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 Special Features                      Issue 31 | September 2009

What is Mass Tourism? An Attempt at Defining It

Mallorca, Cancun, Pattaya – these places are commonly referred to as destinations with a massive influx of tourists. The phenomenon is known as mass tourism, and almost everybody who has ever gone on holiday is able to place a picture tag to this word.

However, when digging deeper into the occurrence, the observant reader is quite quickly faced with a dilemma: no definition seems to exist as to what mass tourism really is, what it actually means and what its characteristics are in order to distinguish it from other forms of tourism!

No Definition of Mass Tourism Currently Exists

Wikipedia describes mass tourism in a rather unspecific manner as the ‘accumulated appearance of tourists in a special destination’. The World Tourism Organization, UNWTO, usually the main provider of academic research in the field, does not propose a definition on its websites; neither does the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC).

Everyone is familiar with the term 'mass tourism' but what does it really mean? Photo © 2009 Jupiterimages Corporation.A number of sources attempt a description by referring to the timely relation with the leisure tourism boom in the 1960s and 70s to the Mediterranean, specifically the island of Mallorca. Others use descriptors for the frame of mind of the tourists themselves, attributing them with passivity, lack of preparation, hurriedness or no interest in local customs. Again, others start by listing symptoms in supposedly affected areas such as large constructions (building structures), shopping areas, foreign languages, noise or garbage. And even the late Pope Paul II joined in the chorus of branding mass tourism back in 2001, without clearly stating his understanding of what it actually is.

While many examples exist for alternative forms of tourism as opposed to a mass phenomenon (e.g. sustainable tourism, eco-tourism, slow tourism, soft tourism, responsible tourism, pro-poor tourism), no one appears to have bothered with a clear definition of what these new forms should differ from.

And, when taking a closer look at alternative forms of tourism, it quickly becomes pretty obvious that each one of them is able to produce the same or even worse effects than mass tourism – it only depends on the relative or absolute numbers or participants.

Everyone who has ever gone on holiday understands the concept of mass tourism. Photo © 2009 Jupiterimages Corporation.Critics of the tendency to differentiate forms of tourism state that alternative tourism is only a more budgetary version of mass tourism. Others consider that almost all tourism is produced in masses, with some destinations already having moved over to the phenomenon of mega-mass tourism. So, who is right and who is wrong? How can mass tourism be identified individually to a destination in which it takes place?

Approaching a Definition of Mass Tourism

Several paths present themselves as possible approaches to defining mass tourism:

  • Sheer quantity of tourists
  • The intensity of the visitors in their interaction with local conditions
  • The temporary or permanent character of the occurring impacts
  • Impact in relation to the site or destination's 'carrying capacity', which defines the limits of usage of social, ecological and economic resources.

Taking all these into account, a central question related to the impacts of mass tourism appears to emerge: Does tourism in a destination corrupt the local system irreversibly by exceeding the carrying capacity? And if so, how can that be measured and in what way?

Carrying capacity has always been a critical issue when it comes to establishing definite limits or guidelines for a maximum use of resources. It must be taken as a fact that no absolute indicators can be established to measure the impacts of tourism activity. Are 20 tourists a day trekking at Nepal’s timber line more biocompatible than 1,000 SS&S tourists hitting the beaches of Ibiza? Better than relying only on concrete quantitative facts and figures, a certain qualitative aspect will have to be involved, especially in the case of a mass tourism definition.

Setting Up of Four Evaluation Criteria

For the purpose of setting up evaluation criteria, only the occurrence of leisure tourism – as opposed to business tourism, which constitutes a separate and albeit different form of travelling – is considered here.

In order to tackle the issue, an attempt is made to define the resulting impacts of non-mass leisure tourism. The following four criteria have been established, with each needing to be necessarily fulfilled from a quantitative and qualitative point of view. In case of non-fulfilment of only one of them, the existing phenomenon is consequently considered to fall under the term of mass tourism.

  1. The local culture remains intrinsic, i.e. is also displayed in absence of tourism.
  2. The local environmental impacts can be mitigated, i.e. their appearance causes no permanent damage.
  3. The local economic system remains independent, i.e. it also functions without tourism activity.
  4. The majority of the tourists show genuine interest in local surroundings, i.e. they have an intention to learn about history, culture and people.

The first three criteria can – to a good extent – be underlain by quantitative indicators that are measured once in the presence and once the absence of tourism. A subsequent comparison between them indicates whether the criteria can be considered as ‘matched’ or ‘not matched’. As previously stated, this requires a certain qualitative element or expert opinion, as unbiased as possible.

The majority of tourists are interested in history, culture and people. Photo © 2009 Jupiterimages Corporation.More complex is the fourth criterion. It starts out from the assumption that mere contact with foreign people is not solely responsible for a negative impact. Rather, it is the attitude of those people that proves to be the decisive factor: if they are in their major part only interested in their own good, they tend to ignore the world that surrounds them; should they, on the other hand, be interested in the salutary character of their stay in the destination, they respect and learn from their surroundings.

This aspect has a central importance in delineating carrying capacity and thereby in defining mass tourism. In order to make it measurable, a threshold of half of the tourists in a destination is suggested as a required minimum. Should more than those 50% of tourists be typically in search of their own good, the criterion would not matched and the occurrence should be regarded as mass tourism.

Illustrative Case Examples

In order to make these rather theoretical concepts and their criteria more plausible, two illustrative examples are given: Mount Everest National Park in Nepal and the island of Barbados.

Mount Everest National Park

  1. It can be safely assumed that the local culture would also be displayed in the total absence of tourism, as it is done e.g. during the off-season winter and summer months.
  2. While some environmental impacts are significant, most experts would agree that a certain timeframe would provide enough time for recovery.
  3. The local economic system would be shaken by the absence of tourism, but it would not collapse; rather, it would force alternative means of income generation.
  4. The majority of the trekkers visiting the National Park do so out of a genuine interest for the nature in combination with the local culture and history.

Therefore, in concordance with the above provided definition, the Mount Everest National Park can be regarded a non-mass leisure tourism destination

The Island of Barbados

  1. While certainly some events and festivities are staged for tourism purposes, it is almost certain that culture would continue to exist without tourists.
  2. Some of the environmental impacts attributed directly or indirectly to tourism development are certainly critical; however, it can be assumed that a mitigation or compensation of the damage done could be applied.
  3. Tourism is a major pillar of the economy, bringing about 15% of the GDP; a cessation of this income would certainly have a negative impact, especially in some beach areas, but it would probably not make the entire national economy disintegrate.
  4. More than 50% of tourist arrivals to Barbados come by cruise ships. During their short-term visit of a few hours, it can be safely assumed that their prime interest is not aimed at authentic local culture and people.

Therefore, despite the not predominantly negative effects on carrying capacity, Barbados should be regarded as a mass tourism destination.

Closing Remarks

The author is clearly aware that the above stated remarks, suggestions and interpretations constitute not the end, but rather the beginning of a discussion on how to define mass tourism. While it remains certainly remarkable that one of the predominant phenomena of the tourism industry does not have a clear and delineated definition, an investigation into the matter quickly shows the complexity and the difficulties in the issue.

Any comments, remarks or criticism – positive or negative – will be welcomed and will be used to further refine and define the concept of mass tourism.

Andreas Hauser has an academic background in business economics and tourism management. During his ten years of work experience in planning and developing international tourism destinations, he has successfully led individual as well as large-scale projects throughout Europe, Latin America and the Middle East. Andreas is a university lecturer for tourism development and carries out training in intercultural management. Andreas can be contacted via e-mail.