The lives (and meanings) of tourist spaces

I have always been pretty fascinated by the life histories of tourism destinations.  Thinking about touristic spaces in a kind of archaeological sense–that is, over greater periods of time–is endlessly fascinating.  I often wonder about the future of places like Las Vegas, Cancun, and Nakheel, especially since many international organizations (like the UNWTO) promote tourism development as a sustainable, surefire solution for socio-economic development.  What will Vegas–or Cancun–look like in 100 years?  What purpose will these places serve, and how sustainable will they actually be in the long run?

Many countries around the world continue to promote and finance ever more tourism development, in hopes that these investments will create long-lasting social and economic benefits.  At least, that’s how the narrative goes.  But what kinds of social spaces and places are being created under the guise of tourism, and what futures do these places face?  What are the lasting social, political, and economic effects of these spaces?  For a little insight, I am going to discuss a few tourist destinations that I have read about recently: Elmina, Ghana, Prora, Germany, and finally Acapulco, Mexico.

Edward Bruner’s writes about Elmina Castle in Ghana in his wonderful book Culture on Tour (2005).  His discussion, which is in chapter three, brings up some poignant issues, one of them being that any tourist location has a multiplicity of histories and meanings.  Bruner focuses on how African-American tourists travel to Elmina to experience a connection with their shared understandings of heritage and history.  The irony of the chapter, however, is that the local Ghanaians do not share the same understandings about the castle itself.  While the American tourists come to see the castle as a brutal representation of the transatlantic slave trade, the Ghanaians have a much broader conception of the same place.  For many African American US tourists, “the castles are a sacred ground not to be desecrated.  They do not want the castles to be made beautiful or to be whitewashed…Some diaspora Blacks feel that even though they are not Ghanaians, the castles belong to them” (Bruner 2005:103).

As Bruner explains, however, the majority of Ghanaians aren’t all that worried about the histories of slavery.  For them, the castle is part of a longer history that extends from the Portuguese, who built the castle in 1482, all the way to the present day, in which the castle is a money-making tourist destination.  “First came the Portuguese,” writes Bruner, “then the Dutch, followed by the British, and now the tourists” (2005:104).  The Ghanaians understand the castle as part of a longer national history, while African Americans focus on the slave trade, which peaked between 1700-1850 (ibid).  Ghanaians want the castles to be attractive and appealing to tourists, so they support restoration.  African Americans, who only see the site in terms of the slave trade, want it to look “authentic”–which to them means that it fits their ideas and expectations about one historical period.

One of the biggest issues today, Bruner argues, is how to reconcile all of the different interpretations of Elmina.  Interested parties include not only local people and African American tourists, but also other tourists (British, Dutch, etc), museum professionals, international organizations, and politicians.  What, in the end, is the best way to represent the site?  Which history–out of the 500 years of the site–should be emphasized and promoted as “authentic”?  This is, of course, a poltical and economic choice, and there really is no “right” answer to the question.

At present (in 2005 at least), as Bruner explains, local people have been pushed aside and the castle at Elmina serves the interests of tourists–there are in fact posted signs that restrict access to the site (2005:114).  The castle has been a site of conflict and contestation for centuries–the Dutch captured it in 1637, the British controlled it by 1872, and the Ghanaians themselves after independence in 1957 (Bruner 2005:104).  These conflicts continue, clearly, even as the cast of characters changes.  And the current uses, meanings, and politics of Elmina are no less political and economic than they were 500 years ago.

Prora is the Nazi German tourism resort that never really was.  I just read about this particular place recently, and it is one touristic history that I previously had no knowledge of (for more, look here and here).  It was built, but it was never actually visited by any tourists in its day–despite the grand visions of Nazi planners.  Apparently, the site was constructed as part of the “Strength Through Joy” program that was meant to revitalize German workers through a few sunny days in a beach resort.  Prora was built between 1936 and 1939, but when the Germans invaded Poland, plans for its use fell by the wayside.

Today, the massive modernist structures stand ominously on the landscape, and present a perplexing problem for German land-use planners and politicians today.  What, after all, should be done with a structure–and place–that has ties to such dark histories?  Should the place be demolished, as some argue, or should it be turned into a tourist destination despite its past?  It was built by the Nazis, but never really used by them–yet the buildings still share an indisputable link to their actions.  Some have argued that it should indeed be destroyed, while others say that it should be turned into everything from an international university to a youth hostel.  Clearly, there is plenty of disagreement:

Some of the tens of thousands of Germans who visit here each year raise a fundamental question: Why not just knock it down? Ingrid and Klaus Berlin, cycling near the derelict Block 1, said they had not been able to agree on an answer.

Mr. Berlin, 56, said he found it fascinating to realize that “a man could lead people in this way, that they could manipulate people like this.” But Mrs. Berlin, 55, differed. “Why does this beautiful landscape have to suffer under a sight like this?” she said.

