Cultural tourism is a type of special interest tourism involving leisure travel for the purpose of viewing or experiencing the distinctive character of a place, its peoples, and its products or productions. A wide range of destinations and cultural activities fall under the umbrella heading of cultural tourism: visits to UNESCO World Heritage Sites (e.g. China’s Great Wall, Chichén-Itzá); tours of historic cities, architectural sites, cathedrals, and battlefields; excursions to museums; trips to sample typical regional foods; tours of ethnic neighborhoods; travel to local music festivals and cultural performances; visits to indigenous villages or distinctive cultural landscapes (e.g. observing farming practices in Asian rice fields). Although cultural tourists’ motives vary, some common themes include the desire to experience an “authentic” cultural landscape, interest in other cultures, and an interest in scenery that fosters an engagement with the past.
Since anthropologists and sociologists first turned their attention to tourism in the 1970s, there have been a variety of attempts to classify particular types of tourism. Some scholars, such as Valene Smith (1989), have proposed more refined subdivisions to the broader category of cultural tourism, including ethnic tourism (to see indigenous peoples), historical tourism (focused on the glories of the past, museums, monuments, and ruins), and, in a separate category, cultural tourism, which she defines as travels to see “vestiges of a vanishing lifestyle that lies within human memory” and involves “rustic inns, folklore performances, [and] costumed wine festivals” (Smith 1989, pp. 4–5). While some scholars embrace these taxonomic distinctions, others simply utilize the broader umbrella term cultural tourism. Recognizing that most tourists engage in a variety of activities on any given trip (ranging from sampling local delicacies to touring picturesque villages), more social scientific attention has been directed away from refining taxonomies and toward better understanding the sociocultural transformations that are part and parcel of cultural tourism.
A number of scholars have chronicled how the advent of tourism has transformed local peoples’ conceptions of their own identities and cultural products. Tourism literature tends to project fixed and alluring images of destinations, despite the fact that these destinations are undergoing transformations in tandem with the broader dynamics of globalization, including tourism development. In some locales, the promotion of cultural or ethnic tourism has prompted residents to become experts in marketing their own authenticity, playing the native and drawing on and manipulating the cultural symbols spotlighted in the tourist literature for economic gain or to enhance their cultural standing vis-à-vis other ethnic groups, as Timothy Oakes (1998) has illustrated in his analysis of ethnic villages in China. As Pierre van den Berghe (1994) and Nelson Graburn (1976) observe, the focus of ethnic tourists’ gazes are often Fourth World peoples, members of disempowered communities on the fringes of larger nations. For such peoples, while tourism can potentially bring new sources of revenue, it can also attract outside entrepreneurs who may substantially divert the flow of income.
Likewise, cultural tourism can fuel the commoditization of ethnic arts, dances, and rituals. Although commoditization does not necessarily bring loss of meaning, as Graburn notes, the significance may be transformed. For example, Michel Picard (1990) observes that tourism and tourist productions have become so intrinsic in Bali that they have contributed to shaping contemporary Balinese ethnic identity. Other scholars find that cultural tourism can be a factor in reconfiguring aspects of local gender relations. For instance, Elayne Zorn (2004) documents how the new tourist market for textiles woven by Taquilean women has enabled these Andean women to take on more visible roles in public life. Elsewhere, cultural tourism may contribute to the eroding of local rank hierarchies and to newfound ethnic self-consciousness and cultural pride, as Kathleen Adams (2006) has chronicled among the Sa’dan Toraja of Indonesia.
Cultural tourism can be highly political. As Michel Picard and Robert Wood illustrate, states are deeply involved in structuring cultural tourism and in “shaping the visible contours of ethnicity” (1997, p. 5). In some cases, such as the Mexican government’s promotion of Aztec pyramids as national symbols, tourist sites associated with the heritage of indigenous minorities are used to legitimate the nation. In other cases, such as the bombing of Egyptian pyramids by militant Muslims, cultural tourism is so enmeshed with international politics that destinations frequented by tourists from Western nations become targets.
In some places cultural tourism has led to the transformation of physical settings, environmental degradation, soaring land prices, and reduced access to the land for indigenous peoples. Cultural tourism can also create conflict between tourists, tourism promoters, and locals over the meaning and use of sites. Australia’s Ayers Rock is one such setting, where tourists scaling the peak violate indigenous views of it as a sacred site. In some settings, locals have developed strategies to reduce the intrusive aspects of tourism, formally or informally delineating front-stage areas for tourists and back stage areas for local life beyond the tourist gaze (MacCannell 1989).
SEE ALSO Anthropology; Distinctions, Social and Cultural; Gaze, Colonial; Gaze, The; Going Native; Liverpool Slave Trade; National Geographic; Natives; Other, The; Primitivism; Reflexivity; Sociology; Stare, The; Tourism; Tourism Industry; Tribe; Vacations
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Crick, Malcolm. 1989. Representations of International Tourism in the Social Sciences: Sun, Sex, Sights, Savings, and Servility. Annual Review of Anthropology 18: 307–344.
Graburn, Nelson H., ed. 1976. Ethnic and Tourist Arts: Cultural Expressions from the Fourth World. Berkeley: University of California Press.
MacCannell, Dean.  1989. The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class. New York: Schocken Books.
Oakes, Timothy. 1998. Tourism and Modernity in China. New York: Routledge.
Picard, Michel. 1990. “Cultural Tourism” in Bali: Cultural Performances as Tourist Attraction. Indonesia 49: 37–74.
Picard, Michel and Robert E. Wood, eds. 1997. Tourism, Ethnicity, and the State in Asian and Pacific Societies. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
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Van den Berghe, Pierre. 1994. The Quest for the Other: Ethnic Tourism in San Cristobal, Mexico. Seattle: University of Washington Press.
Zorn, Elayne. 2004. Weaving a Future: Tourism, Cloth, and Culture on an Andean Island. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press.
Kathleen M. Adams