Tourism and learning are closely interconnected in multiple ways. One aspect of this relationship is understanding the knowledge gained “from” and “through” travel, as well as what needs to be learned in order to travel, and the various ways of learning.

Tourism can be seen as a framework of experience (Goffman, 1991) through which those who engage in it are competent actors, able to acquire knowledge and build a new vision of themselves and society. Additionally, professionals in the tourism industry can learn from tourists, for instance to improve their offerings. Examining the relationship between tourism and learning can enrich our understanding not only of the globalisation of tourism, which provides for many new learning situations, but also of lifelong learning and the diverse modalities of learning that exist beyond traditional schooling.

Learning to travel, travelling to learn

“Paris will be my school, Rome my university” (Goethe, 1770)

The educational function of travel has a long history, as seen in the Grand Tour, a journey taken by young European elites, primarily men, starting in the 16th century. The purpose of this journey was to prepare them for positions of power (Boutier, 2004), by learning foreign languages, familiarising themselves with the customs of European courts (dances, arts), perfecting their military skills, discovering new techniques and tools, gaining knowledge of history, geography and botany, etc., and visiting remarkable sites (Ill. 1), particularly of ancient Rome, then ancient Greece and Egypt, forming a common body of references.


Ill. 1. English Tourists in Campagna, Carl Spitzweg, circa 1835 source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Carl_Spitzweg_(11)English_Tourists.JPG?uselang=fr)

Sociological studies have shown that these class-based learning experiences persist today: for elites, it is a way to expand their international capital (Wagner, 2007), strengthen distinctive socialisations in tourist contexts, and acquire skills and experiences that increase their economic, cultural, social, and symbolic capital when they return to school, the workplace (Delpierre, 2017; Passavant, 2018), or the dating scene.

In doing so, tourism participates in a globalised market economy, where polyglossia, adaptability, initiative, and mobility are valued. In this sense, tourism can be self-serving, because it participates in the building and exchange of cultural wealth. As a form of travel, tourism can in turn fuel other forms of mobility, both spatial and social, though it is important not to be deterministic in this regard: not all tourists have the same ability to learn from travel and build upon it as social, economic, and cultural capital when they return home.

One is not born a tourist, but rather becomes one

While the issue of learning appears to be, if not at the origin of contemporary tourism, at least at the origin of the term used to describe this practice with the Grand Tour, it is only recently that this dimension has been taken into account. Researchers had to abandon the negative image of the “idiot tourist” (Urbain, 1991) to focus be placed on the experience (Pine and Gilmore, 1999), a term that invites a connection between experiencing and having experience. Not all tourists have had the same experiences, or the same travel career (Pearce, 1988), and therefore have not learned the same things. It is also important to distinguish two aspects, even if they are closely intertwined: learning a practice that is not innate or spontaneous, and learning or gaining knowledge from the practice, which goes beyond mastering it.

“Therefore, the tourist project formulated by individuals, combining mobility and recreation, requires various skills, a combination of knowledge, know-how, and social awareness.  […] Tourist practices involve transmissions, whether familial or professional, that mobilise a large number of intermediaries and an appropriate organisation of places.”

Mobilités, Itinéraires, Tourismes (MIT), 2011, p. 118

Tourism can be learned without the need for formal schools. How does the practice of tourism come about for individuals? It arises from what is commonly called socialisation. Within the family, children follow their parents in tourism activities and discover the practice without feeling as though they are learning. This can lead to inclinations that will partly determine the tastes of adults (Guibert, 2016).

However, these learnings should not be limited to family-based socialisation. Other experiences outside the family, particularly for children whose families cannot or do not want to travel, should also be taken into account. Multi-day school trips, (Ill. 2), summer camps, school trips abroad, particularly in the context of learning foreign languages, and for older students, Erasmus stays, will all provide experiences and opportunities for learning tourism practices and mobility, and also give some people a taste for travel, which is not just for people who were socialised to travel in their families (Brougère, 2021a).

Ill. 2. Tourism and educational practices in a coastal discovery camp (source: Emmanuelle Peyvel, Ile de Batz, 2019, left, Ile Tudy, 2018, right)

Beyond family or school socialisation, participating in new tourism practices allows for transformations that give rise to new learning experiences. Whether speaking of childhood or new experiences, Barbara Rogoff’s expression “guided participation” (1990) is particularly appropriate for tourism as a process of engaging in new activities while being guided by someone older or more experienced. Guided by parents, teachers or counsellors, older peers, tourism professionals, professional or amateur guides, paper or online guides, or other tourists in person or online through blogs, tourists learn their “tourist career” in various ways. This progressive learning is best observed in forms that require the most experience (such as self-organized long-distance trips, Brougère, 2021a) where progressive learning appears in what can be considered as a career.

