As an example, in 1996, in a remote village in Indonesia, where people had no water, no electricity and lived under thatch roofs on dirt floors, the husband of the woman I was speaking with returned from the local town where he had gone to watch Mike Tyson’s world championship boxing match live from Las Vegas through satellite television. In every corner of the world, people are aware of living in a global society, which is accessible to them and that they want to access. In China, for example, people cannot get enough of tourism. There is a lot of talk about Chinese international travelers flooding many places in the world. But the bigger story is the huge demand in China’s domestic tourism. In Europe, especially the southern parts, people complain that there are too many tourists, but you do not know what a lot of tourists means until you go to China. The demand for travel and tourism is phenomenal there. People’s desire to travel rings true throughout the world. People take advantage of the fact that access has become easier and cheaper over the years, and average income has risen across the globe. People can now travel more than ever in the past. This is why tourism is such a significant topic today. It is part of today’s lives, part of cultural and social identities, in most of the world. Also, how people spend their money and how places are earning an income through tourism has a huge economic influence.

EuropeNow How would you define a “tourist?”

Alan A. Lew There is an easy definition that the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) would like people to use. It is somewhat useful for counting numbers. The basic definition of an international tourist is someone who travels overnight to a different country. A domestic tourist is the same, just not international. But different countries have different definitions about the distance that someone must travel for an overnight stay to be considered a domestic tourist. There are also people who do not travel overnight but only for day trips, the so-called “day-excursionists” or “day-trippers.” There can be both domestic and international excursionists. At some point, a person is not considered a tourist but a “recreationist” if not going far enough to be considered a tourist. So, there are significant challenges in trying to define the numbers.

There are also problems when accounting for travel motivation. We have business travelers who are also sometimes considered tourists and sometimes not. Those traveling for leisure and recreation more clearly fall into the tourist category, but it is not as clear for business travelers. When I go to conferences or to teach or give lectures at universities, that is “work,” but almost my entire experience is that of a tourist rather than that of a worker. Many people fall into that scenario. There are also people who travel for other reasons, such as medical treatment or education, but they are also being tourists at the same time. That complicates the definition of what it means to be a tourist. For that reason, some people like to think less in terms of tourism and more in terms of human mobility as being the larger context of what we are studying. We study how and why people move, short term and long term, around the globe, within and across countries. Tourism then becomes the part of mobility studies that focuses on leisure and recreation aspects. But it is not always easy either to categorize exactly where a “pure tourist” falls in terms of mobility behavior and motivation. Many are mixed. So, it can be complicated and it can also be a simple. For some it is easy and for many others it is not. Therefore, one has to be cautious about the numbers used in tourism. The UNWTO uses its definition to measure the growth in international tourist arrivals around the world. In 2012, that number reached one billion, and since that one billion mark it has been growing steadily. Unfortunately, there are many problems with this number. It is only an estimate because some countries are very good at counting how many tourists come across their borders and some are not. Another problem is Europe. There are many countries in Europe, so every time you cross a border, you are considered an international traveler. Every time you cross the border from Belgium to the Netherlands or Luxembourg you cross international boundaries. But within countries like China, which has more people than Europe, there is a huge number of domestic tourists. None are international, so they are not counted in UNWTO numbers. The same is true in North America, where, within the three dominating countries in the region, the US, Canada, and Mexico, none of the domestic travelers are counted. Globally, domestic tourism far outnumbers international tourism: for 1 billion international tourists, we have maybe 4 billion domestic tourists. Those are some of the issues with defining who is a tourist is. The world is indeed a complicated place.

EuropeNow Can you help us understand what tourism studies are? Typically, what sort of issues does a tourism scholar investigate? What main themes or most interesting research areas have emerged in most recent years?

