101 SOCIO-CULTURAL DISCOURSES IN TOURISM – Contributions by Alexandra Witte

“It is thus not truth that varies with social, psychological, and cultural contexts but the symbols we construct in our unequally effective attempts to grasp it.”

(Geertz, 1973, p. 212)


Reading Geertz’s ‘The Interpretation of Cultures’, the assertion that whatever we come to know, we will know only through the prism of our participants’ and our own social and cultural understandings, and will only come to understand incompletely, struck a chord I had not fully realised I struggled with up to that point. For my Master’s dissertation, I had investigated the motivations and behaviours of Chinese students’ travelling around Europe. It was an attempt to marry my previous degree in Sinology to my tourism degree. I was fascinated by the narratives of familial and social pressure that emerged within my participant’s destination choices, and by their stories of resistance and/or compliance with what they reported to be widely held attitudes about how to travel Europe ‘correctly’. Quite naively, I sought to explain my findings through the lens of the Grand Tours of Europe of the 18th and 19th century, rather than seeking to situate my participants’ experiences explicitly within contemporary Chinese culture and society. It was only during my PhD research, once again connected to China, that I engaged with more critical readings and understandings of how cultural and social discourses and symbolisms inform human practice, experience, and values.

I have carried this interest in how wider social and cultural lifeworlds are reflected and/or challenged within tourism and mobilities forward into my research ever since. The following is intended to offer a brief overview of two different researches, which have been connected by this interest. The first pertains to my research on walking tourism in China, while the second discusses gendered experiences of travel in China. While on the face of it quite different areas of research, in both cases, key contributions lie within the furthering of our understandings of the influence social, cultural, and political discourses in contemporary China have on tourism, leisure and mobilities. These researches, thus, also explicitly sought to expand tourism research on non-Western contexts, paying attention to the unique socio-cultural frameworks in which tourism in this part of the world is contextualised.

Cultural Perspectives of walking tourism on China’s Tea Horse Road

My PhD research studied walking tourism on China’s Ancient Tea Horse Road using a mobile approach to ethnography following domestic and international tourists along the trails of this old caravan route. While conducting a preliminary literature review, it became clear that research on walking, hiking, trekking, rambling and other sub-types of this activity had generally centred on (Anglo-) Western countries or source markets. Particularly, specific trails and routes appeared to capture the attention (and perhaps imagination) in the literature, such as the Camino de Santiago in Europe or the Appalachian Trail in the US (Lourens, 2007; Hill et al., 2009; Berg, 2015). Even when studies ventured outside of these geographic contexts, e.g. on the Inca Trail (Cutler et al., 2014), they still tended to focus on Western walking tourists. Thus, it appeared we knew little about walking tourism and tourists elsewhere.

Yet, the conceptual work of Mauss (1973) on body techniques, Bourdieu’s (1977) habitus, and Lefebvre’s (2004) argument for the human body beset by dressage all considered the walking body as a bearer and performer of social and cultural knowing. Notions found within research on walking in the West, such as challenge, competition, nature communion, and romanticising sublime nature experiences are, therefore, enmeshed in specific cultural, social and historic imaginations (Edensor, 2000; Hall, 2002). Other places of the world, including China, do not necessarily share these histories and so it stood to reason that recreational and touristic walking might be performed and understood differently. However, no empirically-based research had focused on walking practices and experiences of domestic or international tourists in China within the English literature. Similarly, this area was also under-researched in the Chinese literature, as Zhang et al. (2013) identified. Even now, only a few publications on the topic are emerging (Li et al., 2017; Xie & Fan, 2017; Li et al., 2020).

My research investigated both what was said and done on the trails, while paying attention to the social and cultural discourses that emerged within participants’ narratives, behaviours and meaning-makings. Four distinct groups of walking tourists emerged from the analysis of my fieldwork: sightseers, donkey friends, hikers, and ATHR pilgrims. Each of these had distinct ways of walking, sought different experiences on the trails, and held particular beliefs and values around ‘legitimate’ walkers, walking, and walking trails. For a detailed discussion of each of these groups, see Witte (2020).

