Home > All issues > n°1 2012 Tourist imaginaries > M. Gravari-Barbas & N. Graburn
1 - 2012 Tourist imaginaries

Tourist imaginaries

Maria Gravari-Barbas, Nelson Graburn

Translations :
ES - Imaginarios turísticos
FR - Imaginaires touristiques
IT - Immaginari Turistici
PT - Imaginários turísticos

Plan Text References Notes Illustrations Citations Author PDF


What is the Tourist Imaginary?
Images and Imaginaries
Imaginaries between Production and Consumption
Tourist Imaginaries, Self-Fulfilling Prophecies
A Genealogy of Tourist Imaginaries

Full text

The papers in this special issue of
Via@ on "Tourist Imaginaries" explore a set of questions about the role, function and impact of these imaginaries on the places, actors and practices of tourism.The papers are from the conference "Tourism imaginaries /Imaginaires touristiques"1 held in February 2011 in Berkeley by EIREST2 and the TSWG3 under the scientific leadership of Nelson Graburn (Anthropology) and Maria-Gravari Barbas (Geography). They aim to deepen the concept of the tourist imaginary and to propose methodologies and understandings leading to a more comprehensive grasp of these imaginaries.

What is the Tourist Imaginary?

The tourist imaginary calls for multidimensional definitions taking into account the whole chain of tourism production. Even if these definitions refer primarily to the imaginary of geographical locations where tourist activity takes place, it would be a mistake to neglect the imaginaries related to the practices and stakeholders of tourism.
Tourist imaginaries represent a specific sector of the overall worldview of individuals or social groups concerning places outside their primary residence where certain types of leisure activities could take place. Very often, these imaginaries of other places and other peoples are deeply rooted, stemming from intimate early experiences within the family or from visions of the world, people and places taught in elementary school (Graburn 2000).
Imaginaries can be both idiosyncratic and familial, or culturally shared. They can be instilled at such a young age that they become part of the unconscious attitudes that Bourdieu calls
habitus (Bourdieu 1984).

Imaginaries of Place

Tourist imaginaries can be defined as spatial imaginaries that refer to the potential of a place as a tourist destination. According to Bachelard, imaginaries represent a way of relating to space and matter that generates meaning, without strictly determining behaviors and configurations (Bachelard, 1957, cited in Debarbieux, 2003).

They allow individuals and groups to imagine a place as a conceivable tourist destination; they create the desire, they render the place attractive, they help render travel plans concrete (by influencing both the selection of the place visited and the practices associated with undertaking the trip), they reduce the “distance” to the tourist destination, and they tame its exotic character(Staszak, 2008). They intervene not only when choosing the destination, but also once there, directing, controlling or avoiding certain practices. If they are negative, they contribute to the avoidance of certain destinations.

Tourist imaginaries thus facilitate the transition between here and elsewhere, the familiar and the exotic, the known and the unknown. They intervene decisively in travel planning. Without a tourist imaginary to select among the whole range of desirable, attractive or challenging destinations, there can be no travel plans. The role of tourism imaginaries is thus essential, since they allow concerned individuals to approach the tourist destination in its various dimensions, without their getting physically and symbolically lost.

An Imaginary of Practices

Tourism imaginaries are linked as much to practices associated with categories of space, as to particular identified places. Thus, “the beach” is related to rich and deeply rooted imaginaries, which tend to emphasize far more the similarities than the differences of practices likely to take place there. Tourist imaginaries thus contribute to the consolidation of kinds of behavior. They guide not only the performance of the practices themselves (Urbain, 2002), but also, in turn, the spaces in which these practices take place.
They participate in the creation of a
modus vivendi corresponding to Western practices at the beach (Urbain 2002), or how to live in the countryside, how to behave in the city (Menegaldo 2007), or how to be at home in the mountains (Debarbieux and Rudaz 2010). They contribute to the understanding of the rituals or ceremonies that take place (Graburn 2001), but they also anticipate them, confirming or refusing them.

