SUBDISCIPLINES: Anthropology of Tourism

The Anthropology of Tourism

by Margaret Hathaway

February 2, 2007



Theory and Themes

Why Anthropologists Were Hesitant About Studying Tourism

Useful Links


Additional Classic Studies



As in any emerging academic sub-discipline, scholars of the anthropology of tourism disagree about how to best define the basic concepts they seek to describe.  Tourists have been classified by the longevity of their travel experiences, their impact on the communities they visit, their choice of activities, and the level of institutionalization of their movements.  Basic questions, however, such as whether physical displacement is necessary to qualify as a tourist and, more contentiously, what the difference is between a tourist and an ethnographer, are still matters of discussion.   Of course, it is exactly these sorts of debate that are likely to yield the most intriguing anthropological research.

The overall aim of anthropological tourism studies is to understand the tourist experience and tourism industry from the perspective of both tourists themselves and those whose worlds, or constructed versions of them, are being displayed.  Although impressive work has been accomplished over the past four decades, tourism is still a comparatively unexplored topic for anthropologists.  With its connections to issues of acculturation, authenticity, identity construction, and consumption theory,  tourism studies is a sub-discipline full of potential and, in the words of theorist Dennison Nash, still free of “creeping pessimism” (1996, vii).  The anthropology of tourism has strong connections to sociology, development studies, and behavioral psychology.  Field techniques borrowed from geography have also proved useful.  Marketing theory from business and economics, particularly with regards to the phenomenon of destination branding, would be another excellent complement to tourism studies in the social sciences, but has yet to be widely utilized by anthropologists.



The establishment of tourism as a legitimate topic for anthropological study is a relatively recent development.  Theron Nuñez’s “Tourism, Tradition, and Acculturation: Weekendismo in a Mexican Village” (1963) is often credited as the earliest tourism-related article in American anthropological literature.  Although a regional session on tourism was organized the following year by James Silverberg at a Milwaukee meeting of the Central States Anthropological Association, the first national symposium on the subject did not take place until the American Anthropological Association’s 1974 meeting in Mexico City.  Discussions begun during this 1974 conference served as the inspiration for the publication Hosts and Guests (1977), a seminal anthology which collected work from numerous scholars who would prove extremely influential in the development of an anthropological system of tourism studies, including Nelson H. H. Graburn and Dennison Nash.

Since the publication of Hosts and Guests there has been an explosion of interest in tourism within the anthropological community.  Although there are currently no major journals devoted exclusively to the anthropology of tourism, anthropologists have maintained a high profile in multidisciplinary publications such as the Annals of Tourism Research, which devoted an entire issue in 1983 to anthropological submissions.  Many conferences have been held and dissertations written on tourism-related topics, and academic courses in the anthropology of tourism, most famously those led at UC Berkeley by Graburn, are becoming increasingly common in departments across the United States.  In recent years the process of bringing the anthropology of tourism into university classrooms has been greatly aided by publication of several accessible, introductory texts (Burns 1999, Chambers 2000, and Gmelch 2004).   Signs seem to indicate that tourism studies is emerging as a dynamic and productive anthropological sub-discipline.


Theory and Themes

Although the anthropological literature on tourism has been dominated by ethnographic descriptions of niche variants of travel (Figure 1) and studies of tourism’s effect on local communities, a few scholars have focused on developing comprehensive theoretical models.  The most influential approaches in current anthropological thinking are Graburn’s construction of tourism as a personal transformative experience and Dennison Nash’s view of tourism as a form of modern imperialism.   Heavily influenced by Victor Turner’s work on rites of passage, Graburn chose to analyze tourism as a symbolic superstructure, while Nash has elected to focus his attentions on tourism’s political and economic aspects.  Other important contributions include sociologist Dean MacCannell’s research on identity construction and “staged authenticity” (1973, 1976) and themes developed by anthropologists Graham Dann and Philip Pearce (1988) in their calls for greater methodological sophistication in anthropological forays into tourism studies.


