Urban Tourism

Urban tourism refers to the consumption of city spectacles (such as architecture, monuments, and parks) and cultural amenities (such as museums, restaurants, and performances) by visitors. Studying urban tourism requires taking seriously leisure activities and transient populations, features of the city that much of past urban theory declines to address. However, a number of developments in recent decades have led tourism to assume a larger place in urban scholarship. As industrial manufacturing deserts dense urban areas, entertainment plays an expanded role in many city economies. Leisure and consumption for some means work and profits for others. The attraction and accommodation of visitors has become a central concern for public and private city elites. The sizable but fleeting population of visitors to the city has a surprising influence over local politics, investment choices, and the built environment.

The label ‘‘tourist’’ frequently evokes pejorative connotations, which color not only popular but also scholarly representations. While crude stereotypes of the tourist suggest a plodding brute oblivious to all but the most obvious and pre packaged attractions of the urban landscape, the leisure activity of tourism in fact contains a wide range of consumption activities and orientations toward the city. Moreover, the ‘‘business or pleasure’’ distinction obscures the fact that many trips are multipurpose, with business travelers also shopping, visiting museums, and dining out. Susan Fainstein and Dennis Judd advocate the use of the term visitor rather than tourist, and see tourism as a particular mode of activity in which visitors engage. Especially today, even permanent residents may at times use aspects of their own cities ‘‘as if tourists,’’ consuming its spectacular, exotic, and heterogeneous amenities (Lloyd & Clark 2001).

Cities have long been privileged destinations for visitors as well as sites of residence. The ancient city was a destination for pilgrims, merchants, political envoys, and adventurers, some of whom produced accounts of the exotic spectacles they encountered. The industrial revolution led to rapid growth in the permanent populations of large European and US cities during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. During the industrial epoch large cities remained spaces of spectacle and a multitude of entertainments. In the prototypical industrial city of Chicago, for example, city elites were not satisfied merely being hog butcher to the world, actively seeking to enhance the city’s cultural image and attract visitors by launching the Columbian exposition of 1892 (in which the Ferris Wheel was introduced).

Still, the sociological study of the city, grounded in the massive growth of urban areas coinciding with the industrial revolution, has traditionally treated tourism peripherally if at all. The last half century, however, has brought significant change. Industry has increasingly declined in the older cities of the US and other developed nations, enhanced technologies of transportation and communication have made travel far more convenient and widely available, and the aesthetic and experiential dimensions of consumption have come to play an arguably much greater role in the global economy. Fast growing cities like Las Vegas and Orlando feature economies primarily organized around tourism and consumption. For old and new cities, the active production of spectacle and consumption opportunities is now a crucial feature of the political economy. In this case, tour ism can no longer be a tertiary concern for urban theory.

In the 1980s, newly popular theories of post modernism took the lead in examining the city as a site of spectacle and consumption. Focusing on the signifying qualities of the material landscape, thinkers such Umberto Eco, Jean Baudrillard, and Mark Gottdeiner direct considerable attention to tourist destinations like the Las Vegas strip and Disneyland. The postmodern tendency to emphasize the transient and the ephemeral in social life likewise results in considerable attention to the spaces and activities of tourists. In this light it is unsurprising that Frederic Jameson identifies Los Angeles’s Bonaventure Hotel as the signature space of ‘‘postmodernism in the city.’’ While these approaches have been influential, the mostly semiotic method employed in them is dissatisfying for many sociologists.

Disneyland and Las Vegas remain potent models that inform the study of the post industrial city as an object of consumption. Many theorists advance the notion that the city itself is increasingly constructed as a theme park in order to entice consumers. These approaches, which can be called the ‘‘Disneyfication’’ or ‘‘theme park’’ models of urban tourism (Sorkin 1992; Hannigan 1998; Bryman 2004), emphasize homogenizing tendencies in large cities, as tourist spaces come to look much the same from one city to the next. They focus on the injection of large scale developments such as sports stadiums, convention halls, and shopping malls into formerly decaying areas. Baltimore’s Inner Harbor and Chicago’s Navy Pier are signature spaces of this style of redevelopment in the US. These spaces of consumption tend to be highly segregated from the rest of the city and the everyday activity of residents. Hence, Judd (1999) identifies the construction of ‘‘tourist bubbles,’’ districts that organize tourist activity in a highly regimented fashion while actively excluding undesirable elements.

