Discovery is one of the tourist practices, along with rest, play, shopping and sociability. Tourists generally discover destinations on a circuit, but some cities and rural areas feature enough remarkable scenery or monuments to warrant longer stays.

Tourist practices developed from the evolution of two forms of travel that existed before tourism. One is the Grand Tour, which helped establish the practices of discovery.

Discovery of “cultural heritage” and “natural heritage”

Discovery tourism stemmed from the evolution of the Grand Tour, according to John Towner (1985), which shifted from an initiatory and encyclopaedic journey at the turn of the 19th century to a thematic journey focused on an appreciation for Antiquity, landscapes and society. The British were previously sensitised to the landscape with the profound restructuring of the road network due to the enclosure movement starting in the late 18th century. Traffic routes were redesigned according to landscape perspectives and views of or from their estates (Alonso, 2018: p. 161).

The Grand Tour popularised the idea of heritage, which became established in the first third of the 19th century, focusing on Historical Monuments and the classification established in France in 1840 under the leadership of Prosper Mérimée. If the appreciation for Antiquity generated interest in the vestiges of the past and put an end to their destruction or reuse (old buildings were a fantastic source of cut stone), heritage signified a new attitude summarised by three words: protect, safeguard, restore. At the same time, another discovery tourism object appeared: museums, which were developed throughout the 18th century, culminating with the temporary opening of the first Louvre Museum (1793-1796), before it opened in 1801 under the name of Napoleon Museum.

But discovery also meant admiring landscapes as part of the Grand Tour, still a powerful theme in the 19th century. However, the scenic countryside was not the only area appreciated. Thanks to the work of scientists, painters and novelists, the high mountains and the seaside became new landscapes to contemplate, whereas they had been feared and avoided for centuries in Europe (Corbin, 1988 and Broc, 1991). This brought about a powerful reversal of the hierarchy of landscapes. The “sublime terrors” as they were called at the time, were some of the sites visited early on. For instance, Chamonix was visited by 1500 tourists in the summer of 1763 for the “Glacières de Chamouny” (Broc, 1991), called Mer de Glace since well before the conquest of the Mont Blanc in 1786. The admiration for scenic landscapes gained new momentum when the Americans celebrated their wilderness by opening Yosemite State Park in 1864 and Yellowstone in 1872, the first National Park. In 1898, John Muir (2020: p. 65-66) wrote “These grand reservations should draw thousands of admiring visitors at least in summer” in order to elicit admiration for the natural elements in their environment. So-called “natural” heritage was forging a place alongside “cultural” heritage. In fact, “natural” heritage is not actually “natural” because it is produced by a selection according to representations and codes based on elements not constructed by humans.

The appreciation for heritage, which began in Europe, is a core component of the practice of discovery tourism. Several forms of observation explain the longevity of this activity. The European colonisations around the world spread a certain way of seeing and doing things. Scenic landscapes of interest were identified and began to attract visitors, from Niagara Falls to the Great Wall of China, from Machu Picchu to Ayers Rock. Additionally, an attraction developed for sights that “move the heart and the soul” (Mignot, 1989), in other words less monumental, more banal buildings and landscapes, very common in European countries.

This process of heritage creation has been a long one, and is reflected in a world map of discovery tourism that expresses the globalness of each type (Violier and Taunay, 2019). Finally, it is interesting to note that all discovery practices are related to each other (Ill. 1) and that the places distinguished by the Grand Tour, the Napoleonic conquests and European colonisation are still tourist destinations today.

Ill. 1. Discovery as a driver of tourism practices (source: Vacher and Sacareau in Mobilités, Itinéraires, Tourismes (MIT), 2011)

Discovery fuelled by modernity

The other facet of discovery is the modernity embodied by cities. Many tourists travelled to admire the cities that were built during the 19th century according to the Roman precepts of the grid plan, sidewalks, and boulevards. At that time, the focus was on safety (to fight fires), health (to fight epidemics with more spacious and airy cities), and controlling urban uprisings (boulevards provided easier access for troops and were more difficult to block).