Imaginaries of the Participants

Tourism imaginaries are also about the imagination of tourists, both as producers of imaginaries and as imagined entities themselves. On the one hand, the often caricatured figure of the tourist, in opposition to the traveler, characterizes not only popular literature but also scholarly works, as was shown by J D Urbain (1991 and Equipe MIT 2002). Stereotypical images of tourists, their behavior, or their ways of dressing, have long produced a strong and fertile image that infuses academic approaches and analyses. On the other hand, the images related to the host communities are equally shaped by artifacts or intangibles which create these imaginaries.
They both characterize and categorize peoples, and thereby prepare tourists, to anticipate or be afraid encounters and confrontations with the Other. The imaginary of Paris is linked to the imaginary of Parisians, just as those of the Inuit, the Berbers or Aborigines are associated with particular places that have been more or less well-defined by others, who are nevertheless participants in the system. But the imaginary of the Other may also replace ignorance, as demonstrated by Corlan-Ioan (2001) for the people of Black Africa.

This set of imaginaries, referring to a place, to expected experiences, hoped for or feared at the vacation site - as well as the practices these experiences induce - and to the host population or other local actors, requires a highly complex analysis. This is especially true since it concerns not only the tourist who is at the center of the tourism system and who is ultimately the decision maker for the trip, but also the intermediaries who stand between the tourists and their destination, at all the different moments in the decision-making process. These middlemen, the tour operators, guides, and others may manipulate or even counteract the tourist imaginary. They create desire by playing with risk (Guilland, this issue), they provoke the imaginary linked to painful episodes (Naef, Hertzog, this issue), they decode the images of local authenticity based on imaginaries produced since the early days of tourism, related to the pursuit of peak experiences (Debarbieux, this issue) or to otherwise "empty spaces," the virginity of the great outdoors or to Orientalism (Danteur, this issue). These professional agents of the tourism system must be creative, and the most effective could be compared to impromptu playwrights or film makers.
The necessarily interdisciplinary analysis of tourist imaginaries seeks to understand the contemporary phenomenon of tourism. A conception which pushes further is required, however, to avoid the "stereotyped analysis of stereotypes." If we accept the imaginary defined by Durant (1994) as the "museum of all images past, possible, produced or that could be produced," Debarbieux (2003) invites us to consider it "not as a mystifying fantasy, but as a mental faculty and psychological construct, which can mobilize and make the elements of this "museum" of images work together.
The demystification of the tourist imaginary invites the researcher to systematically analyze the components and their genealogy. Stimulating as it is for researchers to analyze the tourism imaginary, it is also of interest for practical applications, which concern the entire chain of tourism. Tourism marketing, which feeds on imaginaries and has long contributed to remaking, proves the fact that the tourism sector was concerned with these issues since well before researchers seized on them.

Images and Imaginaries

"A society is properly established through iconic and semantic creation that permanently reorganizes an upwelling of figures, shapes and images" (Castoriadis 1975). Tourist imaginaries therefore, are made up of shared representations, fueled by - or associated with - material images (postcards, posters, blogs, films and videos, guide books, brochures, magazines, as well as handicrafts and other artifacts) and intangible ones (legends, tales, accounts, speeches, anecdotes, memories), worked by the imagination and socially shared by tourists and/or the other actors in the tourism system (indeed sometimes by both sides, even if they do not share the same meaning). Present since the beginnings of tourism, material and intangible images play an even more important role today, in the context of a modern society characterized by the omnipresence of images - many of which are specifically generated by tourism (Harvey 1989: 290). Among the material images, national cultural or ethnic souvenirs are particularly important. As local people try to manufacture and market aspects of their own traditions that can generate tourist imaginaries, they must also know and meet the expectations of tourists. (Graburn 1976). These images have a dynamic relationship with imaginaries, and are constantly reworked. Images and imaginaries shift continuously between correspondence and dissonance which either confirm by the closeness or illustrate the gap between the "real" and its representation. These correspondences or dissonances can provoke feelings of discomfort or pleasure, attraction or repulsion.

Images and tourist imaginaries interfere with the creative processes of tourists and local communities, showing tourist sites in a new light and creating new ones. They can provoke the imagination and allow the creation or recreation of the tourist sites. Although dynamic, their relationship can be characterized by a great inertia tied to stereotypes. Though images can easily change, the evolution of imaginaries does not follow the same timescales. Slower to evolve, they are iconic obstacles to perceiving the site. They can sometimes become "traps" in which places find themselves stuck (Naef, this issue). To paraphrase Rautenberg (2011), tourist imaginaries permit a reading of tourist sites "
by assembling images and social representations through such representations as the logo, the icon, the heroic figure, the urban myth or the stereotype4».

