Typology of tourisms

It is common in the professional world to invent a tourism of something, as a condition for differentiation. This is echoed by researchers. Different types of tourisms thus form a whole that is as prolific as it is heterogeneous. All this needs to be properly clarified.

A debatable approach

The typological approach that lists the tourisms of something has several limitations.

Firstly, it is a substitute for the definition of tourism for some authors. Michel Frank (1997), addressing the diversity of tourism, argues that it is impossible to define tourism because there are many tourisms: “Many tourisms, which should not obscure the fact that travel mobility, as a fun and leisure activity – the “non-ordinary experience” defined by Urry – remains profoundly elitist, despite the tentative democratisation mentioned above on a global scale.” However, he points to two limitations to this extensive approach: the social practice is mobility and it is part of leisure time. He then provided a critical analysis of the different typologies proposed by authors, underlining that these attempts are bound to fail: “These inevitably arbitrary classifications give a general overview of the tourism phenomenon. Assessments for classification purposes show divergent perceptions, each as true and as random as the others… the differences between the first four [categories] are particularly vague and often correlative” (pp. 87-89).

At the end of that passage, he offers his proposal to the reader: “As far as we are concerned, we will put forward a significantly different typology” (p. 89). He then positioned business tourism first, which is in total contradiction with his previous statement (cf. above). He established a sub-category of “recreational tourism” within the category called “entertainment tourism”, which is different from cultural tourism, from which it can be deduced that it is necessarily off-putting.

Then, the extensive nature of this pseudo typological approach lends itself to an imaginative extravagance. That would not be dramatic if did not wind up placing every travel in an improbable category. The French newspaper Le Monde, in its edition of 12 May 2007, published an interview during which the journalist, Jean-Yves Nau, asked: “What exactly is transplant tourism?”, to which he replied: “It is the geographical movement of different actors (people looking for an organ, surgeons practising transplants, etc.) with the sole purpose of carrying out a transplant at the expense of a vulnerable person …”; the interview then continued: “What do we know about this practice?”: “We know surgeons who are involved in this kind of trafficking. One of them – an Israeli national – was arrested a few days ago in a Turkish clinic for carrying out illegal transplants. There are flows that are very well identified, such as that of Brazilians who go to South Africa to have a kidney removed and then grafted on Israelis…”. Researchers are not to be outdone either. Getting published and making headline in a magazine encourages the invention of a tourism of something, as it is novel and therefore publishable.

Finally, this typology, and all the tourisms of something, is in no way a classification. In geography, the taxonomy based on the four spatial structures (rural, urban, coastal, mountain) is comparable in the sense that it is restrictive and each category can be linked to objectively measurable characters and to representations that vary according to the period. But its heuristic dimension is weak because it often boils down to explaining that: coastal tourism is located by the sea; mountain tourism in the mountains; urban tourism in the city; and rural tourism in the countryside… Moreover, the rural tourism category has been appropriated, in France in particular, by the State which has established it as “good tourism” and overvalues it by vesting it with the mission of saving the countryside. It should be remembered that, in natural sciences, the classification of animals is based on distinctive characteristics that exclude as much as they include. Animals have or do not have a backbone, which is external or internal, they have hair or feathers, etc. …

Example of some definitions of tourisms, in Florence Brière-Cuzin and Danielle Dépaux, Lexique du tourisme, Ellipses, 2014 (Cl. Johan Vincent)

What can be done? Tossing out or selective sorting?

That being said, should this approach be definitively rejected? It is useful to understand the diverse range of the offer. Taking an economic viewpoint, since tourism is a capitalist market, such an approach has its relevance. Moreover, typology, or classification, or taxonomy, is a form of reasoning that is useful to grasp the diversity of reality. This is the case in biology with regard to animal or plant species, provided that rules are laid down.

A first rule would be not to take advantage of this opportunity to extend the concept of tourism to any mobility, because there is a great risk that it will not be subject to any scientific analysis and debate. Because, these two terms, analysis and debate, require at least an agreement on the meaning given to the words we use. For example, what distinguishes wine tourism from the direct sale of wine to individuals passing through but residing in a neighbouring city? Thus, any typological approach should begin by defining the characteristics that are common to the categories that classification will list. In this case, a type of tourism must necessarily be part of the non-daily space and aim at the re-creation of individuals.

A second rule ensues from the first: the invention of a new type must be preceded by a serious justification based on an analysis of work already produced to highlight that there is a clear difference in nature. For example, does green tourism cover rural tourism or not?

A third commitment would require researchers to take into account that this supply-side approach cannot replace a demand-side approach that analyses the behaviours of socialised individuals. Yet, the practice-based approach shows that most tourists make use of a mix of tourisms. However, these are dominated by a tourism project and practice that reflect the society. Thus, while Westerners prefer (in the sense of the greatest number) rest: summer, beaches, hot baths and tanning, the Chinese on the contrary, for an identical purpose, prefer the countryside and the aesthetics of the white body.

Philippe VIOLIER


  • Michel Frank, 1997, Tourisme culture et modernité en pays toraja, Sulawesi-sud, Indonésie. Paris, L’Harmattan, coll. « Tourismes et Sociétés », 285 p.