This urban modernity was also strengthened by the construction of hotels in the contemporary sense of the term, which were a real innovation in terms of comfort up until the 1930s (Tissot, 2007). Their monumental architecture radically transformed the urban space in cities like London and Paris, with the Grand Hôtel du Louvre (1855) or the Grand Hôtel (1862) by Emile and Isaac Pereire. The tourist resort towns of the time also benefited from new hotels, such as the Excelsior Hotel Regina in Nice (1893-1894) and the Poinciana Hotel in Palm Beach built by Henry Flagler and inaugurated in 1894. In the United States, this modernity was also embodied by the construction of skyscrapers starting in 1880 and the buildings that have become tourist icons: in New York, for example, the Flatiron, the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building whose 86th floor platform offers breathtaking views of the city since 1933.

The same driving force still operates in cities today. These forces can take on various forms, including the resurgence of Grand Hotels in the 1990s, whereas none had been built since the 1929 stock market crash. This trend may have been launched by Dubai’s Burj El Arab, which opened in 1999. Additionally, many cities began transforming their former industrial areas into business and leisure districts, a movement that began in Baltimore in the 1970s and can now be seen in examples such as the Masséna district in Paris, which features modern monuments like the Très Grande Bibliothèque, and the cluster of towers on Pudong Island in Shanghai. Dubai’s destination project exemplifies contemporary urban modernity in all aspects, from the creation of huge artificial islands to a ski dome and the construction of the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa. This project has become a model for urban planning, showing how exceptions can gradually become the norm.

For a long time, this urban type of modernity was hardly ever seen in rural areas. However, the trend of starchitecture and the “wow factor” has led to the creation of new tourist destinations in vineyards and wineries, known as “wine tourism”. In these areas, the buildings are designed by the same architects that create other iconic edifices, such as contemporary museums. For instance, Franck Gehry, who designed the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao (1997) and the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles (2003), also designed the Marquès del Riscal Hotel in Rioja, Spain, which was inaugurated in 2006 by King Juan Carlos himself.

Discovery, a dialectical relationship with alterity

The past and present trends of discovery tourism also reflect other issues. Fundamentally, the goal is to experience alterity and engage with other cultures and global diversity. This is often achieved through travel circuits that allow visitors to visit different places and environments. However, extended stays are also common, particularly in cities that boast a wealth of spectacular attractions. This is particularly true for global or national metropolises, particularly the capitals of long-established nations that showcase their cultural heritage and modernity (Duhamel, 2007).

But dialectically, discovery involves dealing with diversity that can sometimes prove difficult. This can be facilitated by organisations that offer various travel options, from all-inclusive packages to more independent arrangements, allowing people to stay in their comfort zone when it comes to alterity. These services offered by tour operators should not be seen as restrictive, as critics are wont to point out, but rather as opportunities for exploration and flexibility. In his 1984 book Les Bidochons en Voyage Organisé, Binet illustrates how multilingual messages played over the PA system and the on-site personnel provided by tour operators can assist travellers in navigating unfamiliar situations, such as taking an airplane for the first time. The book also highlights how individuals can still maintain some autonomy and take back power even within organised tours, as demonstrated through acts of rebellion by tourists during a visit to an umpteenth monastery, in a country that one assumes to be in Orthodox Central Europe.

Discovery is exhausting

Organised discovery tour packages generally feature a packed itinerary with many attractions to see within a limited time frame to ensure that the tourists feel they are getting their money’s worth. To accommodate this, many tours end with a period of rest. For example, activity-packed safaris in Kenya involve early morning and late night game drives to ensure animal sightings, but typically end with a relaxing stay on the beaches of the small coast south of Mombasa. Similarly, after appreciating the pyramids from all angles and at different times of the day, a trip to the Red Sea beaches is usually recommended before returning home.

Philippe Duhamel, Philippe Violier and Johan Vincent


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