Since I remember myself, I wondered what is it like to be someone that I am not (e.g. a man)? To live somewhere I could not (e.g. a beautiful city)? To be able to do something I cannot do (e.g. to sew, to ride a horse)? The experience of being another being (human or not) or to live somewhere far away from what I am used to has always fascinated me. I annoyed my parents with similar questions they could not answer. Later, these early interests transpired in my research, which is situated in the area of tourism and hospitality experiences.

My research is rooted in personal curiosity primarily (and this is why I cannot work as a consultant – I tried!), while trendy (e.g. COVID-related) and fashionable topics tend not to interest me because they are volatile and do not answer more fundamental questions. Looking back on the track of my research, I notice that the questions I ask can be broadly separated into two categories: (1) events that I personally experienced but could not explain and (2) events I could not have experienced (e.g. due to my cultural background, gender) but I am curious to understand; questions of “what is it like to be/do…”?

Research related to events I personally experienced but could not explain

Existential dimensions in tourism

When I was 18, I traveled to Bulgaria with a group of people I barely knew. As a person who grew up in Siberia, it was the first time I saw the sea, and, it was the first time I traveled independently from my family. And, I clearly remember the moment that changed everything. I was sitting on a Black Sea beach near Burgas, watching the sunset, and somehow I came to an existential realization that there is no meaning in life. Yet, that particular moment was so awe-spiring and meaningful as it felt worth living for all 18 years. This trip also changed my life: the next year, I quit my studies in a university in Russia and moved to USA as a non-skilled worker to work in restaurants. This move jumpstarted my career in the hospitality industry and, later, in tourism & hospitality research. The experience in Bulgaria and my personal interest (and struggles) with existential issues puzzled me as I struggled to comprehend what happened to me on that trip. Thus, my contributions to tourism scholarship that include the existential conceptualization of a tourism experience, as well as its very special type – transformative experience – are all related to the first types of questions I ask: events that I personally experienced but could not explain.

The very first publication on this topic (Kirillova & Lehto, 2015a) when I was still in the PhD program, attempted to explain the well documented fluctuations in tourist well-being: the increase while on a trip and the decrease afterwards. We conceptualized these as fluctuations in a tourist’s level of existential authenticity and existential anxiety and argued that positive changes in existential authenticity and anxiety during a trip are evoked by liminality and a sense of awe. Negative changes (that is returning to the baseline, pre-trip, levels) are explained by the lack of existential courage and tranquilization. The latter implied that, if a tourist possesses much existential courage and does not resort to tranquilization tactics (e.g. plunges into the everydayness), then the changes acquired on the tip persist and such an experience can be considered transformative. My PhD dissertation and related publications tested this exact supposition.

We used quantitative (Kirillova, Lehto, Cai, 2017a) and qualitative (Kirillova, Lehto, & Cai, 2017b,c) empirical data to deconstruct and document the changes in existential dimensions (authenticity and anxiety) during a transformative experience. Based on quantitative data that measured tourists’ existential authenticity and anxiety pre- and before- a leisure trip, we found that a transformative experience is associated with heightened (not lowered, as suggested in Kirillova and Lehto (2015a)), existential anxiety. This means that individuals continue to experience the unsettling sense of anxiety about one’s (non)being after the trip, and this is a good thing! This anxiety acts as a constant reminder about finiteness of one’s being, universal alienation, unconditional freedom, and the meaninglessness of life. Only when a person is attuned to his/her human condition, one continues to be existentially authentic after the trip. Interestingly, we also found that women, older tourists, and those who travel alone are more likely to undergo an unintentional transformative experience during a leisure trip. Not all trips are created equal, however, in terms of facilitating transformative experiences. Trips that hold a special meaning for a tourist as well as trips associated with hardship are more likely to be transformative.

Based on phenomenological interviews, in Kirillova et al. (2017c), we sought to describe a general essence of a transformative tourism experience.  We found that a transformative experience embeds a very special type of an experience – Peak, or Extraordinary experience. The peak experience is essentially the co-creation process that links circumstantial environmental context (e.g. a beautiful scenery, wildlife sighting, foreignness) with a triggering episode. These peak experiences are felt as moments of intense emotions, heightened cognition, and the sense of connection to something larger than oneself. Yet, the peak experience, which takes place during a trip, does not become transformative unless it is also made sense of after the return home. This sense making occurs along the four aspects of the existential predicament – by accepting their own mortality, connecting to others through care, creating one’s own meaning, and embracing uncertainty in life.