The identification of such diversity of walking tourists on the ATHR was in itself an important contribution of my research. Understanding walking tourism in China as diverse and potentially much more fragmented than anticipated through empirical evidence has implications for the development of this tourism and leisure sector in China, as I have discussed elsewhere (Witte, 2021). However, the theoretical implications for our understanding of walking for tourism and leisure are of equal significance.

For one, the findings showed just how pervasive Western imaginations of hiking are. While there were a few Chinese as well as South Korean participants who self-identified as hikers, virtually all participants hailing from Western countries considered themselves to be hikers.  Moreover, they accessed shared notions of challenge, sublime nature, a return to simpler lifestyle, exploration, and particular outdoor ethics commonly identified in the literature (e.g. Berg 2015; Rantala & Tuulentie, 2018; Munar et al., 2021). They did so, whether they were highly experienced regular hikers or casual to the degree of only hiking on certain holidays. This points to a form of collective consciousness (Tomazos, 2015), where contemporary hiking journeys in the West are linked with their predecessors through a common discourse re-inforced by a widely accessible supply of information and commercialised supply around hiking. This offers avenues for future investigation of how hiking in the West is presented and imagined through contemporary media, guides, and hiking equipment, thus creating landscapes of ‘correct’ knowledge accessible to both casual and serious hikers, yet, potentially excluding or delegitimising imaginations of hiking in nature of potential ‘others’ (see e.g. Stanley, 2020).

At the same time, my research furthers the discussion of non-Western walking for leisure and tourism in its own right, here in the specific context of China. Through the exploration of donkey friends’, sightseers’ and ATHR pilgrims’ ways of walking, unique discourses around walking for leisure and tourism were unearthed. For one, traditional Chinese concepts rooted in Confucianism and Taoism emerged, such as the notion of wuwei (无为), meaning action by inaction, passive achievement, and doing nothing (Kwek and Lee, 2010), which informed many of the sightseers’ practices and sought experiences. Among donkey friends, a Confucian emphasis on family relationships as close, yet hierarchical (Zhou et al., 2018) was reflected in their strong immersion in the mentorship relationships within their donkey friend communities and the use of specific neologisms to denote individuals’ status within.

Yet, my research also cautioned not to essentialise tourism and leisure practices in China to traditional Confucian and Taoist discourses, a tendency previously identified by Kwek and Lee (2010). While certainly influential philosophies even in contemporary China, Chinese tourism and leisure landscapes are also part of a modern nation under the influence of globalisation, social media and mass media, state and market forces,  driving economic, social and cultural changes (Hsu & Huang, 2016). These contemporary discourses were visible, for example, in ATHR pilgrims’ ways of walking and experiencing the trails. Strong links to a much more contemporary discourse of ‘unity in diversity’ and the PRC’s effort to use cultural artefacts as a way to project a sense of a continuity of ‘China’ as a nation marked by harmonic co-existence and cooperation between the majority Han population and ethnic minorities (Sigley, 2013, 2016), could be seen in their seeking of a form of secular pilgrimage affirming their Chineseness. Donkey friends’ strong focus on experiences of untouched nature and pronounced outdoor ethics, while reminiscent of Western notions of ‘leave no trace’, also reflect contemporary pro-environmental discourses emerging in Chinese society (Chen, 2020).

Each group reflected therefore distinct constellations of traditional Chinese values, contemporary values emerging in Chinese society, and values reflecting or paralleling contemporary Western notions of hiking. Exploring these underlying discourses offers avenues to facilitate walking experiences and trails that match the expectations of a diverse walking tourist market on a practical scale, while effectively addressing concerns regarding sustainability on these trails. It also furthers a much needed investigation of tourism practices sensitive to our respective socio-cultural lifeworlds.