Unlike the Elmina castle in Ghana, Prora is intertwined with very specific histories.  While the debates surrounding the representation of place in Elmina are all about picking which histories to focus on (and what audience to market to), the issue with Prora is how to best deal with the dark histories it represents.  Should the site be dedicated to remembering and challenging the histories of Nazi Germany through exhibits and museums?  Or should those histories be challenged and demolished by sweeping the landscape clean of that terrible past?  Once again, this comes down to politics and economics.  Meanwhile, the surrounding landscape–and the looming architectural features–keep trudging through time.

If there is one tourism site that really fascinates me, and one that I want to spend some time studying, it’s Acapulco.  Why, you ask?  Well, it’s not for the margaritas.  Acapulco is the former jewel of Mexican tourism, yet today it is–according to many–in an obvious state of economic decline (see Kastelein 2010; Sackett 2010).  It was also one of the models that inspired Mexico’s current focus on creating large-scale coastal tourism resorts (see Clancy 2001).  In the 1950s and 60s, Acapulco was THE place to go for many American tourists, elites, and plenty of Hollywood stars.  Today, however, while Acapulco still draws a decent crowd, it is also obviously a destination in decline: “Acapulco’s decline is a well-kept secret abroad, as are its social divisions (about one third of its greater population of about two million people lives in slum conditions)” (Kastelein:2010).

Acapulco was, in fact, part of the rationale behind creating the massive, state-planned tourism resorts in places like Cancun, Huatulco, and Loreto, among others (Clancy 2001).  This process started in the late 1960s, when Mexican state planners and politicians saw the potential of the growing international tourism market.  Acapulco, which clearly attracted visitors from the US, provided inspiration for the idea that Mexico could compete with the tourism market in the Caribbean.  But these planners were also well aware of the fact that, even in the 1970s, Acapulco was already plagued by haphazard development and urbanization.  Cancun was the first state-planned city that was meant to take advantage of Mexico’s tourism potential while avoiding the pitfalls of uncontrolled development.  Did it work?  Well, the present day sprawl of Cancun seems to argue otherwise.  But for some, it’s a clear (economic success).

But what of Acapulco?  For me, this would be an interesting place to begin a comparative study of the long term effects of tourism development on particular destinations.  As I already said, I have never been there, but considering the fact that my current research is about the continuation of large-scale development in Mexico (in this case Baja California Sur), I think it would make sense to visit earlier destinations to investigate some of the lasting effects of a place that has served tourism markets for decades.  The most interesting question about Acapulco, for me, is what will happen to this place as its decline continues?  What becomes of a former star of international tourism once its popularity (and infrastructure) has deteriorated?  The same question can be asked of numerous other large-scale tourism destinations, which are purportedly created to engender some kind of social and economic benefit.  But what do these places really become?

If the histories of Elmina and Prora tell us anything, it’s that any tourism destination or space serves a particular set of political and economic interests.  Elmina sits in the middle of numerous ideals and interpretations, while certain politicians and business people try to find ways to turn it into a continual source of revenue.  The Dutch and the British sought certain forms of “revenue,” and tourism planners today do the same, they just look in different places.  For Prora, the issue is all about memory, history, and meanings that are nearly impossible to dismiss.  This may not seem to apply to larger discussions about tourism places, but I think it does.  People flock to particular destinations, in part, because of what they think or image those places to be.  The value  or desirability of any destination is closely linked with the ways in which people impart meaning–and how those meanings are disseminated through media, conversation, history, narrative, and memory.  On one level, Prora is just a place where a massive structure sits along the seaside.  But it’s clearly something more, something worse.  Ideas, then, stick quite well.  Buildings are not just piles of concrete.  Places are something more than points on maps.  It all depends on how they are positioned within wider systems of  (social) meaning.

Acapulco, for it’s part, might be seen as a lighthearted, fun place.  The same goes for Cancun and Cabo San Lucas.  Sure, they’re fun.  But what other meanings and experiences can be attached to these places–what is hidden from view.  Urban slums, after all, are just as real and part of Cancun and Acapulco as the nice, clean hotels and alluring beaches.  Again, like Elmina and Prora, it comes down to politics–who tells the story, and what story ends up getting told.  It’s about perspective, yes, and interests.  But these interests constantly shift over time–they are by no means stable.

And then we have the issue of sustainability, which is still a popular word that people like to use.  Considering the histories and politics of tourism destinations, what do all of these proclamations about sustainable tourism development really mean?  Acapulco clearly tells us that the popularity of even the most prized tourism destination has a shelf life.  Elmina tells us that people will make of a site what they wish.  So what now?  How can we understand and critically assess the construction of new tourism destinations, which require millions of dollars–not to mention lots of land?  Cancun, after all, had already hit its peak, which is why Cabo San Lucas is the new Mexican jewel.  Well, for now, at least.  The process keeps shifting, despite the promises of stability that we hear from politicians and international organizations.



Bruner, Edward.  2005.  Culture on Tour: Ethnographies of Travel.  Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Clancy, Michael.  2001.  Exporting Paradise.  New York: Pergamon.

