50 SITUATING TOURISM – Contributions by Heather Mair

With degrees in political science, political economy and, finally, rural development, I didn’t start my career with a deep background in tourism studies. After a few years ‘out’ of the academic world (i.e., I took a break between graduate degrees), I returned to doctoral studies with a deep desire to understand rural development. I quickly learned that, in the early 2000s, understanding rural development meant you had to also develop an understanding of tourism. Indeed, as a young scholar asking questions about rural development, it became clear that, at least in the Canadian context, part of the policy response (the answer, if you will) to questions and concerns about generating opportunities for rural development always seemed to include some discussion of tourism. Having had my own extensive and sometimes deeply uncomfortable experiences with tourism around the world, I wanted to uncover the reasons for this situation.

As a result, the key contributions my work has made to the study of tourism have included an effort to critically evaluate tourism development as a component of our contemporary political economy – what I think of as ‘situating tourism’. That is, nearly all my tourism-related projects have involved efforts to ground an understanding of tourism and tourism development within ‘bigger’ contextual issues of political economy and the working of late capitalism. This effort to situate tourism was guided by two foundational questions: (1) why tourism? and (2) how tourism?

Why tourism?

From 2000 to 2009, I published, alone and with colleagues, a series of papers, book chapters and a book that all, in some way, sought to trouble what I viewed to be an often-unasked question: why tourism? I wanted to challenge what I thought were almost pre-given assumptions about the role that tourism could (or should) play in helping small economies reverse the sometimes devastating trends of population decline, deindustrialisation, economic restructuring, and a decrease in natural resources-based development. I asked: what was it about tourism that made it so attractive as an option for stimulating economic growth? Because tourism development is based on entrepreneurialism and often centered on notions of community self-expression, independence, and celebration, it was a kind of low investment, feel-good response to the daunting challenges of economic change that many communities in Canada (and around the world) were facing.

Influenced by critical geographers such as Britton (1991), and planners such as Marcouiller (1997), I saw the value of situating analyses of tourism development within the broader context of neoliberal governing rationality and used critical policy analysis and regulation theory (Aglietta, 1979; Goodwin, Cloke, & Milbourne, 1995, Lipietz, 1987) to illustrate tourism’s growing appeal as a development strategy over 25 years (1975-2000).  This assessment of tourism policy evolution led to the creation of four key dimensions, which I identified within the policy language of tourism promotion as it was undertaken by policy makers at the micro (local) and meso (provincial) level (Mair, 2006, p. 31):

(1) Rationale: why should tourism development be promoted?

(2) Responsibility: who is (or should be) responsible for the promotion of tourism development?

(3) Execution: how should tourism development be promoted?

(4) Content: what kinds of activities and facilities should be promoted?

While critical assessments of tourism development were starting to take hold in our field (see, for example, Higgins-Desbiolles, 2006) and policy analysis approaches were coming to the fore (see, for example, Dredge & Jenkins, 2003), my work was among early efforts to critically assess why tourism was part of the answer to questions about economic development and the implications thereof. The result was a concern that a focus on tourism development as a kind of  unquestioned ‘saviour’ for communities risked putting short term economic needs ahead of all else. Moreover, as more communities faced the shifting tides of global economic change, I felt the need for this kind of work was urgent. As I wrote in 2006,

Future research must be undertaken in regard to understanding how this neoliberal imperative of economic development is manifested and maintained in rural and urban communities elsewhere as well as the implications of this shift. Illuminating the assumptions underscoring this growing support for tourism is one step in creating tourism projects that are built on a wide range of development imperatives that meet the needs of the community in question. Given the overwhelming support of tourism development projects in both the developed and underdeveloped world, and in light of the growing evidence of negative economic, social and environmental impacts, the task is urgent. (Mair, 2006, p. 41)

How tourism?

Linked to my growing concern about the ways tourism was being taken up in small communities was an interest in how tourism development was being undertaken and my work also involved considerations of participatory methods of tourism planning and development. Along with my doctoral supervisor Don Reid and colleagues, we pioneered a participatory action process (Reid, Mair, George, & Taylor, 2001) for tourism planning and development that encouraged members of communities to ask themselves not just ‘why’ they wanted tourism in their communities, but also how it could be developed in a way that allowed communities to achieve goals that extended beyond just generating economic growth. Our team published a series of papers, book chapters, and a book that all built on this question (see, for example, Mair, Reid, George & Taylor, 2001; Reid, Mair, & Taylor, 2000; Reid, Mair, & George, 2004; Mair & Reid, 2007, George, Mair, & Reid, 2009).

Related work, on my own and with graduate students who were also interested in similar questions, yielded insights into the impacts of tourism on communities (see, for example, Mair, 2009, Kerswill & Mair, 2015) and sometimes on the tourists themselves (see, for example, Miller & Mair, 2014; Miller & Mair, 2015). In all projects, I encouraged my students to situate their projects within the broader political economic context as I firmly believe that tourism cannot be understood in a vacuum but must be understood as part-and-parcel with the assumptions that shape contemporary economic development policies (Mair, 2011, 2018).

