Mass (tourism)

Mass tourism is a term that is often thrown around whenever something goes wrong in the world of tourism. But some reflection is needed.

Destructive tourism

Mass tourism is often used pejoratively, stigmatising a poorly considered social practice. There are claims that it is destructive. Recently, a petition against cruises was launched by the group Corse Stop Croisières:

‘Another economy than mass tourism is possible for Corsica. There is a need to transition towards heritage and quality tourism in order to break away from the social insecurity linked to seasonal employment, to create another economic model, one that is healthy and sustainable, making Corsica and Corsicans more independent.’

L’Echo touristique, 7 September 2022

Similarly, the philosopher Laurence Devillairs argues for a ban on tourism, which she says ‘is always mass tourism’:

‘Tourism — why add mass? Tourism is always mass tourism, it is not for the fainthearted, it is a negation of individuality: you want to see and you’re going to see the same thing as other people, you transform what is breathtaking into an advert for guided tours — tourism, therefore, pollutes and destroys. Everyone knows it. I won’t talk about the carbon footprint, the litter, the damaged monuments; I won’t talk about this business of turning the planet into a vast amusement park, where rubbish and empty cans are left lying around after the ride. I won’t insist, because there is no point

L’Express, 2 August 2022

This strong stance, which attacks ‘tourism, which has always been mass tourism’, seems to ignore history, unless one believes, as the sociologist Michel Maffesoli does, that in the past individuals indulged in travel, which, unlike tourism, was full of virtue:

‘Instead of the hordes of tourists gathered by tour operators, people preferred annual get-togethers in campsites and rural lodgings, holidays in someone’s home, on farms, exchanges between rural and urban dwellers. In short, everything that makes a community. Everything that forms the basis of “being together” not built on the value of exchange and the commodification of human relationships, but on a true community ideal. In this way, the tourist journey would regain the initiatory nature of the Grand Tour embarked on by young aristocrats in the 18th century or the Tour de France des Compagnons du Devoir

Michel Maffesoli, 2020

The author, who proclaimed in 2020 the end of tourism — which we know returned more powerful than ever in the summer of 2020 and 2021, and even more so in 2022 — is clearly unaware that individuals who use tour operators to travel have always been in the minority and that get-togethers with family and friends, as he writes, have never ceased to be a part of holidays.

This duality between virtuous travel and its Hyde-like counterpart has been challenged by Jean-Didier Urbain (1991). Moreover, the idea that tourism is destructive is as old as tourism itself, as Claire Hancock (2003) has shown about Paris at the end of the Second Empire, a time when visitor flows remained steady:

‘This issue [of destruction by tourism] seems to have become even more pressing during the Second Empire. In 1867, the aptly named Paris Capitale du Monde described the invasion of the imperial city by barbarian hordes…’

The author goes on to quote Desnoyers and Janin:

‘Paris is no longer the capital of France’s 89 departments. It is called the capital of the world… Indeed, there is no trace of Parisian society left, but Paris is home to the European elite… Paris has a mission, it is the entertainer of Europe… It attracts the Barbarians, but the Barbarians invade it day after day by imposing their habits and customs…’’

The history of mass tourism

How should one respond to these assertions made by uninspired intellectuals? They do not realise that tourism is a system in which the ultimate aim is recreation (MIT Research Group, 2002), one invented at the same time as industrial civilisation. This social practice has even made this possible, giving individuals, exhausted by the pressures and increasing number of constraints exerted on them, the opportunity to replenish themselves. Norbert Élias and Eric Dunning (1994) even place ‘holiday travel’ among the most effective categories of leisure and free time for ‘deroutinisation’.

Tourism is even a metasystem that has gone through several historical phases documented by historians (namely Boyer, 1996; Tissot, 2000) and others (Viard, 1984). Initially reserved for an elite with time and means, its social foundation is expanding. A first step was the transition to large numbers. This momentum was marked by invention, such as printed guidebooks, which replaced travelogues around 1830; tour operators and travel agencies at the instigation of Thomas Cook; and resorts, which were characterised by the construction of hundreds of villas in housing estates after 1850, replacing the few units which until that point had been built annually. In The Voyage of Mr. Perrichon, a comedic play by Eugène Labiche that takes place on the glaciers of Chamounix, the character Majorin exclaims:

‘This Perrichon hasn’t come. I have been waiting for him this hour past. It was certainly to-day that he intended to go to Switzerland with his wife and daughter. The idea of coachmakers going to Switzerland! Coachmakers with 40,000 a year! Coachmakers keeping carriages! What a period! While I only have 2,400, and am a hard working, intelligent fellow… always bending over my desk. To-day I asked for a holiday. I told them I was chosen for the National Guard. I must see Perrichon before his departure. I want to beg him to advance me a quarter of my income, 600 francs. He is going to assume patronising airs… to set up for a man of importance. A coachmaker! Is it not pitiful! He never will come. One would think he did it on purpose.’

The mass tourism that followed this period is a system marked by the greatest number of people having access to tourism. This occurred between the 1930s in the United States and the 1960s in Europe. In France, the rate of ‘holiday’ departures reached 50% in 1973. But this data, produced by INSEE, is based on long stays of four nights or more. It can be assumed that including short stays would bring this symbolic threshold forward by a few years.