The success of Disneyfied tourist entertainment is more uneven than these approaches usually anticipate, and themed entertainment venues like Planet Hollywood and the Rainforest Cafe routinely failed during the 1990s. Critics like Michael Sorkin (1992) decry the ‘‘inauthenticity’’ of themed spaces; what is increasingly clear is that tourists themselves often wish to consume what they perceive to be authentic attractions within a city. Rather than the homogenization of the urban landscape that Disneyfication anticipates, these attractions derive from specific aspects of local identity. Many cities combine large scale theme developments with more ‘‘indigenous’’ cultural attractions. Grazian (2003) shows that tourists search for authenticity in entertainments such as the Blues in Memphis and Chicago, or country music in Nashville. Local venues strategize to satisfy these expectations, producing what MacCannell (1999) identifies as ‘‘staged authenticity.’’ Often, tourists practice multiple styles of consumption, in Chicago visiting obligatory attractions like Navy Pier, the Sears Tower Observation Deck, and the splendid shopping of the Miracle Mile, while also attempting to locate the ‘‘real’’ Chicago in smoky Blues clubs ‘‘off the beaten path.’’

Indeed, the attraction of cities for tourists derives from both the breadth and the depth of urban culture. Breadth signals the diversity of attractions that center city districts are uniquely poised to offer, which can include professional sports, museums of various sorts, high, low, and middlebrow theater, musical performances, and an exceptionally wide range of dining and shopping opportunities. Depth refers to the cumulative nature of a city’s identity (Suttles 1984), the resonance that attaches to particular aspects of the built environment and local culture. These include landmarks like the Eiffel Tower, the Golden Gate Bridge, or the Empire State Building. Tourists may experience Yankee Stadium as pleasantly haunted by the ghosts of Ruth and Mantle and the streets of Greenwich Village by past generations of storied bohemians. Thus, while some popular tourist destinations such as Orlando and Las Vegas are constituted almost entirely by prefabricated entertainments, and revel in the absence of depth, many others are valued for a place identity that emerges from distinct and varied histories.

At a more mundane but equally important level, cities contain essential infrastructure, achieved through a balance of public and private investment, which enables them to accommodate large numbers of visitors. Such infrastructure includes airports, convention centers, and significant amounts of lodging. Conventions are major vehicles for attracting visitors, and in these cases corporate expense accounts underwrite consumption in restaurants and other entertainment venues. Just as Chicago competed to win the Columbian Exposition near the end of the nineteenth century, entering the twenty first century urban boosters are locked in competition for major conventions as well as other high profile, visitor attracting events such as the Olympics or the Super Bowl.

Local boosters argue that new tourist attractions generate multiplier effects that will improve the tax base and benefit permanent residents. Actual results have been uneven. While the entertainment economy of large cities implies a substantial workforce, the service jobs created are often far less promising than the manufacturing jobs that they replace, representing a mostly disorganized sector of cleaning personnel, kitchen staff, ticket takers, and the like. Casino gaming, a strategy for attracting tourist dollars recently turned to by the most economically desperate urban districts, including downtown Detroit and Gary, appears to produce particularly dubious effects for the local quality of life of poor residents.

The costs and benefits of tourist enterprises promise to be important objects of both theoretical and policy analyses in coming years. In the wake of the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center, security has emerged as another key factor in the regulation of city visitors that will bear considerable scrutiny. Long ignored, the relationship between cities and their visitors has become a core concern in contemporary urban theory.


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  2. Bryman, A. (2004) The Disneyization of Society. Sage, Thousand Oaks, CA.
  3. Eco, U. (1986) Travels in Hyperreality. Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, New York.
  4. Gottdeiner, M. (1995) Postmodern Semiotics: Material Culture and the Forms of Postmodern Life. Blackwell, Oxford.
  5. Grazian, D. (2003) Blue Chicago: The Search for Authenticity in Urban Blues Clubs. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
  6. Hannigan, J. (1998) Fantasy City: Pleasure and Profit in the Postmodern Metropolis. Routledge, New York.
  7. Hoffman, L. M., Fainstein, S. S., & Judd, D. R. (Eds.) (2003) Cities and Visitors: Regulating People, Markets and City Space. Blackwell, Oxford.
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  9. Judd, D. R. (1999) Constructing the Tourist Bubble. In: Judd, D. R. & Fainstein, S. (Eds.), The Tourist City. Yale University Press, New Haven.
  10. Lloyd, R. & Clark, T. N. (2001) The City as an Entertainment Machine. Research in Urban Sociol ogy: Critical Perspectives on Urban Redevelopment 6: 357-78.
  11. MacCannell, D. (1999) The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class. University of California Press, Berkeley.
  12. Sorkin, M. (Ed.) (1992) Variations on a Theme Park. Hill & Wang, New York.
  13. Suttles, G. (1984) The Cumulative Texture of Local Urban Culture. American Journal of Sociology 90: 283-304.
  14. Urry, J. (1990) The Tourist Gaze. Sage, London.

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