Butler model

In 1980, Richard W. Butler developed a model for understanding how tourist locations evolve over time. At the time, his model represented a significant advancement, showing that tourist locations are invented by tourists, an aspect that had previously gone unnoticed. However, it has been oversimplified. Butler suggested several possible evolutions, but only one took hold: “too many tourists will destroy tourism”. Furthermore, several shortcuts and risky predictions can be noted.

Richard Butler was a geographer at the University of Western Ontario when he published his tourism cycle of evolution model in 1980 in the Canadian Geographer (Vol. XXIV, pp. 5-12) that correlated the evolution to the increase in numbers of tourists.

The tourism cycle of evolution model

The author was inspired by the market penetration curve used in marketing. While Butler saw rejuvenation or decline as possible alternatives once the stagnation stage has been reached, his model has often been oversimplified to imply that “too many tourists will destroy tourism”. Butler’s article also addressed the formation of a system of actors, from businesses to local society, that are involved in creating and managing tourist locations.

This analysis was a breakthrough in its time. It represented a new approach to modelling the evolution of tourist locations and challenged the fixed stance of previous tourism specialists who relied on concepts such as potential or vocation to explain the development of tourism.

Butler, who also cites Plog and Cohen (1972), associates the first stage with the arrival of a small number of individuals referred to as “allocentrics” (Plog, 1972) or “explorers” (Cohen, 1972). Thus, the development of tourism is the result of tourists arranging their own travel: “making individual travel arrangements and following irregular visitation patterns“. This had been demonstrated by Micheline Cassou-Mounat in her thesis (1977) for Arcachon.

However, this model has several limitations

André Suchet (2015) has pointed out some of these limitations, but more can be said on this subject. Firstly, the marketing model represents the rate of market penetration of a product, and the vertical axis measures progression in relative value, but Butler’s model uses absolute values, which is not statistically sound.

Secondly, it is widely accepted that the influx of tourists changes the nature of a place, making it urban, but why would this be considered a decline? The catastrophic tone of the model should be questioned. An increase in visitors is seen as an opportunity by entrepreneurs and foreign chains, but it does not necessarily lead to the exclusion of locals. There are many examples where this is not the case. In fact, many authors have shown that regional and local capitalism can thrive even with an increase in tourism, as demonstrated by Thérèse Rouleau-Racco in Rimini (2017).

Finally, the inevitable and undeniable transformation of a place is often viewed as denaturation and artificialisation.

“Natural and genuine cultural attractions will probably have been superseded by imported ‘artificial’ facilities. The resort image becomes divorced from its geographic environment.”

Furthermore, Butler’s model simplifies the evolution of tourist locations to an excessive degree, treating all types of locations as if they were the same. While the French tourism research group Mobilités, Itinéraires, Tourismes (MIT) did not make the distinction between created and invested tourist locations until 2002, it is important to note that a tourist city with a diversified economy may evolve differently than a specialised tourist resort, a concept that is missing in Butler’s analysis.

Last but not least, it is worth noting that many historically established tourist locations from the 18th century are still popular tourist destinations today or have evolved into something else, but have not disappeared entirely. The dynamics of these locations are more complex than this model suggests. Some have become residential areas in cities, others have diversified with the help of tourism, showing that tourism is not an end in itself. While a model by definition is a simplification, Butler’s model oversimplifies the evolution of tourist locations. The MIT research group’s book Tourisme 3. La révolution durable (2011) points out the resilience of tourist locations and the variety of their outcomes.

Philippe Violier


  • Cohen Eric, 1972, «Towards a sociology of international tourism», Social Research, n°39, p. 164‑182.
  • Équipe MIT, 2011, Tourismes 3. La révolution durable. Paris, Belin, 332 p.
  • Plog Stanley C., 1972, «Why destination areas rise and fall in popularity», Unpublished paper presented to the Southern California Chapter, The Travel Research Association.
  • Suchet André, 2015 , «Pour en finir avec Butler (1980) et son modèle d’évolution des destinations touristiques. Le cycle de vie comme un concept inadapté à l’étude d’une aire géographique», Loisir et Société / Society and Leisure. vol. 38, n°1, p. 7–19, en ligne.