Alan A. Lew There are debates over whether tourism is an academic field. Let us assume that it is. There are major approaches to the discipline. In geography, we have physical and human geography, which might be further divided into economic and cultural geography as major branches. The same occurs in tourism studies. The main difference there is with tourism scholars who are grounded in schools of business. Most programs in tourism are closely related to schools of business. This is why there is a large body of tourism research that is business related, like in marketing studies where the focus is to understand the tourism market and how businesses can best meet the needs of that market. Also within that field are topics such as entrepreneur activities and how tourism businesses function. The second and somewhat related field that is often closely associated with tourism and even sometimes considered to be the same is the field of hospitality studies. At Northern Arizona University there is a school of hotel and restaurant management, i.e. hospitality studies. The one true tourism scholar in that school retired, although they still teach a few tourism classes. However, in many universities tourism and hospitality studies are combined in a single department or school. Hospitality is closely related to the business aspect of tourism. It is involved in the practical training of students to run hotel or restaurants to give them the fundamental skills needed for restaurant and hotel management. Aside from the business and hospitality studies side, there is the social science approach to tourism studies, which is my background. Geography, anthropology, sociology, and related disciplines produce people who are some of the leaders in tourism studies from the social science perspective. Their focus tends to be different. They are not focused on the business aspect of tourism, but instead on tourist behavior, tourism communities, the impact of tourism on those communities and the environment, the socio-cultural impact of tourism, and how communities and cultural groups manage the impact of tourism. My background is in geography and urban planning. Like me, there are tourism scholars who are interested in the social side of community development, who look at the way tourism can contribute to developing communities both socially and in their physical design aspects. So I see tourism as being comprised of these two major approaches: the business approach and the social science approach. Of course, within those two major ways of studying tourism there are also many subdivisions.

In terms of what people have been studying, I recently learned that there were five books being published this year on the topic of tourism and resilience. It is interesting because there were none prior to this year. Resilience studies and resilience theory have become major topics, not just in tourism but in many areas of the physical and human sciences over the past decade. Mostly because of climate change. Resilience addresses how people and places adapt to or transform under changing circumstances. It is often associated with natural disasters, such as major droughts, hurricanes, typhoons, or earthquakes. Disaster studies are part of this resilience approach. But since the early 2000s, resilience studies have also come to look at slower changes, like globalization, which can be economic, social, or cultural. Resilience theory has increasingly been applied to understanding how these circumstances are changing our societies and how communities and cultures are adapting to those changes. Tourism has been late to jump on the resilience bandwagon, but it seems like it is catching up quickly with these five new books. I have contributed to three of them. I was involved in the editing of two of the books. One covers how tourism is impacted by and adapts to social and economic change, while the other looks at the impact of environmental change, both rapid and gradual, and how tourism communities and the tourism industry respond. It is a very big topic and there are so many papers published on resilience these days that it is hard to keep up with a literature on community, human and social resilience. So, that is one of the hottest area for tourism studies.

A potentially hot topic in tourism studies, in my opinion, is ecosystem services. This is a concept that the UN started to promote in the early 2000s. It became popular mostly in the physical sciences, like among environmental scientists. Ecosystem services are defined as all of those things from which people benefit that they get from the ecosystems in which they live. It is all of those things we use out of the ecosystem, such as the fact that the ground filters dirty water to produce clean water for us. Another type of service is the vegetation around us that provides shade and affects micro-climates in the places we live in. Mangrove swamps protecting us from tidal wave or hurricanes is another service we get from the ecosystem. However, one huge category of ecosystem services that the environmental sciences largely ignore are “cultural ecosystem services”. Some argue that we should drop that category because we cannot easily measure them. They are all the social things that we benefit from through our natural ecosystems. Cultural ecosystem services include enjoying nature, outdoor recreation activities, nature photography, having inspiration to create art, and having religious or spiritual experiences in nature. As part of cultural ecosystems, tourism is considered to be something that perhaps can be measured. Aside from physical scientists, economists are among those studying ecosystem services, and they can put a value on tourism because they can know how much people are spending to do it. It is much harder to put a value on the religious experience that someone gets from an ecosystem. However, you can study these things with a qualitative approach, just not with numbers. This concept of ecosystem services and how tourism relates to cultural ecosystem services is even newer than the resilience studies approach in tourism. We look at what those cultural ecosystem services are and how to best manage them to meet the needs of the ecosystem and the needs of humans.  It is a growing topic and I think there will be more in the future coming out from tourism scholars who are in a good position to understand and use this particular approach to study the relationship between humans and the natural environment they live in. Aside from these two hot topics, there are others. Tourist tracking, using GPS or cell phones, is a fairly hot topic that has a lot of potential for future development. It is part of the Google mapping phenomenon and the digital world we live in. It seeks to understand how people behave and move through the places they visit. It is a popular area of new research, especially for the types of scholars who are adept in understanding those technologies. Moving into the future, this mapping of tourist behavior might move into virtual reality. Virtual reality is still in its infancy, but I am sure that we will see more of virtual reality studies and virtual travel in the future. It will be a big part of the travel experience, but maybe not in my life time yet.

