The tourist experience: an experience of the frameworks of the tourist experience?

Hécate Vergopoulos


This contribution aims to produce a critical literature review of the recent collaborative works dealing with the notion of tourist experience (Sharpley and Stone, 2012; Filep and Pearce, 2013; Prebensen, Chen and Uysal, 2014; Decroly, 2015). Organized around four questions (what is not/does not produce experience in tourism?, what is the use of the tourist experience?, what is an unsuccessful tourist experience? and can forms of inauthentic experiences exist?), it particularly tries to highlight what these studies, stemming from different disciplines and traditions of research (management sciences, psychology, geography, anthropology, education sciences, etc.) have in common. It also intends to show that through the plurality of approaches emerge zones of friction and tension in the definition of this central notion of tourism.

It thus shows that there are today three main approaches to this notion: in a first sense, the tourist experience can be understood as “everything that happens in a tourist situation”. In a second sense, the tourist experience can be conceived as a learning process of the different world and otherness. Finally, within the framework of the third approach, which is highly influenced by management sciences, it becomes a program for consumption for tourist action. This last meaning in particular highlights the fact that the tourist experience thus defined is perhaps less the experience of otherness than the experience of the consumption of another, or, to say it differently, the fact that the tourist experience is maybe ultimately only an experience of the frameworks of tourist consumption.

Keywords: tourist experience, otherness, consumption, authenticity, framework of the experience


“The notion of experience”, explains Decroly, “holds […] of a potluck dinner, of which the researchers define the content according to their needs” (2015: 6). Indeed, in the research that deals with this notion, the tourist experience is at times defined as “a complicated psychological process” (Quinlan Cutler and Carmichael, 2010: 3) and at times as a “lived occurrence” (Simon, 2015), at times as an exercise of identity-building (Jaurand, 2015) and at times as a dialogical renegotiation of ones’ beliefs and habits (Henning, 2012), at times as a practice of self-transformation (Saunders, Laing and Weiler, 2013) and at times as a quest for happiness or well-being (Sharpley and Stone, 2012; Panchal, 2013), so much so that by caricaturing it would be possible to say that there are as many definitions of the tourist experience as there are contributions which relate to it. Conceived as a critical literature review, the purpose of this article will thus certainly not be to propose yet another, but merely to bring out on the one hand the “commonplaces” with regards to the various definitions of this notion and on the other hand the contradictions and areas of friction between the recent and major approaches.

In order to do this, Cohen’s founding research (1979) will be latently mobilized as a theoretical frame of reference. In this respect, let us recall that Cohen, in line with a philosophical tradition, had granted to the notion of experience a relatively strong ontological power: it thereby defined ways of being towards the world – touristic – enabling to live in the world – daily. This choice lies in the fact that, since Cohen’s research, the notion of tourist experience has become so commonplace that it ends up precisely covering, as notes Decroly, an infinity of definitions (which for the great majority, it has to be said, position themselves relative to Cohen’s definition). The real question is then to understand how the notion of tourist experience has been emptied of its ontological dimension and to hence try to confine it to its contemporary topicality.

This topicality, I place it in the words of Kadri and Bondarenko when they argue that “the professional discourse exerts […] a certain influence on the scientific discourse, which reproduces the use of words by avoiding their definition. [Thus,] in the manner of the word “destination” which seems to be self-sufficient through its semantic power […], the expression “tourist experience” also carries a potential of imagination which spares it from being defined” (2015: 23). All in all, the tourist experience seems to have become a sort of contemporary myth of tourism in the sense understood by Roland Barthes (1957), in other words, a naturalized ideology of consumption. The object of this article will be to demonstrate this.

To this end, this contribution will be organized around four major questions of rhetorical purpose. At first, it will try to comprehend the specificities of what is/produces experience in tourism. This first stage responds in particular to an aporia that emerges when one browses the scientific literature relating to the tourist experience: numerous studies indeed start from the principle that tourism is experience. Their objective then consists in describing what tourism is in singular and contextualized situations in order to finally describe the experience itself. Yet, if everything is experience in tourism, the following question arises: why continue to speak of tourist experience?