However, tourism is not compulsory; for about half of the people living in France who do not go away every year, it is a choice. Some repeatedly refuse to go, while for others it is due to events that affect scheduling throughout the year. In the most developed countries, some people continue to be excluded; associations and public policies are trying to reduce their numbers.

This dynamic of social diffusion is behind negative discourse that characterises evidence of its occurrence, and as this comic shows (Ill. 1), dated 1936, when a privilege ends, the elite do not take it well. Moreover, once the majority of people took up the practice, this was followed in the 1980s by diversified or personalised mass tourism marked by an abundance of discourse and behaviour.

Ill. 1. ‘You didn’t think I would swim in the same water as those Bolsheviks, did you?’, comic by Pol Ferjac, published in Le Canard enchaîné, 12 August 1936 (priv. coll.).

Tourism therefore became mass tourism, and it would be reactionary in the truest sense of the word to lament it. It has therefore spread throughout society, which the elites cannot stand. As Florence Deprest (1997) underlined in her clearly underrated book, what if in the 19th century: ‘“Tourism is mass tourism”, not in numbers but in effect: 1,500 people in the summer of 1765 in Chamonix, even the elites and especially the elites, radically transformed space and society?’ In the 20th century, the surge in the numbers swept away the places already established, with a few exceptions, some of which declined, such as Dinard, and contributed to the dynamism of others, and the creation of new ones. On the one hand, Hyères, founded as a tourist destination by the upper bourgeoisie, embraced social tourism in the mid-20th century, before diversifying visitor numbers at the end of the century. On the other hand, there have been projects spearheaded by the French state such as Mission Racine, which aims to develop the Languedoc-Roussillon coastline, to help French society make the transition to mass tourism.

Mass tourism today taking on the world

The stakes of mass tourism are now being played out on the global stage. The upheavals caused by the spread of the industrial revolution, a movement described as an economic emergence, provided individuals in the countries concerned (or those most advanced in this transformation) with the means to access tourism. Rising incomes and efficient means of transport have paved the way for a second globalisation of tourism (Violier, 2016), after the first which saw Westerners, and only Westerners, travelling to all continents.

This new phase is facing more hostile reactions. Chinese tourists who had only reached a departure rate of 30% before the pandemic are notably lambasted in Japan (quote), and those from mainland China are similarly regarded in Taiwan.

Kyoto: the new temple of mass tourism

As many as 40 million foreigners could visit Japan next year, compared with 8 million in 2008. This unprecedented explosion is particularly acute in the former imperial capital. Incivilities, traffic jams, overcrowded sites… Some inhabitants experience this as an attack on the very soul of Japan and to such an extent that they have coined a phrase to describe these nuisances: ‘kankô kôgai’, or ‘tourist pollution’.

Guillaume Loiret, Le Monde 2

Tourist guides used by Westerners warn them. It is not a question of countering a vague assertion with another strong opinion exalting tourism on principle. There is no doubt that this movement sometimes raises questions, particularly in certain places pushed to the forefront by social codes and habits (Violier and Taunay, 2019). But rather than blaming the practice as a whole, and even the crowd, one should first check that these are tourists in the strict sense of the term. A nuanced approach could then attempt to show that short-sightedness and approximate governance may lead to situations which, in the end, are not irreparable. Examples such as Monte Perdido National Park in the Spanish Pyrenees and the Alhambra in Granada show that tourist flows can be managed. Beyond this, the discourse interwoven between the call to come into contact with the Other and the inability to accept behaviour that is not our own, there is total cacophony.

Philippe Violier


  • Boyer Marc, 1996, L’Invention du tourisme. Paris, Gallimard, coll. «Découvertes Gallimard/ Culture et société», 288 p.
  • Boyer Marc, 2005, Histoire générale du tourisme du XVIe au XXIe siècle. Paris, L’Harmattan.
  • Boyer Marc, 2007, Le tourisme de masse, Paris, L’Harmattan.
  • Deprest Florence, 1997, Enquête sur le tourisme de masse: L’écologie face au territoire. Paris, Éditions Belin, coll. «Mappemonde».
  • Élias Norbert et Eric Dunning, 1994, Sport et civilisation. La violence maîtrisée. Paris, Payot, 369 pages
  • Hancock Claire, 2003 (seconde édition), «Capitale du plaisir: The remaking of imperial Paris», dans Driver Félix et Gilbert David (dir.), Imperial Cities. Landscape, Display and Identity. Manchester et New York, Manchester University Press.
  • Maffesoli Michel, 2020, «Le tourisme moderne est mort. Vive le tourisme postmoderne!», Espaces. n°355, juillet-août.
  • Tissot Laurent, 2000, Naissance d’une industrie touristique. Les Anglais et la Suisse au XIXe siècle. Lausanne, Payot.
  • Urbain Jean-Didier, 1991, L’idiot du voyage. Histoires de touristes. Paris, Payot.
  • Viard Jean, 1984, Penser les vacances. Arles, Actes Sud.
  • Violier Philppe, 2016, «La troisième révolution touristique», dans Violier Philippe, Clergeau Cécile, Duhamel Philippe et Guibert Christophe (dir.), La Troisième Révolution touristique, Mondes du tourisme. Hors-série, en ligne.
  • Violier Philppe et Taunay Benjamin 2019, Les lieux touristiques du Monde. De la mondialisation à la mondialité. Londres, ISTE Editions, 322 p.