EuropeNow You are the founder and Editor-in-Chief of the journal Tourism Geographies, and an active member of the Recreation, Tourism and Sport Geography Specialty Group of the Association of American Geographers, as well as the Commission on the Geography of Tourism, Leisure and Global Change. As a discipline, why do you think geography is specifically well-situated to provide answers in the field of tourism and how is the geographical approach to tourism different from other disciplinary perspectives?

Alan A. Lew I am biased towards geography. Geography is what got me into tourism, with urban planning, which is an applied form of geography. Geographers have traditionally been interested in place as a concept. The original definition of geography, in the times of the ancient Greeks when geography was one of the major field of studies, was the study of places, what places existed in the world and where. Of course, the main questions that most geographers are interested in is not just where and what, but why and how. Those are major geographic questions that most other social sciences are also interested in. But geographers have a long tradition of trying to understand place and sense of place. Tourism has a lot to do with place making, whether that place making is an organic process where people living in a place create a unique an interesting place, or whether it is a top-down process where government and planners intervene to create a tourist environment and tourism recreation experience. It does not matter, we are interested in both those processes and how they work. We have built much theory relating to sense of place and place making, as well as in spatial relationships and relationships between places. Tourism is travel. It means people moving from one place to another. Why and how do they cover this geographic space? What is the significance of geographic space and what are the connections between tourists’ points of origins and destinations? How is space influenced by different forms of transportation, by marketing, and by geo-political conditions? Geographers have had a long interest in all these questions. A recurrent criticism of geography is that it is too diverse in its interest of space and place and that perhaps other fields with a more narrow focus can develop an understanding in other ways. But the idea that we try to understand place and space from every available angle is precisely what drew me to geography and why the geographical approach lends itself well to tourism studies. When I go to a conference where there are many tourism scholars from different disciplines, I am often amazed that what they are doing could easily fall into the field of geography. Having that geographic perspective has benefited me a lot in my ultimate goal to try to understand the world we live in. Through geography and tourism studies, I have come to have a deeper understanding of how things work, a deeper appreciation of places and of the complexity, diversity, and uniqueness of every place on the planet.

EuropeNow What kind of university programs might be available to undergraduate or graduate students interested in becoming tourism scholars?