Responding to this question will be the object of the second movement of this contribution which, since it focuses on research that aims to define the notion of tourist experience, will be organized around the question of its purpose. The two main trends in the definition of the tourist experience today will then be highlighted: the one, process-oriented, which forges links with the question of learning and transformation of the world’s resources into knowledge; the other, which considers the tourist experience as “a moment to be lived” turned towards pleasure and hedonism and the purpose of which therefore consists in keeping its promises or succeeding. This will then lead us to ask ourselves what is a successful experience or, in this case, an unsuccessful one.

The third movement will thus try to show that a tourist experience destined for failure or for success is finally nothing more than an experience conceived in terms of an offer of consumption. In other words, by wondering why an experience can be considered as bad, this movement will show how the experience is transformed until it is able to “naturally” undergo the (dis)qualifying (and often quantitative) test of “customer satisfaction”. Considered as a mode of consumption of the tourist offer, the experience is from then on, always an artifact experience produced by the industry, so much so that one can wonder about the place of authenticity in the tourist (consumption) experience.

This question will be at the heart of the fourth and last movement within which we shall ponder whether the proposition that there may be “inauthentic experiences” in a tourist situation makes sense. We shall then show that regardless of the (in)authenticity of the offer, the experience that one makes of it is always authentic: one can thus be authentically disappointed by a simulacrum that one recognizes as such. What one then (authentically) experiences is the framework of the tourist experience, or the communication and marketing framework by which the tourist experience is proposed.

What is not/does not produce experience in tourism?

If one relies on the diversity of recent research which deals with tourist experience (Sharpley and Stone, 2012; Filep and Pearce, 2013; Prebensen, Chen and Uysal, 2014; Decroly, 2015), this one seems capable of being grasped and studied through a wide plurality of situations: whether one travels alone or with family (Larsen and Laursen, 2012), whether one leaves one’s home for cultural reasons by for example going to (re)discover the immaterial heritage of the and alusian flamenco (Matteucci, 2013) or for identity reasons by going to relax on a gay nudist beach (Jaurand, 2015), whether one stays on a farm (Dubois and Schmitz, 2015) or in a hotel chain (Cinotti, 2015), whether one roams the city (Simon, 2015; Erdely, 2012; Bolan, Boyd, and Bell, 2012), whether one goes on the road (Saunders, Laing, and Weiler, 2013) or soaks in spas (Panchal, 2013), whether one is young or old (Major and McLeay, 2012)… a characteristic which is common to all these tourist situations – and to many others – would indeed be that it is always possible to refer to experience.

These studies show through their interdisciplinarity that, in order to describe and qualify this tourist experience on the scale of each singular situation, one must take into account several contextual variables which will be dealt here autonomously for reasons of convenience, but which are in fact intricately connected since they jointly define a “tourist situation”: this is (i.) space and (ii.) time, which may not be considered independently, but also (iii.) tourist sociabilities, which participate in the (re)configuration of the way one communicates with the different space-time- of the journey.

In the first place, then, space. The tourist practice is indeed inevitably located (MIT Team, 2002). From this point on, the tourist experience proceeds from what Larsen and Laursen (2012) call “an interactive process” between the tourist and space, which must be understood in a very broad sense including not very tangible characteristics such as atmosphere, luminosity, smells, etc. (Taheri and Jafari, 2012). Through this type of relation (of which one can discuss the strictly dialogical character), tourists operate what Certeau had identified as the transformation of this “instantaneous configuration of positions” that is place in space (1980: 173). In that respect, through their practices of the place which they identify as different, tourists participate in the production of tourist space. This space can be enlarged to include any object which composes it in the way one conceives the most archetypal space of the projection of the other, namely museum space which is not only made of spatialities, but also of artifacts, mediation mechanisms, knowledge, etc. (Davallon, 2000). A tourist space would thus be a place which one practices as a tourist, in other words a territory characterized by the fact that everything that composes it can at any time be identified as a marker of otherness.