The existential approach to tourist, which is based on the works of Heidegger, Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir (and others), was not new at the time of these publications as Ning Wang, Jillian Rickly, Lorraine Brown had already extensively discussed and empirically investigated the implications of existential philosophy for tourism. However, what I was after here, is a rather humanistic than philosophical take on human experiences, where the human condition is at the very foundation of our understanding of the tourist, his/her motivations and tourism after-effects. This line of research continues to be one of my primary interests as I, along with my brilliant co-authors, work towards understanding the issues of freedom (Kirillova, 2019), mortality (Pratt, Tolkach, & Kirillova, 2019), and human alienation (Wassler & Kirillova, 2019) in tourist experiences in situ and beyond.

Tourism aesthetics

The second stream of research belonging to events I personally experienced but could not understand is tourism aesthetics. The first five years in the US were spent in New Orleans, Louisiana. Even today, almost 10 years after, New Orleans holds a special place in my heart not only because it is where I discovered my passion for the hospitality industry but also because I had never lived in such a beautiful setting before. Having grown up in an industrial city, I could not get enough of New Orleans’ architectural beauty. It motivated me to wake up in the morning, and I enjoyed walking along its empty streets after getting off my restaurant shifts at night. Such an effect on my well-being enticed my then rather immature attempts to understand the reasons for such a power of the beauty.

My first research on tourism aesthetics answered a very simple question: What makes a tourism destination beautiful in tourists’ eyes? (Kirillova, Fu, & Lehto, 2014). We have interviewed 57 individuals about the most/least beautiful place they have ever been to with the main interest of why they found it so. With the focus on the concept of aesthetic judgment (which is a cognitive evaluation), the study resulted in 21 specific aesthetic dimensions that we grouped into nine overarching themes: Scale, Time, Condition, Sound, Balance, Diversity, Novelty, Shape, and Uniqueness. The themes were further conceptualized into a two-dimensional plane along Concrete-Abstract and Subjective-Objective continua. For example, Scale with such dimensions as “Abundance-Scarcity,” “Openness-Narrowness” is positioned as further on the objective continuum and along the middle on the concreteness continuum.

To make these findings operationalizable for the purposes of destination marketing and management, Kirillova and Lehto (2015b) developed a scale to quantitatively validate the above results. The new scale resulted in a six-dimensional structure of destination aesthetic qualities (Locale characteristics, Scope, Upkeep, Accord, Perceived age, and Shape) and allowed to clarify the relative importance of the aesthetic dimensions in a tourist aesthetic judgement. For example, the theme Uniqueness did not receive confirmation in this quantitative investigation, while the dimension Shape turned out to have only marginal importance. In the same publication, we introduced the concept of aesthetic distance, or the perceived difference between the aesthetic properties of a destination and those of a tourist’s home environment. When testing the effect of aesthetic distance on aesthetic judgment and tourist satisfaction, the research noted that when tourists evaluate their home environment more positively in terms of upkeep and scope than vacation environment, they tend to perceive a destination as less beautiful. Only aesthetic distance in scope of experiential features influenced vacation satisfaction. In a related study, we (Kirillova & Lehto, 2016) used the aesthetic lens and Kaplan’s (1995) Attention Restoration Theory to explain the restorative potential of urban and nature-based destinations.

In a more critical look on the role of aesthetics in designing tourist experiences, Kirillova and Wassler (2020) developed a three-tiered framework. The first level is based on aesthetic features of destinations as atmospherics. The second level deals with multisensory aesthetics, transcending the mere visual focus of the tourist gaze. Key experiences of the beautiful, the sublime, and the picturesque are deeply embedded in visual, somatic, olfactory, auditory and gustatory decoding of aesthetic markers. The third level deals with the human factor in atmospherics, particularly focussing on the role of residents. On one hand, destination residents are one of the sources of destination aesthetic environments and therefore “consumed” by tourists in a similar way as other attractions. On the other hand, residents are typically meant as primary beneficiaries of destination aesthetics.

