Becoming an associate professor at the age of 29 signified, for me, the blossoming of a professional dream that had been born 15 years earlier, when I was only 14 years old.  I had discovered a passion for studies, for the daily intellectual enrichment that they afforded me, and at that early age, already decided to devote myself to a life in their pursuit, as professor and researcher.  My personal itinerary – my Parisian parents’move to the isle of Oleron, a place much affected by the development of tourism, when I was but seven years old- introduced me at a very young age to its societal dynamics, born of the relationship established between ‘outsiders’ and the local population.  Within the former category were those, like my parents, who began as vacationers and then went on to themselves invest in the tourism business. And I learned much about the local people, growing up around them as I did. Thus, at a very tender age I began to develop a sensitivity toward the complexity of such relationships, and how they bred a twofold process in which local cultures are both eroded and re-valorised, as they are redefined through the gaze and the expectations of tourists.

From these early experiences, I developed a particular sensitivity to tourism’s interaction with the environment. From the start of my Master’s studies, the theme which was to become the center of my interests and reflections began to take shape:  tourism as a complex agent in our appreciation of the environment, in dialogue with the notion of « sustainability ».  My trajectory had in fact been marked by the emergence of this concept in the decade of the 1990s, and by the way it soon became a bearer of new challenges, confronting scientists with an abundance of new questions and generating their critical analyses ( Wall, 1993 ; Cater, 1993; Hunter, 1997; Mowforth et Munt, 1998, Butler, 1999 ; Liu 2003; Buckley, 2012, etc.).  I completed a pluridisciplinary DEA[1] in ETES (Environment, Time, Space, Society, concentration in Management of Biodiversity and Sustainable Development) in 2004 with the defence of a PhD in geography that received honourable mention from my examiners. It was entitled “Representations and practice of nature at French Atlantic tourism resorts. An evolving social construction” at the University of Paris VII Denis Diderot.

My scientific thought has since its inception been shaped as geographical analysis that takes its impulse from international and interdisciplinary fields of theory and research. These fields of interlocution have enabled me to deepen my analytical work on tourism, leisure, the environment and sustainable development, and to expand it through incursions into other themes and territories. Within this context, I have built my research around two major pillars:

  • The processes of co-constitution of tourism, “nature” and the environment, in conjunction with debates around the concept of sustainable development; these concerns have shaped my work since the days of my Master’s studies.
  • The tourism boom in Indonesia: from a geo-cultural revolution in practices to the challenges of sustainable development – a Western field of research confronted by the geo-cultural diversity of the world, through study of the Indonesian case.

Tourism, an agent for the reinvention of relationships to nature and potential vector of the sustainable development of territories

Since my arrival at UFR ESTHUA Tourism and Culture as an Associate Professor in 2006, I have carried out case studies, particularly in France, with the aim of understanding the implementation of policies for what is referred to as a sustainable tourism, as well as  the development strategies that are part of it.  I worked specifically on the case of Saint-Jean-de-Monts (Vendée), considered an emblematic site of “mass tourism”, and Saint-Trojan-les-Bains (Charente-Maritime) a small family-managed resort location. These different field studies allowed me to theorize the sustainability paradigm. Faithful to a geographical approach in which theory relies on the field for its verification, I thus was able to contribute my various researches (done alone or in collaboration (Knafou and Pickel, 2011) to the enrichment of international debates on these issues.

Fuelled by the initial reflections described above, and backed by my previous thesis research, I set out to writing a book, L’Occident face à la nature, à la confluence des sciences, de la philosophie et des arts (Western society facing nature, at the meeting of sciences, philosophy and arts), on the evolution of the relationship of Western societies to nature, explaining their mutual constitution through the confluence of sciences, philosophy and the arts. Published in 2014, by Le Cavalier Bleu Editions, as of its second chapter the book turns to the founding role of tourism and recreation in the recodification of nature and the environment in contemporary Western societies. This is apparent in the titles of its subtopics – a   second chapter titled « The unsettling of nature by leisure society”, followed by the third and final chapter on “The revolution of sustainability: does it guarantee a good relationship to nature? ».

