In memory of Rachid Amirou

Philippe Bachimon & Francisco Dias


The paradise, the island and the playing
Vacancy and the fallow
Some writings

Full text

Making a tribute to a scientist and friend who deceased recently, is not simple when, as we wrote these pages, we became more aware of his contribution, as well as the loss he represents to the community of tourism researchers. We propose then a few reflect things about the person, his main ideas and, above all, about the importance of his work prematurely interrupted, whose contribution to the debate on tourism will continue well beyond his death.

Rachid Amirou was born in January 1956 in Draâ Ben Khedda (Algeria), and died on January 9th, 2011 in Auxerre (France). As a sociologist of tourism, he published many books and articles about the tourist imaginary. He was initially lecturer at the University of Montpellier and professor at the University of Perpignan before becoming professor at the University of Paris V. He was chairman of the Inter-Regional and Inter-University Tourism Research Network (R2IT), being an active promoteur of this network since the late 1990s. Rachid’s work became known abroad after the publishing of the book «Imaginaire du tourisme culturel» (Editions du Seuil). His second book, on the travelling sociabilities, although less known, is also important. He was a co-author of essential books like « Le tourisme local. Une culture de l’exotisme » and « Tourisme et souci de l’autre »… He wrote about fifty papers, some of them with deep insights. Rachid Amirou loved very much his work as professor, and he directed many doctoral programs in Sociology of Tourism, both in France and abroad. His contribution to the development of Tourism Studies was particularly important in Portugal, where he left orphans several tourism researchers that are very grateful to him.

Rachid’s conception cannot be summarized in a short text, considering the richness of his ideas and intuitions, whose versatility is very large. We outline here just one of his favorite themes, notably the notion of tourist paradise, and then we will mention some of the themes he addressed in the study of tourism – a phenomenon that still remains little known –, in particular the playing activity, the fallow and the duties during the holidays .

The paradise, the island and the playing

Noting that the scholars of the human psyche, the poets and the writers describe the paradise as a place free from concerns, Rachid Amirou dedicated himself to understanding the objectivation of the tourist paradise. In fact, as a metaphor we can describe paradise as essentially a state of happiness and natural grace. Eliade (1964) described the nostalgia of paradise as the desire of every human being to access the center of the world, as a desire to easily and naturally overcome the human condition. According to Amirou, the genealogy of the tourist paradise has two roots: (1) the secular society, which emerged from the French Revolution (whose roots one can find in Rousseau’s works); (2) the imagery of heaven perceived as a metaphor of happiness and well-being. Analyzing the discourses and practices of the various tourism agents (institutional agents, professionals and consumers), Rachid Amirou demonstrates that paradise is a cultural and symbolic invariant that is objectivated in the protective isle. One can find this demand for Eden insularity in ordinary marketing messages (“island paradise”, “wildlife sanctuary”, “dream experience”), which essentially describe a state of mind, a way of fullness or omnipotence.

According to Amirou, this image of the secular paradise begins as a mental space, perceived as maternal and protective. The notion of charm, overused in promoting tourism and hospitality, is part of this symbolic universe as a mean of enhancing values of intimacy, simplicity, nostalgia and proximity.
Unlike Sartre, who said that hell is other people, Amirou thought that hell is usually a painful experience of societal isolation, as Heaven is other people: the sociability and societal recognition of community. However, according to Rachid Amirou, a key element of this tourist paradise experience is the dream of a perfect sociability: the tourist paradise is a relational paradise. As the author mentions in an article entitled “Le Paradis, c’est les autres” (Heaven is Other People), the notion of paradise means meeting face to face with others (environment), often the same people a meeting that stands for different, less stressful relationships, which are real or imagined. Whereas individual happiness invariably implies the other (the Edenic myth includes the idyllic and enchanted nature, but also the union with others: Robinson with Friday, Adam with Eve), the genealogy of the tourist experience requires, according to Amirou, a detailed observation of childhood experience. Based on the analysis of the childhood, the psychoanalyst Winnicott (1971) developed the notion of “intermediate area of experience”.