A second variable of crucial importance to understand the tourist experience is that of the temporal variable. If the tourist experience occurs when one practices a different space, it is also a delimited moment of the temporal continuum. The tourist experience is thus a dedicated moment outside of everyday life (Major and McLeay, 2012) – a time for holiday – during which one practices a series of activities which one does not undertake in the ordinary and daily course of one’s life (Henning, 2012) or which, if need be, are requalified because they take place elsewhere. This was for instance shown by Bourdieu with the example of the dinner at the restaurant of a certain social class which, in a tourist situation, could be the object of a photo shoot, but which would on the other hand seem perfectly inappropriate – at the time of the study – in everyday life (1965). This is also what Winkin alludes to when he talks about the “momentary suspension of the economic and social rules in force” to describe among other things, tourist situations (2002).

Another aspect of the temporal variable is the dramaturgy or the temporality of the journey. If the time of the stay is important to describe and qualify the tourist experience, the fact remains that it begins before the journey and continues after it.

In fact, anticipating, preparing one’s journey and documenting it is at the same time: a way of producing a horizon of expectation (Jauss, 1978) of the located experience – since the media and the mediations build our representations and practices, to the extent that they sometimes even originate them (Bolan, Boyd, Bell, 2012) – and a first experience of the destination itself, the main characteristic of which is to be media or to be broadcast and in which the “digital” nowadays becomes increasingly important (Korneliussen, 2014). Whereas, afterwards, sharing the account of the journey (Urbain, 2011) – is nowadays also increasingly digitalized through the use of social networks (Yüksel and Yanik, 2014) –, is experience in the sense that it is a time for formatting and transmitting what happened “out there”.

Finally, the third variable is sociability. All types of interactions that take place between tourists on one side and hosts and others on the other side can thus be considered as also configuring experience (Prebensen, Chen and Uysal, 2014; Condevaux, 2015). But not only: as sociabilities also occur between tourists (Smed, 2012) – a part of research still needs to be developed (Decroly, 2015: 10) –, the experience more generally takes place in co-presences (Fijalkow, Jalaudin and Lalanne, 2015).

Simultaneously informed and informative, mediated and immediate, individual and collective, the tourist experience is downright complex, and numerous researchers recall that it is even more so as the experience is subjective and therefore difficult to observe, even if there are objective variables (Fijalkow, Jalaudin and Lalanne, 2015). It is subjective because it is truly singular and personal; also, and especially, because it obviously requires a subject. This is what Henning very clearly proposes when he says: “Troy is a tourist experience every time tourists do tourist things there” (2012).

Space, time and the interactions involved can be the conditions and objects of a tourist experience only to the extent that a subject of experience is there to apprehend them; to the extent thus that there is a subject of experience (a tourist) and an object of experience (an object which these variables enable to circumscribe in the unity of a “tourist situation”). The tourist experience is thus not preexistent in the world, but is clearly brought into being when, by the effect of a subject who practices it, the territory becomes a destination: in other words, when a fragment of space transforms into a site or tourist attraction, when the time of daily activities turns into holiday, when the other changes into a native or a representative of the local society and the subject himself becomes a tourist (MIT Team, 2002).

In order for experience to be touristic, it must link an individual with a world (an inhabited space-time), the former wishing to get in touch with the latter within the framework of a tourist relation. The tourism experience thus presupposes two distinct and complementary cognitive operations. First a movement of externalization: a subject of action and desire must establish a rupture between himself and the world around him (a world – here touristic – is thus identified as an exteriority by virtue of which he “deserves the trip”). It is this movement of externalization which institutes a distinction between a contiguous world of practices (everyday life) and a different world (non-everyday life). It is this principle of symbolic externalization which is at the source, in large metropolises, of strategies which consist, for example, in making residents (re) discover the city “as tourists”: suddenly their contiguous life-space must no longer seem “obvious” to them. Next, a movement of internalization: he must accept the idea that this world, which has become different, can be appropriated as an exteriority within the framework of a tourist practice. Erik Cohen says nothing less when he explains that tourism and experience (or the various “modes of experience) that proceed from it are based on the idea of ​​a center. Tourism – the unconstrained pleasure trip –, as the author explains, is thus justified by the fact that there must exist something “out there which cannot be found in the ordinary “life-space (1979: 182). For the tourist, it is a question of measuring the difference between here and elsewhere, with as reference the ordinary life-space – the center – and consequently creating a touristic elsewhere (be it geographic or not) in the order of eccentricities. It is because, as Dubet notes, “the construction of social experiences is necessary when situations are no longer part of homogeneous universes of meaning or, to put it simply, when “society” is no longer One (1994: 18).