Finally, in 2017a, I published a book chapter (“Le développement touristique durable: un changement de paradigme? / Sustainable tourism development: a paradigm shift?”)  in which I synthesize the conceptual reflections on the relationship between tourism and sustainable development to which I have been devoted since finishing my thesis. My specific contribution to the debate can be summarized as the attention I bring to several key premises:

  • “Sustainable development” is not a scientific concept implying that we could attain a “perfect” type of development, but a political and institutional concept meant to promote a new type of development. As such, it is not an instrument of understanding but of construction of the world. Within this context, it is a fascinating object for the scientific communities, posing a veritable change of paradigm, that is, one which redefines notions of development through the aggregation of social, cultural and environmental issues to traditional economic data. The aim of the researchers is, then, to observe this process, that unfolds internationally and contributes to further globalisation, between universalism and differentiation, creating innovative models of “sustainable” tourism development;
  • The capacity of tourism to be a vector of sustainable development depends on going beyond “top-down” or “bottom-up” processes, to become a “system”, combining both external and internal involvement.
  • The non-opposition of diverse models of tourism, from international resorts to traditional villages, since both can and should integrate a sustainability objective, at different scales;
  • Even within this ‘sustainable design’, tourism causes significant societal transformations.  Although communities strive to maintain their traditional activities and ways of life, the process of opening villages up to the public requires changes – opening homes, transforming ceremonies, modifying practices that can even lead to a drop in the original quality of products, etc.
  • The relationships between culture and tourism remain complex, echoing the difficulties of trying to unite conservation to openness toward modernity. This ambition is also a dynamic motor for revitalization, favouring the reinvention of local tradition. Such new creations are neither traditional nor ‘fake’. Rather, they are the results of a living culture, and unique because they are co-produced by the tourists and local population. The latter unconsciously appropriate the image of themselves conveyed by tourists, and this in turn confirms the specific, ambiguous role of tourism as an agent of both transformation and conservation of culture and heritage.

Furthermore, by joining the faculty at the UFR ESTHUA, strongly oriented toward the internationalization of tourism, I was able to discover a new territory of research: Indonesia.

Tourism in Indonesia: from a geo-cultural revolution in practices to the challenges of sustainable development

My work on Indonesia has, until recently, focused largely on the islands of Bali and Java, which constitute the two main tourist receiving (Bali) and sending (Java) centres in Indonesia. Discovering a new territory, I plunged first into bibliographic study of fundamental sources, combining a review of the international literature (Vickers, 1989; Picard, 1992; 2010; Cabasset, 2000; Hitchcock, King and Parnwell (eds.), 2008; Winter, Teo and Chang, 2009, Brown, 2011; etc.) with statistical analysis and fieldwork. My research focused on two central themes, namely:

  • The ways in which Indonesian populations have appropriated tourism activities, on the one hand, and;
  • On the other, the societal transformations generated by the development of tourism within its territories, enquiring into tourism’s ability to function as a lever for sustainable development.

The appropriation of tourism activities in Indonesia, through interculturation[2]

I have often conducted my research on this theme in conjunction with Indonesian colleagues.  This has favoured my immersion in the very complex Indonesian society, allowing me to contribute numerous chapters to volumes devoted specifically to Indonesian domestic tourism (“Expériences touristiques et ludiques sur les littoraux en Indonésie: des vecteurs de mutation du rapport au corps? / Tourism and leisure experiences on the Indonesian seaside: vectors of mutation to body relationship”, with Asep Parantika in 2015;  “Le tourisme domestique indonésien: une invention interculturelle. Le cas des pratiques touristiques indonésiennes à Bali et Java / Tourism in Indonesia: an intercultural invention. The case of the tourism practices in Bali and Java”, in 2017b) or its comparative study alongside other tourism practices that take place at the same locations (“The Globalization of Tourism in Bali: A shared Destination for Diversified Practices and Representations”, with Ni Putu Sartika Sari, in 2017). These research projects have enabled me to enquire more conceptually into issues of domestic tourism in Indonesia, examining the phenomena of the global reach of tourism as well as developing a geographic approach to it. Within this context, and in collaboration with Philippe Violier, I have analysed the historical development of tourism in Bali, interrogating its ability to question the existing global model of centre – periphery relations. This research was presented in July of 2014, at the 41st Meeting of the Commission of Tourism and Leisure Geography, and then led to the writing of the chapter titled “Bali, de la marge à la centralité touristique? / Bali, from marge to tourism centrality?” published in 2017. It leads me also to question more globally the interaction between tourism and development in Indonesia, emphasizing its important imbalance (“Tourisme et aménagements touristiques en Indonésie”/Tourism and county planning in Indonesia”, 2019).

I have also gone on to deepen my epistemological reflections by branching out into other disciplines, such as intercultural psychology. The latter has enabled me to enrich my approach to the geography of tourism. In this regard, the example of domestic tourism in Indonesia, in collaborative work with Philippe Violier and Asep Parantika, nourishes our efforts to assess geography’s ability to appropriate a concept that issues from the field of intercultural psychology, interculturation (Clanet, 1990 ; Denoux, 1995 ; Demorgon, 2002 ; Guerraoui, 2009), while enriching the latter through the aggregation of spatial dimensions. In fact, the concept of interculturation lays at the heart of the reflections that comprised my HDR examination.  These syntheses led, in turn, to the publication of another article, “Le tourisme, agent d’interculturation sociospatiale? Le cas des pratiques touristiques littorales indonésiennes à Bali et Java / Tourism as an agent of socio-spatial interculturation? Seaside touristic pratices in Bali and Java”, published in 2018 in the Academic journal L’Espace Géographique.

