26 USING VISUAL RESEARCH IN TOURISM – Contributions by Margarida Custódio Santos

Deciding to use visual research in my doctoral thesis was a difficult decision, but I felt that it was an inevitability rather than a choice. I started working on my thesis in 2008, and, after a long period of reading and reviewing the existing research on destination competitiveness, I concluded that which factors influence tourism destinations’ ability to compete depends on their development phase. The tourism destination where I live and work, the Algarve, is in a mature phase, so naturally my research focused on understanding the variables that affect mature tourism destinations’ competitiveness.

A quite significant number of studies have identified environmental impacts as one of the main factors that can cause mature destinations to become less competitive. A closer look at prior research revealed that many so-called environmental impacts comprised deterioration in the aesthetic quality of these destinations’ cultural landscape. I had found my research topic! However, I quickly recognised that, to measure tourism development’s effect on the Algarve landscape’s aesthetic quality, I needed to use images. At that time, few investigations had used photographs to assess tourism destinations’ aesthetic value.

Using still images to evaluate this industry’s impact on my destination’s aesthetic value was a major challenge. First, I needed to establish which activities’ effect on the cultural landscape’s aesthetic quality could be attributed to tourism development. An extensive literature review identified 11 factors including, among others, overdevelopment, new access roads, abandoned agricultural land, discarded old infrastructure, agricultural land converted to serve diverse tourism purposes and environmental degradation.

Next, photographs chosen to represent these impacts were mixed with manipulated images and shown to tourists who had already seen the Algarve’s landscape first hand. They were asked how likely they would be to choose a destination with landscapes like those in the photographs. Figure 1 shows a real cultural landscape that all tourists arriving at Faro International Airport are exposed to and depicts abandoned agricultural land. Figure 2 is of a manipulated landscape from which all signs of abandonment had been eliminated, but it is the same basic landscape.


Figure 1. Real landscape.
Figure 2. Manipulated landscape.

Based on this survey, the following contribution was formulated:

Assessments of tourism destinations’ cultural landscape should be included when they are in a mature development phase in order to analyse their competitiveness.

As mentioned previously, the literature review carried out revealed that many situations reported as environmental impacts on destinations were changes in cultural landscapes’ aesthetic quality caused by tourism development. This conclusion was reinforced by authors who reported that environmental effects, such as contaminated bathing water due to inadequate sewage treatment, had been resolved. To a large degree, these real environmental impacts were dealt with by creating more precise indicators to measure pollution and establishing benchmarks for when to allow or prohibit particular resources’ use by tourists and the local population.

Only cultural landscapes considered of exceptional value have been targeted by measures that ensure their protection. These landscapes – or, as the European Union calls them, traditional or everyday landscapes – had previously not been maintained largely due to the challenge of developing precise indicators to measure the changes affecting these cultural features. Experts have also had difficulty assessing these alterations’ consequences for individuals who permanently or temporarily interact with these landscapes.

Tourists often circulate in destinations to visit areas considered of exceptional value. These visitors are then incidentally exposed to cultural landscapes that have suffered a noticeable loss of aesthetic quality mainly due to over-construction of accommodation units, secondary housing and other tourism-related infrastructure. Excessive building has also occupied areas of great environmental fragility, leading to the destruction of ecosystems and degradation of important tourism resources such as beaches. Coastal destinations in the Mediterranean have also experienced widespread abandonment of cultivated lands that, in some cases, have been converted to other uses such as golf courses or theme parks.

A prominent feature of assessments of tourism destinations’ competitiveness is the distinction made between natural attractions and/or resources and cultural and/or social attractions or resources. Natural landscapes’ beauty is often evaluated in conjunction with the built environment’s attractiveness, while the presence of unique cultural or social attractions that are likely to draw tourists are assessed separately. Humans’ interactions with the physical environment over time generates destinations’ cultural landscapes, which are not usually thought to contribute to these locations’ attractiveness and competitiveness unless these encounters have created an outstanding landscape.

Tourism destinations are not the only areas to overlook the importance of cultural landscapes as diverse European countries have just recently begun to recognise the need to protect these landscapes, as shown by the European Landscape Convention. Analyses of tourism destinations’ competitiveness thus need to pay attention to aspects related to not only tourist attractions (i.e. natural, cultural, social and historical), leisure facilities and infrastructure but also cultural landscapes’ aesthetic quality. The second contribution offered here as a result of my research is, therefore, as follows:

Environmental impacts should not be confused with tourism’s negative effects on the aesthetic quality of destinations’ cultural landscape.

This finding suggests that experts should differentiate more clearly between environmental impacts and detrimental effects on landscapes’ aesthetic value. When the present field study was conducted, the Algarve’s local authorities reported that the most significant environmental impact in their region was the collapse of cliffs. Limestone bluffs in different shades is one of the most distinctive characteristics of the Algarve coastline, and these cliffs frequently collapse.

In various cases, tourism infrastructure’s location on top of cliffs has contributed to the process. This situation was addressed by two still images (see Figures 3 and 4). Although the collapse was visible in one photograph, the tourists who evaluated both images could not find any differences between them, and they said that they would consider choosing either destination.


Figure 3. Real landscape: collapse of cliffs.
Figure 4. Manipulated landscape.

I analysed the results of my application of visual research methods to assess changes in the aesthetic quality of a tourism destination’s cultural landscape. The findings support the conclusion that destination managers need to make a greater effort to monitor these transformations. Tourism development projects must avoid producing cultural landscapes that can give tourists the impression that a destination is no longer worthwhile visiting – even when it offers outstanding natural and cultural attractions.


Written by Margarida Custódio Santos, Universidade do Algarve, Portugal


Santos, C. M. (2012). A importância da paisagem cultural para a competitividade dos destinos (Doctoral Thesis, Universidade de Aveiro, Aveiro, Portugal). Retrieved from https://ria.ua.pt/handle/10773/227/browse?type=author&order=ASC&rpp=20&value=Santos%2C+Maria+Margarida+Teixeira+Custódio+dos

Santos, M. (2014). A importância em manter a qualidade estética da paisagem cultural para a competitividade do destino. In C. Costa, F. Brandão, R. Costa & Z. Breda (Eds.) Produtos e competitividade do turismo na Lusofonia. Lisboa: Escolar Editora.



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