Alan A. Lew In my general view of the world, tourism studies in the US are not very developed. The US is one of the worst places to come to for studying tourism, partly because somehow tourism does not have the same respect in academia in the US that it might have in other countries. So, generally what you find in the US are small programs, with exceptions like Texas A&M, or Cornell, the latter being more of a hospitality than tourism program. The way these programs develop is usually a reflection of the particular interests or personalities of individuals in each department. The departments will be developed along the lines of these interests in some aspects of tourism. In general, the best and bigger tourism programs are in Europe and East Asia. Tourism geography and tourism departments are huge in China, bigger than anywhere else in the world. In Europe, the number of geographers and the association of tourism studies with geography departments used to be stronger. That connection has been diluted over the years as the business approach to tourism studies has grown. That is also happening in China. But even if the geography connection has weakened, Europe and China are two places where tourism is a huge part of the economy and the culture, and consequently tourism studies play a bigger role in universities there than they do elsewhere. In other parts of the world, it depends. In some countries, universities put a lot of emphasis on tourism studies, and others not so much, depending on how important they realize tourism is in their society. In the US, in my opinion, not so much. This might be changing in the future. I believe tourism studies is growing around the world because tourism is becoming so obviously important. In the 1990s, in regional geography textbooks, like world geography, or the geography of Europe or North America, there was nothing on tourism, or maybe just a mention of it when talking about Europe. Today, tourism is usually included in economic geography textbooks because, when looking at the global economy, tourism has consistently been one of its fastest growing segment and it continues to be so even while other parts of the economy have ups and down. The overall growth has been so steady and consistent, it is phenomenal. It is hard not to recognize its importance and that will only increase in the future.

EuropeNow With so many components and aspects of the field of tourism, how can researchers best present its research agenda to the outside world as a comprehensive field? Is there a risk that the field is so rich that people might discard it as a catch-all category that cannot be academic? How would you present arguments to address such a criticism?

Alan A. Lew In some ways, most academic fields have that potential once you look into them. The works of individual scholars are extremely diverse in terms of their particular focus. One of the things that perhaps other disciplines enjoy is that they are perceived as having at least some core theory and core approach, even though there are many scholars within those disciplines who diverge from it. Because tourism studies is relatively young and new, with still a lot of tourism scholars coming from diverse academic backgrounds, I think we still lack that more or less singular vision and perception from the outside as to what we study, other than tourism. There are a few models that everyone points to, like Richard Butler’s tourism area life cycle model. Within tourism studies everyone knows it. But there are not very many of those. His model comes out of economics and business. It is basically the product life cycle model applied to tourism. So, probably that is still our major challenge, even though in our leading journals we have produced a lot of interesting theoretical conceptual papers. I think we still need to have something that the general public might look at beyond just the study of tourism. In some ways, we are disadvantaged by our close association with business. When people think of tourism, they think of restaurants and hotels, or amusement parks, which are business products, rather than the idea that tourism is about people having some motivation to move, to leave their home and to go somewhere else, and then to return to their home. The general public does not think about that kind of fundamental tourism model when hearing the word “tourism”. In general people do not think that all these business things are in fact being driven by the phenomena that scholars in mobility studies are interested in. The fundamental aspect of tourism studies is about the movement of people going from one place to another, and trying to understand why and how, and their impacts. Until we can build that kind of perception of tourism studies, I think we are going to have challenges.



Dr. Alan A. Lew is a Professor and Chairperson in the Department of Geography, Planning, and Recreation at Northern Arizona University where he teaches courses in geography, urban planning and tourism development. Dr. Lew’s research interests focus on tourism in the Asia-Pacific region, particularly in East Asia and Southeast Asia, with topics covering community tourism planning, tourist movements, sustainable tourism, heritage tourism, tourism geography, and community resilience. He has been a Fulbright Scholar at the Universiti Teknologi MARA in Sabah, Malaysia, a Visiting Professor at the National University of Singapore and Yamaguchi University in Japan, and a Research Fellow at National Donghua University in Taiwan. Professor Lew has authored over 90 articles and book chapters and has published over 25 books, including Understanding and Managing Tourism Impacts: An Integrated Approach (2009), Tourism Geography (2014), and World Regional Geography (2015). He is the founding editor-in-chief of the journal Tourism Geographies, a Fellow of the International Academy for the Study of Tourism, and a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners.

Dr. Hélène B. Ducros is Chair of the Research Editorial Committee at EuropeNow. She earned a J.D. from the University of North Carolina School of Law and a Ph.D in geography from the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill. She is Lecturer in international studies at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. Her main interests are in place making, heritage, cultural landscapes, and the relationships individuals and societies have with their built and natural environment, past or present.

Photo: Alan A. Lew, Private



Published on September 5, 2017.

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