On the adaptability of the Western concept of the « development of sustainable tourism» to Indonesian society

Finally, my work on Indonesia converges with my interests on the phenomena of the mutual constitution of tourism, “nature” and sustainable development, by questioning the adaptability of the Western notion of “sustainability” to the geo-cultural and socio-economic diversity of the world. It was within this context that I initially set out to analyse the relationship of the Balinese to their environment. My research was first conducted with the help of a Balinese colleague, attempting to understand a holistic interpretation of “nature” that is very different from the Western Christian approach that defines it in terms of its separation from the human. This research materialized in a first article on the theme, “Towards sustainable tourism in Bali? A Western paradigm in the face of Balinese cultural uniqueness,” published in 2016 in the journal Mondes du Tourisme. I then went on to refine this study through a more precise analysis of the ambiguous and often paradoxical effects of tourism on the environment in Bali: caught between land exploitation and conservationist pressures, a complex process of redefining “nature”, is generated, from which emerge both appropriation of Western representations and resistance steeped in religious and cultural beliefs. In this regard, tourism becomes a vector of transformations of Balinese relations to nature, incorporating the phenomena of interculturation as it generates new syncretic relationships with the environment. This research resulted in a chapter intituled “Can tourism enhance ‘nature’ in Bali? Moving towards a new paradigm, through the interculturation process “, published in the book I edited in 2017c at Cambridge Scholar Publishing.

Under the title Tourism in Bali and the Challenge of Sustainable Development (2017d), the above-mentioned book examines tourism as a vector of sustainable development, inquiring into its capacity for appropriation by Balinese society through processes that conjoin adaptation, resistance and innovation. Its originality lies in the way it successively apprehends the social, economic, cultural and environmental effects of tourism in Bali, through the work of recognized international scholars (such as Michel Picard and Adrian Vickers) coming from a variety of disciplines:  geography, sociology, anthropology and economics.  Editing this work was also for me a significant step forward, as it enabled an intersecting analysis – at once international, interdisciplinary and intergenerational – of the complex participation of tourism in the construction of Balinese society.

It is also through the prism of this same logic of intersecting perspectives that I conducted a study relating to the implementation of the Indonesian policy of “desa wisata terpadu” (integrated tourist villages) promoted by the central government as a model for sustainable tourism adapted to Indonesian society. Because I initiated this study on Bali, I consulted two Balinese colleagues, and together with them selected three villages on the island considered to be successful examples of integrated tourist. Our aim was to examine their ability to meet both Western definitions of sustainable tourism and the needs of the local population. This analysis, combining statistical and bibliographic studies, field observations and qualitative interviews, revealed the difficulties of adapting the concept of sustainability, demonstrating the flexibility that is needed for its incorporation by societies built on a community system, distinct from the prevailing paradigm of complex Western societies. The results led to the publication in 2019 of the article “The integrated touristic villages: an Indonesian model of sustainable tourism?”   in the international journal Tourism Geographies.

Overture: tourism and gender, in Indonesia and worldwide 

Finally, this research has presented important challenges around the issue of gender relations in Bali. Indeed, women today contribute substantially to the development of tourism, in resorts but also in their villages through the creation of services (accommodation, catering and production of handcrafts) that are associated with their traditional activities (household management, production of cloth and utensils such as baskets, etc.) This situation gives them the possibility of opening businesses and earning their own money. Although it may not give them total autonomy, it provides them with greater visibility and respect.

These endeavours of research and reflection have led to the establishment of a joint postdoctoral program, associating ESTHUA, Udayana Universitas and Bali State Polytechnic, which was inaugurated in May, 2019, considering the potential of tourism and access to tourism training as a channel for the transformation of patriarchal tradition and encouraging the emancipation of women. At the same time, the study of the desa wisata terpadu policy is being advanced through a doctoral thesis that I supervise, but this time with a focus on the island of Sumatra, and specifically, in Minaugkabau. The latter can be characterized by its singularity, as a traditional Muslim but also matriarchal society. We are also planning an international research project devoted to the theme “Tourism and Gender”  which will mobilize researchers from five continents.

Written by Sylvine Pickel-Chevalier, UFR ESTHUA Tourism and Culture, University of Angers, France
Read Sylvine’s letter to future generations of tourism researchers


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  1. Diplôme d’Etudes Approfondies (Deeper Studies Degree), an older name for the postgraduate degree now known as ‘Master’s 2’ and specialized in research studies.
  2. Defined as the ability of the meeting of two cultures to generate a third syncretic culture, while enriching the latter through the aggregation of spatial dimensions (Clanet, 1990; Denoux, 1995; Demogon, 2002; Guerraoui, 2009)


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