Subjectivity is thus of fundamental importance to understand why experience can occur in any tourist situation and at any moment. It explains, for example, that managing to pour warm water from an English tap without a mixer or pushing the strange wooden latch of a door at a “traditional” guesthouse in Dubai or, in general, undertaking small actions may represent a tourist experience for some people.

It also explains why tourism – independently from each singular situation – can be grasped as an experience in the continuity of these (spatial, but also symbolic) movements identified by the MIT Team to describe the tourist practice (2002).

Ultimately, it explains why many studies which deal with the tourist experience finally do not investigate what, precisely, produces or is experience in the tourist situations they study. Experience becomes the presupposition of practice and is in this sense implicitly defined as everything that makes up the tourist life of tourists. This first approach to the tourist experience is based on a very broad definition, the specificity of which is that it does not distinguish anything in particular in the practice of tourism. However, it posits the fact that tourism is an operation whose first characteristic is to transform the world into an experience. The experience thus becomes a way of apprehending everything that happens in a touristic situation (2002).

What is the use of the tourist experience?

Indeed, “the journey”, explains Gilles Brougère, “provides an original and unprecedented bodily experience. Walking around makes it possible to measure the size of buildings on a human scale. To pass through the Lion’s Gate, to enter the tombs, to walk along the surrounding walls, so many experiences, producing knowledge different from that received through books” (2015: 179). If one believes the author, in a tourist situation, experience would thus be linked to learning.

This experiential approach, as explain Zeitler and Barbier, calls upon another notion – the theoretical – to which it opposes in order to define itself. “In common sense”, the authors explain, “the concept of experience presents itself as questioning the dominance of theory over practice: to have gained experience is to have learned not only for the activity but within the activity itself […]. This acceptance of common sense is based on and [thus] reinforces the dichotomy between theory and practice insofar as it paradoxically leads to the practice the social attributes of theory […] but by inverting them: it is because the experience has been lived that it has a value backed by pragmatic efficiency […]; the authority of experience is then conferred by practice against theory” (2012).

From the point of view of this definition of experience proposed by Brougère, the body becomes a fundamental element: it is because it measures, feels, creates a relation to, and more generally experiences the different spatial, temporal and social variables of a contextualized tourist situation, that the body can incorporate the world and enter into a logic of learning in relation to what composes it. More precisely, it is first of all because there exists a sensitive body experiencing a located world and because this same body is inhabited by a will to incorporate the world through the transformation of its resources, that the tourist experience can occur.

This question on resource transformation is at the source of the theoretical approach to experiential marketing (Holbrook and Hirschman, 1982). The objective was then to show that the consumer is not just a rational individual who deals with information. In other words, the theoretical approach of experiential marketing was founded on the idea that consumption is indeed an exercise in the transformation of resources (not oriented to some ordinary learning but to the production of information which preside over the choices of consumption), but that it is not limited to that. The other side of consumption is thus precisely its experiential part, namely the one – symbolic – in which emotions pour out and sensations take shape.

Following this approach, recent research on tourist experience, from the marketing point of view hardly considers this issue of resource transformation. If they do discuss incorporation, it is worthwhile in itself. This is because experiential marketing, as Veron and Boutaud (2008) explain, is based on the idea that consumption must be driven by hedonistic values. It thus places the multisensory and the immersive at the center of the experiential process and can generally be defined as a “displacement of sense to the senses”: “in search of experiences, the subject asks to feel sensations, to test himself” (2008: 148).

One can thus note here two major trends in the definition of the notion of tourist experience that complement the first, defined as the tourist life of tourists: experience is conceived, on the one hand, as learning through the transformation of the different world’s resources (Brougère, 2015; Simon, 2015; Witsel, 2013); and on the other, as producing sensations and emotions. These two approaches to tourist experience have radically different implications. In the first case, the tourist experience is essentially defined as a process; in the second case, as a moment to live out.

As a process, the tourist experience builds on previous experiences.