However, learning is not limited to those who develop the most autonomous and complex practices. Every form of tourism requires a set of knowledge and may  build on previous experiences to “go further”, in all senses of the term. These informal types of learning can be avoided by settling for the familiar forms of tourisme or by refusing to travel altogether. Thus, learning through tourism can often be implicit or incidental without a learning plan (Schugurensky, 2007). In this way, tourism can lead to on-the-job learning, both in work and in many leisure activities. Beyond this type of learning that is not highly valued and often invisible, we can ask if tourism enables individuals to gain knowledge that goes beyond mastering tourist practices.

Knowing through tourism

The participation of tourists in the spaces they travel through is often limited to tourism activities. This is the criticism often addressed to tourists: they are just passing through, observing without staying, unlike interns or immigrants who stay and can learn in depth. Does this mean that tourists do not learn at all? The position of an exterior observer, of exteriority, is not so different from that of researchers who do not participate, of spectators, or those who, according to Lave and Wenger (1991), are in a legitimate position of peripheral participation. While learning to know a society in depth is inaccessible, tourists do have access to an experience that is limited in terms of time but extensive in terms of space.

This may include geographical or historical knowledge in the sense that tourists handle maps, must orient themselves and build itineraries. They visit places where tourism consists of offering interpretations: imparting their history, significance, and value for the population. This may also include practical knowledge, related to the body, as tourists are required to walk, or swim, and use different means to get around and have fun. Finally, it may also include the knowledge gained by tourists who travel to distant places. While this has been studied for young backpackers (Noy, 2004), it is central in the experiences of older adults and pensioners, encountered in Southeast Asia (Brougère, 2021a). Beyond the rite of passage described by young people, many tourist practices are experienced as ordeals that lead to a transformation of the self. Tourism enables experiences that the routine of daily life and work does not.

What are the underlying mechanisms of this type of learning? In the case of guided exploration, guides are employed not for the mastery of the practice but to discover the world in which the practice takes place, and identify the differences or similarities with other places. The role of the body as a vector of learning is also important. Physical presence creates a relationship with places, the ability to memorise certain aspects, which is different from mediated knowledge that can be gained from a textbook or a documentary (Brougère, 2012, 2015).

Tourism is a leisure activity and, by definition, learning is not the primary purpose (except when engaging in educational or business-related tourism rather than leisure tourism)/ Learning throught tourism is rather a side effect be a side effect that can be simply accepted or in some cases pursued. Tourists may not be interested in learning, choosing not to read or listen to the guide, and racing through the museum as fast as they can so they can spend time on the beach or shopping. On the other hand, some tourists are eager for knowledge and seize every opportunity to learn. Most tourists likely fall somewhere in between. They are curious but also want to be entertained, they want to be in awe but not necessarily to know everything about what produced this wonder.

While tourism is a leisure activity, like any leisure activity in the same way as for instance cinema or literature, it has also been adopted in educational settings. This involves using a leisure activity as a learning tool, such as visiting Rome to gain a better understanding of the history of ancient Rome. This type of tourism includes travel with an educational purpose, overnight or multi-day school field trips, (Brougère and Peyvel, 2023), and study trips that focus on professional goals while still following the general tourism model of short visits, multiple sites and the role of the body in situ (Brougère, 2021b).

Learning from tourism and from tourists

Tourism not only provides a space for tourists to learn, but it also enables the residents of the places they visit, to acquire a range of skills and knowledge that goes beyond their profession. These learning outcomes can be observed at both individual and systemic levels among localized actors.

The Context: Coexistence

These learning experiences occur in a specific context that should be described to explain the learning process. Being a tourist means going to another location to engage in recreation (MIT, 2002). In the places they visit, whether the presence of tourists is dense or sparse populated, it creates a situation of coexistence with permanent residents (MIT, 2002; Lazzarotti, 2006), characterised by alterity: some seeking alterity (tourists) and others dealing with imposed alterity (residents). Although the entire community living permanently in these places is affected, coexistence affects professionals in the tourism industry in particular.

