35 HERETICAL THINKING IN TOURISM – Contributions by Freya Higgins-Desbiolles

Perhaps for any of us to write of hope, to write of love, we must learn once more to be free and embrace heresy. And for that to happen we must every day write ourselves out of the literature of silence.

We all come from something and, equally, need to be liberated from that same thing…

That I am not one. That I am not alone. That I am free.

– Richard Flanagan (2021)

I think I may be a heretic in my work on tourism, understanding heresy as described here by Australian author and public intellectual Richard Flanagan. This must be apparent to many in the tourism academy from the years of Trinet controversies and debates; but if not from that, then in the publication entitled “The War over Tourism” (2021). I made the choice to be an activist academic from the very beginning. This decision arose from my positioning in development and development education prior to becoming a tourism academic in Australia. But it also arose from my personal positioning too.  I grew up on an island off the coast of North Carolina where second-home tourism had an irrevocable impact on my home and its people. This was in the American South and I grew up attentive to race relations from a very early age. I also experienced the violent misogyny that women endure from a young age and experienced career pathways being cut off largely due to gender dynamics (my original expertise was in international relations and terrorism). It is for these reasons that activism became a life commitment, and despite being warned early on against an activist approach, I have not strayed very far from this chosen activist path. In my view, we must speak up and act for justice, but this must be grounded in critical, reflexive thought and in engagement with others.

The theory of intersectionality (Crenshaw, 1991) presses us to recognise that one can simultaneously belong to both privileged and oppressed groups. I am aware of how this theory applies to my work and positioning. I am amongst the privileged in the USA and in Australia by being a settler on stolen lands and also as a scholar until recently employed with tenure in the university.  However, I am both oppressed and disadvantaged as a person who identifies as a woman, coming from a working-class background and now as someone living with health disabilities.

I am growing increasingly interested in these ideas of oppression, whiteness, intersectionality, emancipation and resistance. I grew up in a culture where white supremacy was so much the norm that it shaped every aspect of our society and interactions. But stepping back to observe more globally, it is clear that conceptualisations of supremacy and the lust for power that drives these are the source of the multiple troubles we now confront- supremacy of humans over nature, of men over women, of humans over animals, of adults over youth, and so on. The emphasis on tourism interests and tourism as industry thinking that predominates is also arguably another kind of expression of dominating supremacy.  If we want to have a future built on equity, inclusion, justice and sustainability, it is imperative that we focus on the wider structural contexts under which tourism operates rather than be too “tourism first” and tourism-centric in our work. This has been the underpinning of my entire body of work in tourism studies.

My original contribution to tourism studies was the concept of “tourism as a social force” which I developed in my dissertation (Higgins-Desbiolles, 2006). In this work, I explained how considerable effort had been exerted to limit tourism to its industrial and business attributes and to erase its original purposes of shaping societies and improving individual and social welfare. I explained:

Tourism’s ultimate capacity as a social force is this ability to foster contact between peoples who increasingly need to understand each other and cooperate harmoniously in a world where space, resources and options are shrinking quickly… tourism is a potent social force whose only limits are emplaced by the limits of our imaginations to harness its powers for the public good (Higgins-Desbiolles, 2006, p. 1205).

It was during the context of the beginning of the global pandemic in 2020 that I developed the newer concept of “socialising tourism” (Higgins-Desbiolles, 2020). I explained that socialising tourism is “[…]to make tourism responsive and answerable to the society in which it occurs” (2020, p. 617), arguing that this is vital better shape tourism towards serving social and ecological justice. An agenda to socialise tourism could counter the distortion that has occurred as ideologies of “tourism as industry” (Higgins-Desbiolles, 2006) have fostered a myopic focus on the business of tourism, profits for powerful corporations and endless growth strategies leading to real problems such as overtourism. A socialising tourism agenda is underpinned by the radical redefining of tourism that is based on the local community:

This begins with the redefinition of tourism in order to place the rights of local communities above the rights of tourists for holidays and the rights of tourism corporates to make profits…A redefined tourism could be described as: the process of local communities inviting, receiving and hosting visitors in their local community, for limited time durations, with the intention of receiving benefits from such actions. Such forms of tourism may be facilitated by businesses operating to commercial imperatives or may be facilitated by non-profit organisations. But in this restructure of tourism, tourism operators would be allowed access to the local community’s assets only under their authorisation and stewardship (Higgins-Desbiolles et al., 2019, p. 1936).

I am of the view that knowledge rests in local places, tied to local communities and local ecologies (Figure 1). I began to think about these ideas in my early work with Ngarrindjeri Aboriginal Elders in South Australia with whom I did years of research and teaching (see, for instance, Higgins-Desbiolles, Trevorrow & Sparrow, 2014). It is also found in the work of Helena Norberg-Hodge and her lessons from Ladakh (2013). Local communities are not perfect; and I do not want to romanticise them. I have lived in a number of communities and I know that power, greed and domination occur in them as much as anywhere.  But living locally entails responsibility and it is through critical dialogues and critical consciousness that we can learn to live together (with each other, with nature and with all other beings). It is heartening to see the work bringing the thinking of Freire (1970) and Hooks (2003; 2010) into tourism scholarship and pedagogy (e.g. Carnicelli & Boluk, 2020; Higgins-Desbiolles & Whyte, 2013). This is important work on these issues of emancipation from oppression, resistance and liberation.