Exploring the contemporary discourses underlying gendered experiences of tourism and hospitality in China

When I started my first fulltime position in Hainan as a lecturer in tourism development, I sought avenues to diversify my research. As so often the case in academia, working with colleagues with different research expertise to mine was an invaluable opportunity to explore new possibilities. In 2018, Dr. Meghan Muldoon and I launched the project ‘Women, tourism and digital landscapes in China’ out of a mutual desire to understand how gendered discourses interact with China’s ever-growing tourism market. With Meghan’s background in critical discourse analysis and my own focus on contemporary Chinese society and culture, we have been working on different offshoots of this project for the past three years.

Our initial work, conducted with four undergraduate students at Hainan University, focused on how tourism experiences are represented and discussed within Chinese online spaces from a gendered perspective (Muldoon et al., 2021), considering how issues of identity, mobility, and anger are intersecting with traditional, state-sponsored and modern market discourses around women and womens’ travels. Despite the importance of women for China’s travel market, research on how experiences of travelling are gendered, and how women travelling are perceived within Chinese society is still rare. This is the case despite access to travel often being gendered in terms of opportunities, constraints, and patterns (Cresswell & Uteng 2016)

Our research uncovered both the presence and the challenging of strong undercurrents of traditional Confucian views of what constitutes a ‘good’ women.  On the one hand, we found that women who were seen to travel ‘excessively’ and primarily for their own self-development and self-fulfilment, were often considered as frivolous, irresponsible, and ultimately to make poor future wives. These narratives reflected a traditional discourse of womens’ value primarily in terms of their role as wives and mothers. Additionally, women’s visibility as travellers was often highly criticised, for example by terming them ‘travel bitch’, reflecting a traditional Confucian notion that women should remain less visible within wider society (Gao, 2003). These central ideas of ideal Confucian femininity appeared further supported by a contemporary discourse pushed by the state, which emphasises family as the basis for a harmonious society and regards womens’ most important achievement for society to be expressed in matrimony and motherhood. This more contemporary expression of neo-Confucian ideals was also visible in the relatively recent emergence of the discourse of ‘leftover women’ also discussed in these blogs (Feldshuh 2018).

Yet, we also found that these neo-Confucian and state-sponsored discourses did not remain unchallenged. Travel and its discussion online emerged as avenues for Chinese women to re-assess and actively address their gendered experiences in Chinese society. Moreover, women’s travel is a significant aspect of domestic and international travel in/from China, further signalling that market discourses advocating for consumption as a form of self-improvement (Wu, 2010) also influence contemporary travel landscapes and women’s access to it. Additionally, narratives of women who travel as brave, industrious and interesting, primarily advocated by women for women in the analysed blogs and discussion forums, signal the emergence of competing discourses from within these online landscapes.

This research, thus, made two major contributions: First, it offered specific insights into the role of traditional, state, and market discourses in the constructions of women who travel and womens’ experiences as travellers. Secondly, it also allowed us a look into how travel and the sharing of travel experiences online can become opportunities to challenge and negotiate complex gender discourses in contemporary China.

Going forward…

The researches I have engaged in over the past few years have left deep impressions on my ways of thinking about tourism and travel as embedded in people’s social and cultural lifeworlds, as well as the political discourses linked to these. More recently, calls have been made increasingly to investigate experiences and practices within tourism from new cultural and social perspectives, be it outside of still dominant Western contexts, from the perspectives of often marginalised groups within societies such as migrants, people with disabilities, native communities, racial minorities, women, LGBTQ+ communities, or others (e.g. Aquino, 2019; Stanley, 2020; Sin et al., 2021). Through my research, I have come to believe that the socio-cultural discourses underlying and influencing these communities’ experiences and practices are manifold, complicated, and enmeshed in both ‘mainstream’ discourses in their respective wider societies and those intrinsic to these communities, warranting explicit attention to be paid to them and the resulting practices, experiences, and potential challenges and changes within contemporary tourism.


Written by Alexandra Witte, Hong Kong Polytechnic University, Hong Kong
Read Alexandra’s letter to future generations of tourism researchers


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