New (related) areas of interest

Most recently and deeply related to this belief in the need to critically situate tourism, I’ve developing a new area of exploration. Recent work involves developing an understanding of how tourism can foster a critical pedagogical opportunity for both tourists and communities. Work on tourism as critical pedagogy (Mair & Sumner, 2018), built on Sumer’s ideas about food as critical pedagogy (Sumner, 2016), and identified opportunities for new forms of tourism to: (1) build comprehension about the social, environmental, and political-economic implications of tourism; (2) to understand relationships that support tourism; and (3) to identify real alternatives and opportunities for change. While I admire (but have long remained skeptical about) the so-called hopeful turn in tourism (Pritchard, Morgan & Ateljevic, 2011), the current context of climate change and growing concerns about ethics in tourism have led me to want to consider how positive change can be fostered. As I look towards the last decade (of so) of my career, I am excited about these new developments in the field and in my thinking.


Written by Heather Mair, University of Waterloo, Canada
Read Heather’s letter to future generations of tourism researchers


Aglietta, M. (1979) A Theory of Capitalist Regulation: The American Experience. London: NewLeft Books.

Britton, S. (1991) Tourism, capital, and place: Towards a critical geography of tourism. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 9, 451–78.

Dredge, D., & Jenkins, J. (2003). Destination place identity and regional tourism policy. Tourism Geographies5(4), 383-407.

George, E. W., Mair, H., & Reid, D. G. (2009). Rural tourism development: Localism and cultural change. Clevedon, England: Channel View.

Goodwin, M., Cloke, P. and Milbourne, P. (1995) Regulation theory and rural research: Theorizing contemporary rural change. Environment and Planning A 27, 1245–60.

Higgins-Desbiolles, F. (2006). More than an “industry”: The forgotten power of tourism as a social force. Tourism management27(6), 1192-1208.

Kerswill, M. & Mair, H. (2015). Big ships, small town: Understanding cruise port development in Falmouth, Jamaica. Tourism and Marine Environments, 10(3-4), 189-199.

Lipietz, A. (1987) Mirages and Miracles. London: Verso.

Mair, H. (2006). Global restructuring and local responses: Investigating rural tourism policy in two Canadian communities. Current Issues in Tourism, 9(1), 1-45.

Mair, H. (2009). Searching for a New Enterprise: Themed Tourism and the Re-making of One Small Community. Tourism Geographies, 2009, 11(4), 462-483.

Mair, H. (2011). The challenge of critical approaches to rural tourism studies and practice. In Ateljevic, I., Morgan, N., & Pritchard, A. (eds.) The critical turn in tourism studies. (pp. 42-54). London: Routledge.

Mair, H. (2018). Critical inquiry. In Nunkoo, R. (ed.) Handbook of research methods in tourism and hospitality management. (pp. 53-62) United Kingdom: Edwin Elgar Publishing.

Mair, H., & Reid, D. G. (2007). Tourism and community development vs. tourism for community development: Conceptualising planning as power, knowledge and control. Leisure/Loisir, 31(2), 403-426.

Mair, H., Reid, D. G., & George, E. W. (2005). Globalization, rural tourism and community power.   In Mitchell, M. and Hall, D. (eds.). Rural tourism and sustainable business.  (pp. 165-179). Clevedon, England: Channel View.

Mair, H. & Sumner, J. (2017). Critical tourism pedagogies. Journal of Hospitality, Leisure, Sport & Tourism Education, 21, 195-203.

Marcouiller, D.W. (1997). Toward integrative tourism planning in rural America. Journal of Planning Literature 11 (3), 337–57.

Miller, M. C., & Mair, H. (2014). Organic farm volunteering as a decommodified tourist experience. Tourist Studies, 15(2), 191-204.

Miller, M. & Mair, H. (2015). Volunteer experiences on organic farms: A phenomenological exploration. Tourism Analysis, 20(1), 69-80

Pritchard, A., Morgan, N., & Ateljevic, I. (2011). Hopeful tourism: A new transformative perspective. Annals of Tourism Research38(3), 941-963.

Reid, D. G., Mair, H., & George, E. W. (2004). Community tourism planning: A self-assessment instrument. Annals of Tourism Research, 31(3), 623-639.

Reid, D. G., Mair, H., & Taylor, J. (2000). Community participation in rural tourism development. World Leisure and Recreation Journal, 42(2), 20-27.

Reid, D. G., Mair, H., George, E. W., & Taylor, J. (2001). Visiting your future: A community guide to planning rural tourism. Ontario Agricultural Training Institute.

Sumner, J. (2016). Learning to eat with attitude: Critical food pedagogies. In Flowers, R., & Swan, E.  Food pedagogies. (pp. 201-214). London: Routledge.


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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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