The spillover studies tested the power of beautiful environments in a hospitality context. Kirillova, Fu, and Kucukusta (2020) draw on tourism aesthetics, theories of organizational aesthetics to explore relationships between workplace design aesthetics, hotel employee subjective well-being and the role of contrast of back- vs. front-of-the-house. We found that backstage employees experience less aesthetic pleasure and report lower levels of well-being than frontstage employees. In another experiment, Kirillova and Chan (2018) looked at the power of beautiful images to instigate hotel bookings and to influence the formation of service quality expectations. Results demonstrated that high aesthetic value hotels are more likely to be booked and perceived as able to deliver better services in SERVQUAL dimensions of Tangibles, Reliability and Assurance. There are no significant effects for  human-centred dimensions Responsiveness and Empathy. Given the presence of the aesthetic effect, hotel functional value had no impact on the outcome variables. Altogether, it could be concluded that, although aesthetics is a critical component of hedonic products (like a hotel stay, in our example), it does not override the importance of the inherently human nature of hospitality experiences. Despite my efforts and those of my co-authors, tourism aesthetics as a research topic remains marginalized. This is surprizing since, in most cases, tourism is an example of aesthetic consumption and tourist attraction maintenance and management is likely to prioritize how tourists and residents judge the beauty of destination environments. My hope is that more tourism scholars will consider tourism aesthetics as a research-worthy avenue.

Research related to events I did not experience but I am curious to understand

Sociology of tourism

This research stream taps into how the environment, in which consumers are socialized and acculturized, affects their experiences in tourism. This interest comes from a casual observation that tourists from various societies do not only behave in different ways (this is hardly news) but also tend to interpret experiences completely differently! For example, I noticed the way my Russian parents travel and how they elaborate on their tourism choices and experiences were very dissimilar to how my US friends of similar age did, which was also distinct from my Chinese colleagues in the same age cohort. Although from another generation, I traced a gradual transformation in how I interpret my own travel and activities throughout the times I lived in Russia, then USA, then Hong Kong, and now France. Another concern was that almost all tourism-related knowledge was produced and re-produced in Anglo-Western and/or capitalist societies. While providing a useful lens to understand tourists from those societies, this knowledge is not helpful to understand alternative mindsets. In other words, our knowledge reference point should be malleable and adjustable to societies with different trajectories of development (e.g. non-democratic societies, those not built on neoliberal principles). While much of existing tourism research claims to address this by the means cross-cultural theories, the very foundations of these theories, once again, are Anglo- and capitalist-centric.

With the above focus in mind, I led a large-scale cross-national research project (Kirillova, Wang, Fu, & Lehto, 2020) with the aim to understand how tourism consumption is reflective of the broader social reality, in which tourists live. This research was data- (as opposed to theory-) driven (based on 75 biographical interviews from Russia, China, and USA) as I wanted to avoid any theoretical influences on how data are interpreted by the research team. Results are the insights into influential factors beyond personal agencies that include four society- (Economic development, Political shifts, Ideology, Wars/disasters) and three individual-level (Family, Life course mobility, Religion) consumption forming forces. This means that the way tourists from a specific society interpret their tourism mobilities and its meaning can be explained by the extent to which these seven factors affected a society’s development. For example, Religious beliefs were a major dimension along which US tourists interpreted their consumptive experience in tourism, which was barely the case in Russia and even less so in China.

A related study (Kirillova, Wang, & Lehto, 2019) but from a theoretical angle of figurational sociology (Ellias, 1978) focused on the meaning and practices of leisure travel in the society with a history of abrupt epistemological transformations – Russia. The nine themes arranged chronologically across three periods (Soviet Russia, transitional period, modern Russia), provide insights into factors that underlie the reality for tourists, based on which they form their motivations, preferences, and behaviors. Based on this research and the study conducted in the Chinese context (Wang, Kirillova, & Lehto, 2019), we show that the knowledge of tourists and their experiences is incomplete without accounting for the larger environment, in which their life experiences are situated and the historical trajectory of the society in which the practice of leisure and travel is enacted.


In conclusion, I see my main contributions to tourism scholarship as located in the domain of consumer experiences at the intersection of three areas: (1) existential dimensions in tourism, (2) tourism aesthetics, and (3) tourism sociology. While the first two areas are concerned with a rather phenomenological view of how people experience tourism, the last adds the social environment layer to determine the extent to which the social reality informs how tourists experience a destination. Although I occasionally venture out into other areas (e.g. smartphone (mis)use, service-dominant logic), these three directions remain my research priorities.  As a mid-career tourism scholar, I hope to continue researching the fascinating world of human experiences.


Written by Ksenia Kirillova, Institut Paul Bocuse, Lyon, France
Read Ksenia’s letter to future generations of tourism researchers



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Women’s voices in tourism research Copyright © 2021 by The University of Queensland is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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