According to Winnicot (1971), the intermediate area is a play area, which is neither an inner and subjective entity, nor an entirely cultural one, as discussed below. After analyzing tourist sociability, particularly in clubs and holiday resorts, and after emphasizing its attributes of insularity, with its particular space and time, Rachid Amirou concluded that tourism spaces are, in fact, playing spaces. According to Caillois (1958), the play is essentially an occupation that takes place outside the rest of existence, isolated and well shaped by precise boundaries of time and space. This idea of insularity inherent to the playing activity is also described by Bachelard (1943), when he refers to the imaginary shell of the island as a place of happiness and safety. Based on this conceptual background, and aiming to verify his premonitions, Rachid Amirou analysed his empirical data, observations from his professional work with tourists, and a survey with the directors of Club Med (Amirou, 1988).

Nowadays, it is almost consensual to approach the tourism phenomenon as a playing experience.This is due to Amirou (1995), who consideed that the notion of experience should be better understood through the notion of “potential space”, that is a space of possibilities and playful experimentation. This notion of potential space was borrowed by Rachid Amirou (1995) from Donald Winnicott (1971), who made a distinction between the words “game”, “play” and “playing” (entertainment, gaming or playing activity). The game usually consists of fixed rules, which must be strictly complied with (the game is something serious, like Huizinga said), while the playing activity belongs to the universe of imagination. For Winnicott, the act of playing although being a form of sublimation of instincts (based on Freudian conception), it is essentially a sign of health and wellness. The child plays when he or she is in good health condition. The same idea, according to Amirou, was sustained by Kant (1790, 1979), which highlighted the existence of a link between the playing activities and health, stating that the unrestrainedly play, without pragmatic intention, gives pleasure because it intensifies the feeling of health. From this idea, Rachid Amirou concludes that the playful sociability, clearly observable on holidays, is also an indicator of societal well-being (and also social and individual development).

Therefore, to explain the genesis of the tourist experience, Amirou takes an ontogenetic perspective anchored in what we can call a “positive psychoanalysis”, which stresses that the main factor of psychicological development is not the conflict (as does the more orthodox psychoanalist, Freud), but the playful sociability, which is established in the affective dome of the maternal home. More precisely, Amirou (2008) considers that the first experience of fullness and happiness is what is experienced by the child who discovers his/her omnipotence when the mother immediately responds to his/her needs. Such feeling of omnipotence and plenitude comes to the child soon after the birth, when the mother (if she is good enough) offers the breast in response to the cry of the child, which creates in the child the illusion that the breast was created by him/her, as an immediate consequence of his/her cry… This is just an illusion, but a very important illusion to the psychological development of the child. This intermediate area will subsist throughout life, as a means of experimentation under different forms: artistic activity, spiritual search, imaginary, and creative scientific work (Winnicott, 1971: 25). Tourism, vacations and trips are also part of this category of experiences. In a socio-anthropological perspective, tourism corresponds to a threefold transfer: it is a spacial transfer (search for exotic places, dreamed as the Eden), a societal (search for a more playful sociability in simple communities, based on the imaginary of charm, simplicity and intimacy) and an existential (search of a perfect agreement with oneself). In this context, one can note a great similarity between the concept of tourist imaginary, as it is described by Amirou, and the concept of existential authenticity suggested by Wang (1999).

In short, we must seek the genetic blueprint of the experience of paradise in the primary relationship between mother and baby, in this emotional fusion experienced in childhood. Tourism allows us to recreate, in a more or less illusory way, with more or less nostalgia, this illusion of paradise, which fills the imaginary and gives meaning to our life (note that Gilbert Durand regarded the imagination as a euphemism of Death: without the imaginary, life would be meaningless, since death would be perceived as the end of life).