However, tourists bring with them to the places they visit “ways of being, lifestyles, daily routines” (Brougère, 2014: p. 90), which provide exogenous data that can challenge the knowledge and practices of local professionals. The learning process is rooted in the ability to treat this information, to update their knowledge, and adapt activities to the demands of the context. While concepts and theories on informal learning (Brougère and Bézille, 2007; Brougère, 2012; Brougère and Fabbiano, 2014), especially in the workplace, provide a conceptual framework, the analysis needs to be adapted to the context of tourism coexistence.

The Process: Coproduction

From the perspective of the supply side actors, tourism is “primarily a service-oriented business, meaning it involves interaction with a client (the tourist), who is a full-fledged actor in the co-design and co-production of their tourist experience” (Clergeau et Violier, 2013: p. 20). The tourist experience cannot exist without the presence and participation, more or less active, of the tourists (Clergeau et al., 2014: p. 102). This is why the relational aspect is the key component of the service. The objectives of the tasks to be performed are clearly defined, but the operational modes need to be constantly adapted to individuals.

In the context of tourist practices, these adaptations are even more necessary since, for tourists, co-production of the service occurs in places outside their day-to-day lives and that often offer a fluctuating level of alterity (Sacareau, 2012). To fully understand the connection between tourism and learning, it is necessary to examine the localized supply side actors. Some studies have started to focus on this. Isabelle Sacareau (2012) shows how interactions with tourists from around the world allow Nepalese trekking guides to acquire knowledge and skills that are conducive to building spatial and social capital, leading to both individual and community development processes.

A study conducted on the Emilia-Romagna coast (Rouleau-Racco, 2017), where small family-run businesses are prevalent, shows how managers of tourist businesses acquire information about the behaviour and expectations of their clients by observing and directly interacting with them. The information generates tacit knowledge that modifies their interpersonal and relational skills, allowing them to adapt their offerings through a constant process of adjustment and adaptation, both in terms of infrastructure and services (Ill. 3).

Ill. 3. Mario Delbianco’s beach bar in Riccione, Italy (province of Rimini) in the 1950s (source: Delbianco family collection, Riccione).
One of Mario Delbianco’s German customers suggested that he write the slogan, “Gutes Essen und billig” (literally, “good food and cheap”), partially visible in the photo.  Source: interview conducted by Thérèse Rouleau-Racco on August 31, 2012.

The capacity to learn and its corollary of innovation can be measured over the long term both at an individual and collective level. Although the service offering is primarily determined by the businesses, it is the overall offering of the entire region that continuously transforms, and the ability of a destination to grow and continue to attract tourists attests to this transformation (Ill. 4).

Ill. 4. Cattolica Beach (Italy, Rimini province) (source: Ph. Paritani, Archivio Fotografico di Destinazione Turistica Romagna).
On the Romagna coast, the direct relationship with customers has enabled beach concessionaires to adapt their beach infrastructure to changing practices. This evolution depends on a process of complexification and on the increase on the number of infrastructures and services. Where there was once just a simple petanque pitch, there are now volleyball and basketball courts, fitness areas and, when municipal regulations allow it, swimming pools practically on the sand. This has occurred even if adapting to the expectations of others goes against the practices of local actors, as illustrated by this excerpt from an interview with a beach concessionaire in Cattolica (Rimini province): “The pool is also an attraction. It’s true that people come from cities and are used to swimming pools. Some people say ‘the sea…the problems…etc., etc.’ So they go to the pool and are happier. But to swim in chlorinated water instead of going in the ocean, which has never hurt anyone, makes no sense to us. But if the market wants a pool, we will build a pool. We have no choice.” (Interview conducted by Thérèse Rouleau-Racco on August 1, 2012).

Analysing learning and the related challenges at the individual level opens up reflection on the collective level, such as the problems of networking, innovation, as well as competitiveness and the governance of tourist destinations. Research in recent years on local, district, and tourist cluster systems (Fabry, 2009; Fabry and Zegni, 2012; Clergeau and Violier, 2012 and 2013) demonstrates that learning and knowledge dissemination processes play a determining role in the competitiveness and viability of tourist destinations. It is the ability of locally-based professional systems to integrate new knowledge that enables them to adapt to the changing practices of tourists, capitalise on localized expertise, and remain viable over the long term. However, while tourist coexistence carries a potential for learning, not all actors and places benefit equally or in the same way.

Gilles Brougère, Emmanuelle Peyvel and Thérèse Rouleau-Racco


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