6 hexagonal shapes. A photo of a butterfly, a photo of a woman looking at the ocean, a photo of a city. The text 'local places', 'local ecologies', 'local communities'
Figure 1. Defining tourism by the local community: a tripod model.

My thinking on tourism as a social force (Higgins-Desbiolles, 2006), redefining tourism by the local community (Higgins-Desbiolles et al., 2019), socialising tourism (Higgins-Desbiolles, 2020) and now localising tourism (Higgins-Desbiolles & Bigby, 2021) has been influenced by the learning I have received from Aboriginal and Indigenous experts and scholars.  As we explained in our book on Socialising tourism (Higgins-Desbiolles, Doering & Bigby, 2022):

…the Māori of Aotearoa/New Zealand have protocols and ceremonies for receiving and socialising visitors on the marae, the meeting ground of Māori iwi (tribes).  Harvey (2003) explained these protocols as shaping guesthood (in his analysis of decolonising research methodologies), which are based on recognising local sovereignty arising from the host’s marae serving as turangawaewae, the “standing place” of the host.  Marae protocols of welcome, greeting and exchanges are protocols of “guest-making” as strangers are transformed into guests (Harvey, 2003, p. 134). But the foundation of this interaction and relationship is respect for the local people’s authority as the sovereign peoples of that place. This is an excellent example of socialising the visitor (p. 3).

In having tourism defined by the demand of the tourists and the supply of the tourism industry as we currently do, we allow grave injustices to occur. Instead, I would argue that local communities are the linchpin of justice, equity and sustainability and we must pursue a concerted agenda to change tourism. As we stated: “The place where tourism occurs is not a tourism destination; it is the local community’s home, their standing place, a place of uncompromisable value” (Higgins-Desbiolles, Doering & Bigby, 2022, p. 14). I knew this in my youth growing up in a place that was taken over by tourism (a place whose original name was literally erased, changing from Long Beach to Oak Island).  It has taken a lifetime of engagement with tourism to arrive at this research agenda on empowering local communities in, against and through tourism.

This research agenda could shake the tourism discipline at its core and is “heretical” in the sense that it will refuse to prioritise the demands of the consuming tourists and the interests of the all-powerful tourism industry (see “the trinet debate: you are either with the industry or against it”, Higgins-Desbiolles, 2021). Its ultimate logic is to give the community the right to say “no” to tourism and refuse agendas to impose tourism on them. Communities are already asserting such rights (e.g. the Guna of Panama and the Yolngu of Arnhem Land, Australia) and it has been my aim to theorise this and understand how we can “socialise”  tourism to better serve social and ecological justice in communities, ecologies and places all around the globe.

This is not an agenda that will easily be enacted. It will take allies and concerted efforts. Yet, it is the one that will likely be the focus of the rest of my life’s work in tourism.


Written by Freya Higgins-Desboilles, University of Waterloo, Canada & University of South Australia, Australia
Read Freya’s letter to future generations of tourism researchers


Carnicelli, S. & Boluk, K. (2020). Critical tourism pedagogy: A response to oppressive practices. In S.R., Steinberg & B. Down (Eds.), The Sage Handbook of Critical Pedagogies (pp. 717-728). London: Sage.

Crenshaw, K. (1991). Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color. Stanford Law Review, 43(6), 1241-1299.

Flanagan, R. (2021). To be free. The Monthly. Retrieved 4 July 2021, from https://www.themonthly.com.au/issue/2021/july/1625061600/richard-flanagan/be-free.

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Continuum.

Higgins-Desbiolles, F. (2006). More than an “industry”: the forgotten power of tourism as a social force. Tourism Management, 27(6), 1192-1208, 10.1016/j.tourman.2005.05.020.

Higgins-Desbiolles, F. (2020). Socialising tourism for social and ecological justice after COVID-19. Tourism Geographies, 22(3), 610-623, DOI: 10.1080/14616688.2020.1757748.

Higgins-Desbiolles, F. (2021). The “war over tourism”: challenges to sustainable tourism in the tourism academy after COVID-19. Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 29(4), 551-569, DOI: 10.1080/09669582.2020.1803334.

Higgins-Desbiolles, F. & Bigby, B.C. (In Press). The local turn in tourism. Annals of Tourism Research.

Higgins-Desbiolles, F., Carnicelli, S., Krolikowski, C., Wijesinghe, G. and Boluk, K. (2019). Degrowing tourism: rethinking tourism. Journal of Sustainable Tourism: Tourism Degrowth special issue, 27(12), 1926-1944, DOI: 10.1080/09669582.2019.1601732.

Higgins-Desbiolles, F., Doering, A. and Bigby, B.C. (2021). Socialising tourism: reimagining tourism’s purpose. London:  Routledge.

Higgins-Desbiolles, F. & Whyte, K.P.  (2013). No high hopes for hopeful tourism: A critical comment.  Commentary.  Annals of Tourism Research. 40, 428-433. DOI: 10.1016/j.annals.2012.07.005.

Higgins-Desbiolles, F., Trevorrow, G. & Sparrow, S. (2014). The Coorong Wilderness Lodge: A case study of planning failures in Indigenous Tourism. Tourism Management, 44, 46-57. DOI: 10.1016/j.tourman.2014.02.003

Hooks, B. (2003). Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope. New York: Routledge

Hooks, B. (2010). Teaching Critical Thinking, Practical Wisdom. New York: Routledge.

Norberg-Hodge, H. (2013). Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh. Ebury Digital.


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Women’s voices in tourism research by Antonia Correia and Sara Dolnicar is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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