Vacancy and the fallow

We have seen that the recreational activities include a detachment from the so-called serious and ordinary activities of everyday life. The tourist experience is conceived as a possibility for individuals (or groups) to ‘place themselves at a distance’. According to Amirou it is however, a real or a metaphorical detachment, since the ordinary daily life is put between brackets, although under protection of a tourism system that ensures the safety of those who want to ‘place themselves at a distance’. One of the objectives of tourism is to allow the individual to put aside, living temporary in a kind of bubble, beyond of time and space of everyday life, and searching the harmony with himself. The concept of “perfect agreement with oneself” was borrowed by Amirou from the psychoanalyst Masud Khan. Inspired by Rilke, who stated that each human being lives throughout his life a single conflict that constantly reappears in under a different guise Khan believes that each individual has a nostalgia of a “perfect agreement” with himself and with the world. This perfect agreement is an intimate experience, non-confrontational and very personal, a state of being that Khan metaphorically describes as “lying fallow”. This is not an experience of inertia or idle tranquility of spirit, but the need for individuals to enjoy their privacy, not to be integrated, in short, to be in fallow. “For the Romans, the pleasure meant, par excellence, the time when each person took care of himself. It may sound a truism, but the Latin idea of conservation to the self (ad se convertere) confirms and reinforces the notion of being-aside” (Amirou, 2007a: 189). The ultimate goal of this state of set-aside is “to allow the individual to establish a number of relationships with himself” (op. cit., Ibid.).
Following Foucault (1989) and Baudrillard (1979), Amirou states that in the modern society, the individual finds it difficult to have time for himself and cannot “behave in relation to himself without an intentional goal, he must do absolutely anything, preventing in this way to be assailed by guilt and feelings of failure (Amirou, 2007a: 188). People are almost obliged to do something during the holidays, which takes tourists to fulfill a lot of obligations, and it removes all free nature from modern recreational activities (there are requirements about what to see, which should prove, in short, there is the whole range of tourist norms). From this idea, Rachid Amirou comes to the following pessimistic conclusion, which is being corroborated with more evidence in the last years: “the drama of a vacancy, whose etymology suggests the idea of emptiness, is precisely the impossibility of the individual creating the void and dedicating time for himself, free from any social purpose” (Amirou, 2007a: 189).

Some writings

We present below some commentaries on Amirou’s writings. These commentaries are short synopses without the intention to depict all the richness of ideas that one can find out in his texts. Indeed, our goal is just to highlight some basic ideas in the most famous Amirou’s works, aiming to contextualize his ideas.

In his book “Imaginaire du Tourisme Culturel“, published in 2002, Rachid Amirou explaines how the imaginary transforms a neutral place into a tourist destination. The touristification of cultural heritage refers to the recurring themes of authenticity, cultural identity, and sometimes ethnicity. This is an important anthropological fact, although long time neglected by analysts. This ideology, predominant in the discourse on cultural heritage, is undermined by numerous misunderstandings. For example, the concept of intangible heritage, whose accreditation can take place without considering the traditional criteria of history and art.

In the article « Un charme qu’il ne faut pas jeter » (2004), he analyses the concepts of intimacy, simplicity, nostalgia, proximity… these are the values underlying the concept of charm. No wonder that this concept is used as an argument to promote tourism. The concept of charm meets the needs of a tourist in search of solace under a «protective shield». With two risks: it puts the development of tourism in the «reconstituted» past and it undermining the very concept of charm.

In the article « De l’imagerie populaire à l’Imaginaire touristique », Rachid states that the postcard, although giving a simplistic image of tourist destinations, is the quintessential matter of the tourist imaginary. It is an almost mandatory holiday’s ritual, and it recounts a dream came true by for? the sender, who wants to share his dream with the recipient. The postcard recreates the image of the place, participating in the invention of the landscape. And, conversely, the landscape creates the postcards. It is therefore necessary to « see what might be seen ».

The article « Tourisme et postmodernité – Les metamorphoses de l’authenticité » (2007b) is related to the Amirou’s description of the tourism in the post-modern society, which began in 1980. It is part of a global change and geopolitics, characterized by a reduction of the order. Postmodern tourists are looking, not for the authentic, but its soft version, manufactured by the industry of entertainment. It is merely a simulacrum of reality or a simulacrum of authenticity. However this doesn’t mean that the tourists can’t distinguish between the copy and the original.

In his article “Pour une culture du tourisme” (2005), Amirou addresses an important issue. For many actors of culture, the cultural object is attractive by itself, it’s therefore not necessary to transform it in a commodity. The public should make an effort to access the cultural object. In turn, for the tourism professionals, the cultural object must be attractive for selling. It means that the offer must get advance on the demand. Tourism professionals and institutions tacitly accept the « illegitimacy » of their cultural sector in comparison to the «sacred mission» of heritage preservation and protection. In practical terms, it seems that we are evolving into a threefold approach, which includes three imperatives that shape the cultural tourism sector, namely: the protection of heritage, the democratization of its access (mediation, price policies, etc…) and their commoditization as part of economic development.

As a last reference, we can refer the article « L’évasion immobile » (2001). Here Rachid Amirou analysed the practice which consists in agregating different tourist offers under the umbrella of one federating theme. This hapen, for example, when a tour operator organizes a travelling focused on the identity of a place, on a specific concept or on a specific practice. Analysing such concept, Amirou came to the conclusion that it becomes successful only when it is porposed to clients a common identity, doesn’t matter how fantastic or improvable it is.