The experience then becomes at once the actions and the lessons that are drawn from them or that will be drawn later. It is a sort of fund of knowledge, habits, sensations, emotions – touristic or not – that are mobilized in order to communicate with the tourist world, which can be experienced, readjusted, transformed at each new encounter (Henning, 2012). The experience is thus in continuous production.

As a moment (or collection of moments in the long term), the experience is a break with the continuum of ordinary life, that must be lived as “pure topicality” or as “an absolute present” (Boutaud and Veron, 2008: 150). It is thus conceived as – or rather, it holds as being ideal – that “suspended time” which can be lived fully, with its share of sensations and compensations: sharing a good time, emotions, enriching oneself in contact with others, discovering new sensations”. The experience is thus a “happy or peaceful interlude […] suddenly detached from the depth of our existence” (Boutaud and Veron, 2008: 150) which ultimately takes less account of what has been than of what must be. The experience thus becomes a program for tourist action: a model of reference which explains to the tourist how he can – but above all how he must – apprehend the tourist world. Consequently, it is because it imposes norms (behavioral and emotional) that the tourist experience thus conceived can be submitted to the curious exercise of sanction or to the test of success or failure which is ultimately not entirely self-evident in a more philosophical sense of experience. This makes it possible to ask the following question: under what conditions can one speak of an “unsuccessful” tourist experience? With regard to which framework can the tourist experience be conceived as being bad?

What is an unsuccessful tourist experience?

In order to show that experience is both external and internal to the subject, Barberousse uses the example of a burn: “pain caused by a burn can illustrate this mixed character of experience. It is indeed an external element which is the cause of my painful experience; and it is indeed my conscious, individual, subjective life that is affected by it” (1997: 11-12). Tourism and the tourist experience are also made, if not of burns, but of moments of friction and crisis that can sometimes be so intense that they challenge the very meaning of the tourist practice, or even challenge the integrity of the subject (Urbain, 2008).

If the specific case of negative tourist experience studied by Skipper, Carmichael and Doherty (2012) certainly does not lead tourists to the landof Urbain’s Absurdia, it is nonetheless interesting for its relatively banal character. The authors indeed addressed the issue of “harassment” of tourists visiting Jamaica, or more concretely the regular solicitations of hawkers on streets, public beaches or markets that provoke annoyances, irritations, displeasure and sometimes anger among tourists. The study is fertile in particular since it perceives these interactions as such serious dysfunctions that they can be considered as “harassment”. The attitude of the vendors is thus at once included in the more general category of “negative host behavior” which must be corrected, reframed or normalized. The authors accordingly conclude by explaining that the Jamaican government could – these are recommendations – develop programs aiming to enhance the understanding of the encounter between others and hosts, but also that it could take steps to “clean the streets by allowing sales in certain specific places”. From this point of view, an experience that is bad is always destined to being identified, neutralized and banished from tourist spaces.

This is easily understandable when one focuses on the general aims of the book which welcomes the contributions of Skipper, Carmichael and Doherty on “harassment in Jamaica. In the introduction to Chapter One, Sharpley and Stone explain this in these terms: “there is a permanent necessity to develop our understanding of the phenomenon [of tourist experience] “so that the needs and expectations of tourists may be better met (2012). This is also reflected in the introduction to the collective work by Prebenson, Chen and Uysal, which explains that tourism is an industry that must learn to respond to the hedonistic motivations of travel in order to help tourists fulfill their expectations (2014).

Generally speaking, if the tourist is perceived in terms of needs and expectations – in other words, if he is considered as a consumer –, it is easy to imagine that the experience of which he is the subject becomes the place of encounter for supply and demand, and that it therefore cannot afford to be “bad” (or deceptive) in any way. Thus, in all these approaches, experience only occurs because there is a supply and it is therefore only an experience of consumption of tourist products and services.

This is very clearly explained by Sharpley and Stone in the introduction to their collective work when they argue that there are two ways of conceptualizing the tourist experience. The first is to consider experience as “the set of services or experiences consumed by the tourist during a holiday or time away from home”; as such, the tourist experience can therefore be subject to the “management of experience” (Morgan et al., 2010: xv).

