Proximity (or near-home) tourism has made a boisterous comeback with COVID-19 Indeed, lockdown restrictions left us no option. Apart from a few miraculous destinations, there was nothing for it but to travel local. While it has also been brandished as a miracle solution to the challenges of climate change, proximity tourism was, in fact, already a reality.
Proximity is the rule
Proximity, particularly in the expression “proximity tourism”, is now considered a virtue. In the fight against global warming, to which tourists contribute through their travel movements in particular, this could be the miracle solution: travelling to nearby places would reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But this common-sense statement is arguable.
First of all, proximity is already the solution for people whose economic means are limited but still sufficient for them to take holidays. Reducing transport costs helps when managing a tight budget. The valleys around large cities welcome city dwellers, especially in no-frills camp sites.
Also, this poses no major challenge to those lucky enough to live in a region whose characteristics align with the social codes of the moment. Thus, engaging in proximity tourism in the mountains or in a relatively warm seaside destination is not the same for a resident of Valenciennes (a low-lying, inland commune) as for a Corsican. Indeed, living in a tourist region has already been identified as a reason for not going away.
All told, proximity is already the rule. In all the administrative regions of France (since statistics are compiled by administrative region and we are here using the pre-2015 administrative regions), inhabitants of the region come in second just after visitors from Ile-de-France, the richest and most populous region, and visitors from Rhone-Alpes in Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur and Midi-Pyrénées (Violier et al., 2021). By studying the scale of journeys made, Christophe Terrier and Françoise Potier (2007) demonstrated this close relationship between where people live and where they holiday (Ill. 1). The idea of proximity can also be applied internationally (ill. 2a and 2b). Indeed, when we travel from France or from China, we travel to neighbouring countries. The main foreign destinations for the French are in Europe, and those for the Chinese in South Asia.
An inappropriate solution?
The COVID-19 pandemic has revived the debate, and proximity tourism has been brandished as THE solution. This magic formula raises some questions (Violier, 2022; Frochot et al., 2022).
The first relates to the meaning of tourism. According to Elias and Dunning (1998), the social practice unfurled in the context of industrial civilisation as a way for individuals to take a break from their commitments and routines. So, considering this concept of recreation does proximity tourism fit the bill? What this boils down to is highlighting the diversity of territories and the poor match between some of them and societal values, as observed above, but also to pointing out that displacement is justified by the reality of practices, which reflect the need of populations. If individuals are flocking from Northern European towns and cities to the Mediterranean coast, they are doing so for sun, sea and sand, the Holy Grail for today’s Europeans seeking a restful summer getaway. This results in the medium-range displacement of populations who lack this type of coastline at home. Conversely, initiatives such as “La Loire à vélo” (“The Loire by bike”), which have improved the safety of biking and the supply of biking related services, make proximity tourism a desirable option, at least for those who do not live too far away.
The second question relates to discovering the world. Proximity tourism sounds like a renouncement. While we can certainly have a profusion of images and videos of sites and landscapes to fall back on, there are two limitations to this proposal. On the one hand, the emotions stirred by watching a film are far from equal to those experienced when visiting a site in person. Even the widely and repeatedly disseminated views of landscapes or situations do nothing to limit the pleasure of experiencing them first hand.
On the other hand, of course, in the virtual world, there are no encounters with people. First of all, we have real exchanges of various kinds with local inhabitants: from a simple “hello” or watchful look to friendly and romantic relations, and even tensions and confrontations. While tourists are not always ready for these human encounters, the inhabitants are not necessarily so either and do not always have a firm handle on how to manage them, particularly on a linguistic level, with the language barrier remaining the greatest limitation on both sides.
Tourism is also an economic exchange. This is a topic studied at great length in the specialist literature. Authors systematically perceive it as a game of domination with the overall picture less than satisfactory. But the strong condemnation at the end of the 20th century (Turner and Ash, 1975; Cazes, 1992), has been relativised by more recent writings highlighting that the variable sharing of the benefits. In some situations, it is true that local people are only left with the crumbs. But the domination they experience is not only caused by Westerners or by tourism. For example, the San of Botswana are subject to the hegemony of the ruling Bantu majority, more because of the wealth of the subsoil than tourism per se. In other cases, control of the tourism process and enrichment benefit at least some of the inhabitants (Sacareau, 1997). Therefore, this systematic condemnation of tourism should give way to an analysis of the interplays between actors in variable and changing situations (Jouault, 2018)
Philippe VIOLIER and Philippe DUHAMEL
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