Imaginaries between Production and Consumption

Imaginaries of places, destinations and trips are produced and consumed by various populations around the globe, through the increasing role of media and opportunities for travel. The tourism system indeed maintains a close relationship with the imaginaries that support, shape, and guide it. For all this these imaginaries are not limited exclusively to the sphere of tourism. They surpass it and transcend it to characterize and model the spaces to which they refer, the people within them, and the meanings attributed to them. The analysis of their contribution to contemporary understanding of the phenomenon of tourism involves not only in interweaving of the "triple quest" of tourism (those of place, self and other) according to R. Amirou (1992) but also the considering how the territories respond to, accompany or generate this quest.
Their constitution is thus dialectical: while they are largely produced and mobilized by the tourism industry and by local tourism policies, imaginaries are also produced and appropriated by the tourists themselves who can criticize, reformulate or reject them. They can also be co-produced by participants and local people who want to implement tourism projects or to create an identity. They induce relations of reflexivity between tourists, local communities, and local, national or international actors and scholarly discourse.
Tourist imaginaries are thus simultaneously seized by both the production side and the reception side, as a form of mediation that assumes a transmitter and a receiver with all the complexity of the circuits mediation entails. Their analysis must capture and examine producers of the imaginaries working in the sphere of tourism, those for whom the co-production of imaginaries of place is a prerequisite for the sale of a tourism product, it must also analyze the images formed by the "consumers" for whom the imaginary intervenes in the decision to take a trip.

Tourist Imaginaries, Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

In his work on the Maasai, N. Salazar (2009) examines how tourism and the fantasies associated with it have the potential to reshape the host populations (Naef, this issue). "More than the actual movement itself, touristic culture prepares people to see other places as objects of tourism, and it prepares those places to be seen."
Turning to the contexts to which it refers, the tourist imaginary leaves its mark on tourist regions and their populations. B. Debarbieux (this issue) shows how the tourist imaginary participates in the construction of new local identities which come to draw their sources (their legitimacy and inspiration) from the tourist imaginary: "The inhabitants of a place frequented by tourists quickly learn how they are perceived not only by the tourists but also by the media."

The tourist imaginary influences and shapes tourist areas or those that are in the process of coming into being. Based on the case study of a place that is trying to develop tourism, Naef (this issue) shows how a war-related imaginary, by sharing painful images conveyed largely by the most recent European conflict, is exploited by local actors in the endeavour, whose the outcome is still uncertain, to create a tourist imaginary that "conforms" to the imaginary of the place itself.

Bouhkris (this issue) shows how the performativity of tourist imaginary ultimately contributes to identifying the nation-building project as a “virtuous” tourist imaginary. The tourist imaginary plays the role of a self-fulfilling prophecy, helping to bring about the imagined territoriality (Staszak, 2000). Though Danteur (this issue), warns against simplistic reading which might consider that tourist sites as the mere result of "a staging of an exactly reproduced imaginary," the analyses that the researchers contribute to this collection suggest that the tourist imaginary "no longer appears just as a way to 'see' the world, but also as a way to 'make' the world” (Boukhris, this issue).

A Genealogy of Tourist Imaginaries

The imaginary of a tourist site or a circuit is formed from the slow sedimentation of images that in some cases have developed since the beginning of tourist development of the site. Favored views, engravings, and travel accounts have all participated since the very beginnings of tourism in the consolidation of tourist spots. Produced by artists, scholars, scientists and intellectuals at first, for international elites, before being taken up by popular narratives, they are the origin of representations that forever characterize the tourist destinations, even if only in part.
The analysis of their temporality can be very rich, because it places at the center those representations that deliberately shape and redirect imaginaries, instrumentally or otherwise. It can help identify permanence and ruptures, conformity and dissonance, and the impact of new players as they progressively enter the touristic scene: tourist populations themselves, intermediaries, leading local or foreign personalities.

The analysis of imaginaries and their ideological, aesthetic, philosophical and political foundations can be used to follow the touristic trajectory of a place: how did it become touristic? How does it evolve in the travelers’ imaginaries? Or on the contrary, how does it remain static in their imagination, even though it has changed profoundly? And how is a single destination represented by the different national cultures? Or, within the same country, by people from different social classes, genders or age groups?
It is all these dimensions brought forth in the articles collected in this first issue of Via @ which, following the conference "Tourism imaginaries/imaginaires touristiques," carry forward the ambition to promote this research topic by wagering that it can play a major role in understanding the trajectory of tourist destinations and, thus, the role that tourism plays in contemporary societies.