The second way of conceptualizing the tourist experience is to consider that it defines “being a tourist”, as the authors explain, that is to say not only to consume a certain combination of “provided experiences”, but also to enter into a process of construction of the meaning of these experiences by relating them to his ordinary sociocultural life. In short, in these two cases, experience is necessarily circumscribed within the framework established by consumption.

To put it another way, the necessary condition for that experience to occur is that it takes place in the context of a mercantile exchange and can thus always be monetized or monetizable. Pressured by the dictate and the injunction for success, the tourist experience becomes the field for an optimization that is in the end always possible, sanctioned by the criterion of satisfaction, namely the evaluation of experience depending on the expectations or perceptions of tourists about what matters in their vacation (Major and McLeay, 2012). On a more macro scale, one could say that optimization is to such an extent a stake in these approaches to the tourist experience that one could come to wonder who really is the subject of experience: the tourist-consumer or the managers of the experience, continuously backing up their practice with the knowledge gained from the management sciences and that from the lessons learned from their own practices?

In any case, one understands that an experience can only be unsuccessful to the extent that it has been programmed to succeed. Now, if the tourist experience is conceived in the strictly mercantile context of consumption, it becomes evident that the experience fails when the experience (not of the other strictly speaking) of the consumption of the other does not seem to correspond to what the engineers of enchantment have previously identified as the “expectations” of these consumers that are tourists relatively to their consumption of the other; “expectations” that the tourism industry must fulfill through the configuration of its products and services. This is precisely what explains that experience, when it fails, must be submitted to this process of optimization of supply which leads certain authors to make recommendations to the local political authorities. The failure of a possible experience thus makes it possible to understand that the representation of this same experience is relatively restrictive since finally, it only concerns the tacit clauses of consumption whereas the tourist experience can go far beyond this framework. To convince us of this, let us make a final detour by visiting the notion of authenticity.

Can forms of inauthentic experiences exist?

The notion of authenticity (MacCannell, 1976) has often been covered by tourist studies. It continues to be applied nowadays to try to understand what is at stake in the tourist experience. It is particularly addressed when authenticity is gone or faints away. In this sense, authenticity shares something with the notion of tradition as defined by Pouillon (1991). Indeed, the ethnologist explained that a tradition can exist only if it is ignored as such by those who live it. “Of a living tradition”, he wrote, “one does not speak” since it is “operative” but “unconscious”. For a tradition to be identified as traditional (or for it to become conscious), it must therefore have ceased to have the same social and symbolic operability. Thus, “the tradition one is conscious of is the tradition one no longer respects, or at least one is ready to leave behind”.

Similarly, authenticity, at least in the way it is studied through the varied research of tourist studies, seems to be addressed when, for one reason or another, is considered to have failed. Authenticity is thus the object of research from the moment one considers that it starts being performed or “staged (MacCannell, 1976). Often linked to the notion of simulacrum (Dubois and Schmitz, 2015, Aquilina and Mahéo, 2015), authenticity then clearly bears a certain representation of what the transformation of cultures is or should be as a socio-historical process: when it comes to authenticity, transformation is indeed experienced as a degradation of culture and sometimes of identity (Dubois and Schmitz 2015). Contaminated by globalized market logics, it dies out.

Yet, as Parent (2015) shows, the transformation of tradition into self-staging is not necessarily a process that must be considered as an impoverishment. Studying traditional music shows in the Seychelles, the author explains that the musicians who perform them are “generally conscious and concerned about the fact that they represent the local culture” (2015: 231). Referring to Bouju (2002), she explains that the tourist appropriation and the transformation of tradition she initiates can make it possible to enhance and build the local musical heritage.

Carpentier goes even further when studying community tourism in the Ecuadorian Amazon: “to judge the authenticity of a practice, even if it is staged”, writes the author, “appears totally illusory. The real question lies in the significance of the staging for the concerned populations and in the stakes involved” (2015: 304). She shows that self-staging can be considered by communities as a good way to improve their living conditions and politically, to integrate a globalized system (2015: 307).