Kastelein, Barbara.  2010.  The Beach and Beyond.  In Holiday in Mexico: Critical Reflections on Tourism and Tourist Encounters.  Dina Berger and Andrew Grant Wood, eds.  Durham: Duke University Press.  Pp. 320-370.

Sackett, Andrew.  2010.  Fun in Acapulco?  The Politics of Development on the Mexican Riviera.  In Holiday in Mexico: Critical Reflections on Tourism and Tourist Encounters.  Dina Berger and Andrew Grant Wood, eds.  Durham: Duke University Press.  Pp. 161-182.


Ryan Anderson is a cultural and environmental anthropologist. His current research focuses on coastal conservation, sustainability, and development in the Californias. He also writes about politics, economics, and media. You can reach him at ryan AT savageminds dot org or @anthropologia on twitter.

5 thoughts on “The lives (and meanings) of tourist spaces

  1. Today, the massive modernist structures stand ominously on the landscape, and present a perplexing problem for German land-use planners and politicians today.

    Germany seems to be one of those places with too much history.

  2. Good post. And I think your questions are on the right track. I hope to see the results of your inquiries if you decide to pursue the Acapulco research.
    Do consider, however, that local conditions (in the immediate past, I mean) greatly influence the manner in which each of these destinations was configured. The shape that development of tourism took in Acapulco was enormously influenced as much by economic as political considerations, corruption and interference. Hence, even though it is most certainly in decline, you can see how there has always been a sort of two or even three-tier development of ever more exclusive enclaves and resorts within the greater Acapulco area in which local and national politicians continue to sustain enormous investments. Much of the security, physical infrastructure and high-end marketing -for wealthy nationals and charter internationals – emerges from and is directed to these enclaves. At the same, time, Acapulco continues to be the prime tourist destination for very low-income families from Mexico City. So while it has lost its luster, it continues to thrive in strange and complicated ways.

    As for Cancun and the so-called Maya Riviera, don’t even get me started about its un-sustainability in the face of the widespread destruction of ecosystems in that area.

    Good luck in your endeavors on this issue!

  3. @Carlos:

    Thanks for your comment. You bring up some really good points to keep in mind–especially the fact that different layers or levels of development are taking place at once, and really entrenched. This is definitely important to think about, thanks. Also, your point about the fact that Acapulco is a vacation destination for lower income families from Mexico is really interesting too. It makes me rethink how and why people label a particular place as being “in decline”. Is it due to the infrastructure, or WHO is actually using the site? Both? Thanks again for the comment. Hopefully someday I’ll get to do a project along these lines–but I guess I should get my dissertation fieldwork done first!


    Ironic. Some people have too much history and don’t know what to do with it, and others are “people without history” whose landscapes and places get covered over by roads, ports, and high end hotels.

  4. @Ryan

    I’d like to underline Carlos’ remark about the importance of economic as well as political conditions and of recognizing that these, too, change over time. In Yokohama, where Ruth and I live, the 1980s, when Japan’s economy was booming, were a time of megaprojects, of which Yokohama’s Minato Mirai 21 (Harbor of the Future 21) project is an impressive example. The 1991 collapse of the economic bubble was a setback from which many such projects are only slowly recovering. Meanwhile, planners who lack the effervescent optimism of the eighties and are limited in what they can hope to accomplish by lack of financial and other resources have turned to small-scale neighborhood revival projects in parts of the city peripheral to the city center that was the megaproject focus. The ebb and flow of these sorts of activities may reflect changes in the national and global economy as well as local political decisions.

    It is always important to keep an eye on resource issues as well as planning ideas and political ambitions. Another example: Our apartment in Yokohama is in a seventies vintage condominium complex. if a book by a former mayor is to be believed, we are probably better off in case of a major earthquake, living in this building that in one of the new ones built in the 1980s. Why? The building boom of the eighties overwhelmed the city departments in charge of inspecting new construction, leading bureaucrats to do little more than check contractors’ documentation to see that it was properly filled out. In the absence of on-site inspection, some contractors cut corners….

  5. When you look at Tourism Studies today, it doesn’t seem like many people are interested in doing a history of tourism. Instead the the focus is on places that were once remote and now play host to tourists or which have rapidly escalated into a mass tourism destinations only recently. This is a shame and anthropology is well positioned to address this lacuna.

    An exception to this is the first half of Jane Desmond’s “Staging Tourism” about the history of tourist development in Hawaii which dovetails neatly with US imperialism. She also goes on at length about the social construction of nature as “paradise” and tourist construction of natives as “primitive” (and what that means for westernized notions of romantic love).

    Desmond was really the role model for the historical side of my research on tourism on an Indian reservation. In my experience this was the part of my work that locals appreciated the most. So by doing a history of tourism not only do you get to cover new ground, but the people you’ll be collaborating with may recognize it as a story that needs to be told and thank you for it.

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