1The Tourism Studies Working Group wishes to acknowledge the generous sponsorship of the conference by the Department of Anthropology, Canadian Studies Program, East Asia National Resource Center, Department of Ethnic Studies, Farrand Fund of the Department of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning, Center for Latin American Studies, Portuguese Studies Program, Center for South East Asia Studies, and the Townsend Center for the Humanities, of the University of California, Berkeley; Routledge Press, PLC, Berghahn Publishers PLC; and the Consulate General of France, San Francisco.
2 EIREST : Equipe Interdisciplinaire de REcherches Sur le Tourisme, IREST, Université Paris 1, Panthéon-Sorbonne.
3 TSWG : Tourism Studies Working Group, University of California at Berkeley.
4 The author defines the emblem as a conventional sign intended to represent an idea, an event, a place; the icon as an image of an entity carries a meaning recognized by convention, like a postcard; the stereotype as a shortcut, a opinion summarized in a few words and related to certain human characteristics (Rautenberg, 2011).


Amirou R. (ed.), 2001, Imaginaire, tourisme et exotisme, Montpellier, Publications de l’université de Montpellier III.

Bourdieu P., 1984,
Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, London, Routledge.

Castoriadis C., 1975,
L’institution imaginaire de la société, Paris, Seuil.

Corlan-Ioan S., 2001, « Imaginer Tombouctou »,
Les Cahiers de l’IRSA, Imaginaire, tourisme et exotisme, n°5, 39-46.

Debarbieux B., 2003, « Imaginaire Géographique », in Lévy J. & Lussault M.,
Dictionnaire de Géographie, Paris, Belin.

Debarbieux B. et Rudaz G., 2010,
Les faiseurs de montagnes : imaginaires politiques et territorialités, XVIIIe – XXI e siècle, Paris, CNRS, collection Espaces et milieux.

Durand G., 1994,
L’imaginaire, Essai sur les sciences et la philosophie de l’image, Paris, Hatier.

Equipe MIT, 2002,
Tourismes 1. Lieux communs, Paris, Belin.

Graburn N. (ed.), 1976,
Ethnic and Tourist Arts: Cultural Expressions from the Fourth World, Berkeley, University of California Press.

Graburn N., 2000, “Learning to Consume: What is Heritage and When is it Traditional?” in Nezar AlSayyad (ed.),
Consuming Tradition, Manufacturing Heritage, London, Routledge, 68-89.

Graburn N. & Gravari-Barbas M., 2011, Introduction au numéro thématique « Imagined Landscapes of Tourism »,
Journal of Tourism and Cultural Change, vol. 3, n°3, 159-166.

Harvey D., 1989,
The condition of postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change, Oxford, Blackwell.

Menagaldo H. et G., 2007,
Les imaginaires de la ville, entre littérature et arts, Rennes, PUR.

Salazar N., 2009, “Imaged or imagined? Cultural representations and the “Tourismification” of Peoples and Places”,
Cahiers d’Etudes Africaines, n°193-194, 49-72.

Salazar N., 2011,
Envisioning Eden: Mobilizing Imaginaires in Tourism and Beyond, London, Berghahn.

Staszak J.-F., 2000, « Prophéties auto-réalisatrices et géographie »,
L'Espace Géographique, n°2, 105-119.

Staszak J.F., 2008, « Qu’est-ce que l’exotisme » ?,
Le Globe, Revue genevoise de géographie, n°148, 7-30.

Urbain J.-D., 1991,
L’idiot du voyage, histoire de touristes, Paris, Payot.

Urbain J.-D., 2002,
Sur la plage, Mœurs et coutumes balnéaires, Paris, Payot.


Electronic refence:
Maria Gravari-Barbas, Nelson Graburn, Tourist imaginaries, Via@, Tourist imaginaries, n°1, 2012, published online on march the 16th 2012.
URL : http://www.viatourismreview.net/Editorial1_EN.php


Maria Gravari-Barbas
IREST, EIREST, Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne

Nelson Graburn
TSWG, University of California, Berkeley


Nelson Graburn
TSWG, University of California, Berkeley




News in brief

Book reviews
Call for Papers
PhD abstracts
the journal

All issues
Last issue
About the journal

Submit an article

Via@ 2.0
ISSN in progress