One of the authors of this present tribute, Francisco, was one of last PhD students of Rachid; and the other, Philippe, had the honor to work with him, as co-author of two books. The first one, entitled “Local Tourism -A culture of the exotic” (Le tourisme local, une culture de l’exotisme), with a preface by Michel Maffesoli, published in 2000, discusses the issue of cultural tourism in the context of the strengthening of local identities. The second book, entitled “Tourism and concern for others” (“Tourisme et souci de l’autre”), was written in 2005, in tribute to Georges Cazes, who had just left his academic appointment. We had co-authored with Jean-Michel Dewailly and Jacques Malezieux, as many academics and researchers who were much indebted to George Cazes, who was one of the pioneers of questioning the social impact of tourism and identity. For coincidence Georges Cazes deceased few months after Rachid Amirou.

Obviously, all the concepts developed by Amirou and presented in his works have since been taken over depth or manipulated, but this is the vicissitude of the ideas. The scholars are being dispossessed of their intuitions and conceptions by a process of appropriation, which one may just regret that it is not always transparent. This takes nothing away, and on the contrary, the pleasure was mine to work with Rachid. Firstly, because our relationship quickly surpassed the work sphere to fall into friendship. Secondly because he had great knowledge of current and innovative research in sociology and had the pleasure to share it with us.

Rachid assumed his illness bravely, insisting on not talking about it. He leaves a wife and a daughter he adored. Our thoughts are with them.


Amirou R., 1995, Imaginaire touristique et sociabilités du voyage, Paris, PUF.

Amirou R. & Bachimon, Ph., 2000, Le tourisme local. Une culture de l’exotisme, Paris, L’Harmattan.

Amirou R., 2000, Imaginaire du tourisme culturel, Paris, PUF.

Amirou R., Pivin J.-L. & Chazaud P., 2001, L’évasion immobile, Revue Espaces, 183, 8p.

Amirou R., 2002, De l’imagerie populaire à l’Imaginaire touristique, Revue Espaces, 199, 24-25.

Amirou R., 2004, Un charme qu’il ne faut pas jeter. La notion de charme en tourisme, Revue Espaces, 218, 21 – 41.

Amirou R., Bachimon Ph., Dewailly J.-M. & Malezieux J. (éd), 2005, Tourisme et souci de l’autre. En hommage à Georges Cazes, Paris, L’Harmattan.

Amirou R., 2005, Pour une culture du tourisme, Cahier Espaces, 87, 31-36.

Amirou R., 2007a, Imaginário Turístico e Sociabilidades de Viagem, Porto, APTUR and Editora Estratégias Criativas.

Amirou, R., 2007b, Tourisme et postmodernité. Les métamorphoses de l’authenticité, Revue Espaces, 245, 46-53.

Amirou R., 2008, Le Paradis, c’est les autres, Articulo – Journal of Urban Research [Online, accessed on 02.02.2011, URL:].

Bachelard G., 1943, L’air et les songes, Paris, Corti.

Baudrillard J., 1979, La société de consommation, Paris, Gallimard, coll. «Idées».

Caillois, R., 1958, Les jeux et les hommes, Paris, Gallimard.

Csikszentmihalyi M., 1975, Beyond Boredom and Anxiety: The Experience of Play in Work and Games, San Francisco, Jossey-Bass.

Delumeau J., 1992, Histoire du Paradis, Paris, Hachette.

Durand G., 1964, L’Imagination symbolique, Paris, PUF.

Eliade M., 1964, Traité d’histoire des religions, Paris, Payot.

Foucault M., 1989, Résumé des cours, Paris, Julliard.

Huizinga J., 1988, Homo Ludens: essai sur la fonction sociale du jeu, Paris, Gallimard.

Kant E., 1979, Critique de la faculté de juger, Paris, Vrin.

Khan M., 1977, Etre en jachère. Examen d’un aspect du loisir, Revue l’ARC, 52-57.

Nietzsche F., 1969, Ainsi parlait Zarathoustra, Paris Aubier-Flammarion.

Winnicott D., 1971, Playing and Reality, London, Tavistock.


Electronic refence:
Philippe Bachimon & Francisco Dias, In Memory of Rachid Amirou, Via@, Tourist imaginaries, n°1, 2012, published online on march the 16th, 2012.


Philippe Bachimon & Francisco Dias


Philippe Bachimon, read by Mihaela Marc