Figure 1: Examples of special interest tourism described in academic literature:


  • Business Tourism
  • Convention Tourism
  • Culinary / Gastronomic Tourism
  • Cultural Heritage / Ethnic Tourism
  • Dark Tourism
  • Environmental / Eco-Tourism
  • Farm Tourism
  • Genealogy Tourism
  • Health / Spa Tourism
  • Religious Pilgrimage Tourism
  • Sex Tourism
  • Space Tourism

(as a logical extension of existing incarnations of tourism)

  • Sports Tourism
  • Volunteer / Service-Based Tourism


Why Anthropologists Were Hesitant About Studying Tourism

The lingering reluctance of anthropologists to acknowledge tourism as a subject worthy of scientific scrutiny was likely rooted in anxieties stemming from the strong similarities between tourism and ethnography.  As has been articulated by Crick (1995) and others, anthropologists have often been defensive about the seriousness of their work.  In order to more securely establish themselves as legitimate academics, anthropologists tended until recently to dismiss tourists as superficial pleasure-seekers, individuals whose actions are unconstrained by ethical obligations and who are neither interested in nor taken seriously by the people they encounter in their travels.  A researcher back-pedaling on the cultivated perception of distance between anthropologist and tourist may be seen as risking the contamination of themselves and their discipline with associations of frivolity and human exploitation (Nash, 1996).  The rising prominence of anthropologists in tourism studies is a testament to the discipline’s increased maturity in negotiating this identity crisis.


Useful Links

1. Annals of Tourism Research


Link for Full-Text Articles:


2. Journal of Heritage Tourism:


3. An extensive bibliography of resources relating to the anthropology of tourism compiled by Robert Lawless of Wichita State University can be found at:


4. The International Academy for the Study of Tourism – an interdisciplinary organization that holds regular conferences and offers grants for tourism research




Burns, P. 1999. An Introduction to Tourism and Anthropology. London: Routledge.


Chambers, Erve. 2000. Native Tours: The Anthropology of Travel and Tourism.  Prospect Heights: Waveland.


Crick, Malcom. 1995. “The Anthropologist as Tourist: An Identity in Question.” International Tourism: Identity and Change.  London: Sage.  Pp. 205-223.


Dann, Graham M. S., Dennison Nash, and Philip L. Pearce. 1988. “Methodology in Tourism Research.” Annals of Tourism Research. 15:1-28.


Gmelch, Sharon Bohn.  2004.  Tourists and Tourism: A Reader.  Long Grove: Waveland.


Graburn, Nelson H. H. 1977. Tourism: The Sacred Journey. Hosts and Guests: The Anthropology of Tourism. Valene L. Smith, ed. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. Pp. 33-47.


------. 2002. "The Ethnographic Tourist." The Tourist as a Metaphor of the Social World. Graham Dann ed. Wallingford: CAB International. Pp. 19-39.


MacCannell, Dean. 1973. “Staged Authenticity: Arrangements of Social Space in Tourist Setting.” American Journal of Sociology. 79:589-603.


------. 1976. The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class. New York: Schocken.


Nash, Dennison. 1996. Anthropology of Tourism. New York: Pergamon.


------. 1977. “Tourism As a Form of Imperialism.” Hosts and Guests: The Anthropology of Tourism. Valene L. Smith, ed. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. Pp. 33-47.


Nunez, Theron. 1963. “Tourism, Tradition, and Acculturation: Weekendismo in a Mexican Village.” Ethnology. 2:347-352.


Tuner, Victor.  1969.  The Ritual Process.  Chicago: Aldine.


Additional Classic Studies

Evans-Pritchard, Deirdre. 1989. “How ‘They’ See ‘Us’: Native American Images of Tourists.” Annals of Tourism Research. 16:89-105.


Turner, Victor, and Edith Turner. 1978. Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture. New York: Columbia University Press.


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