By looking at these studies we do not intend to renew the debate on the effects (positive or negative) of tourism on identities and heritage. Our purpose is only to put forward the idea that, in the end, no matter which value judgment one makes on what tourism has to offer to its tourists (authenticity, inauthenticity, simulacrum, etc.) – no matter whether one thinks that the show is “adulterated” or not (Winkin, 2001: 220) –, it is important not to confuse the staging and the experience of this staging. In other words, there is no contiguity between the (in)authenticity of the staging and the eventual(in)authenticity of the experience.

The fact is that there can be no inauthentic tourist experiences, but only tourist experiences of the inauthentic: if the show is fabricated (no matter whether one considers that the staging is legitimate or not), the experience that one makes of it as a tourist cannot be a simulacrum.

This is what Brougère shows when he explains that “research on social tourism has highlighted the importance of wonder, largely related to seeing “for real” instead of through television; whether at a traditional chocolate factory or at a glass blower’s, what matters is contact, the presence of the body in space […], to have been there more in the logic of reality than of authenticity. Indeed, the observations are similar when it comes to visiting a safari-like zoo with its “African village”. Here again, it is not the artificiality that is emphasized, but the relation with reality, the movement of a body in a bus, then on foot in the “African village” where one can buy souvenirs (another practice that involves the body)” (2015: 178).

This is also what Brunel’s book “La Planète disneylandisée[1](2006), or some of the unsuccessful trips studied by Urbain (2008), showed. Even at times when the encounter with the other is deceptive – often because it indulges in a patent inauthenticity –, somewhat of an experience takes place for tourists. The experience can thus be a puppet artifact, it nevertheless remains an experience.

These moments of failure are therefore precious. The fact is, they allow us to ask ourselves the following question: if we fail to access the authenticity of the other when we travel, what is it, in the end, that we experience?

One can find a first lead to an answer in the study conducted by Pabion Mouriès on the analysis of the interactions between actors which she carried out on the figure of the Kyrgyz nomad (2015). In particular, it describes the Kyrgyz people who are hosts in the project initiated by the NGO Shepherd’s Life – for these hosts, the project consists in welcoming tourists in their yurts and introducing them to the “traditional” ways of life in the steppes –, know how to put on a performance in order to satisfy tourists. One of them, Nazira, explains that she knows precisely how to behave on a photograph: “I look at the horizon, I never look at the camera […]. Tourists hate it when one strikes a pose […]. They love what is natural, authentic. We must continue our daily activities, empty the guts of the sheep, spread our sheets, milk the mares, make the koumis” (2015: 317). This woman explains clearly that what she offers is not authenticity, but a certain type of authenticity defined by the way she grasps the framework of the tourist situation.

Let us recall that Goffman used to define the frameworks of the experience by saying that “insofar as a framework articulates our own reactions to the world and the world to which we react, the determination of what happens necessarily involves some reflexivity; in other words, the correct perception of a scene necessarily presupposes that the act of perception is an integral part of the scene” (1991: 95). Thus, when Nazira interacts with tourists, she explicitly mobilizes a framework of the tourist experience, the perception of which is an integral part of the scene.

If one accepts that the hosts, such as Nazira, integrate the framework into the way they show themselves, why not accept, equivalently, that the tourists also take it into account? Why, then, not to start thinking that what one experiences as a tourist is not the other properly speaking (whether staged or authentic), but the framework of the experience of the other?

The idea is particularly interesting when applied to the managerial approach to experience. If the experience only occurs on the condition that there is an offer, this means that the tourist-consumer experience is nothing more than the mercantile frameworks of the experience. Henceforth, the experience is no longer what the mercantile frameworks claim to give access to, but rather the devices themselves and the way in which they claim to give access to certain “cultures” or “facts of culture”. This seems to be confirmed in the book by Prebensen, Chen and Uysal (2014), which intends to renew the approach to the tourist experience through the notion of co-creation.

The authors indeed explain that it is now understood that the consumer is not a passive actor of the mercantile relationship. On the contrary, he co-produces and co-creates the services and goods which he consumes. The tourist industry must take note of this in order to develop services and goods that will be produced jointly by suppliers and consumers. The resulting tourist experience is strictly speaking one of co-creation. A question arises however: if tourists are valued as co-creators of experiences in this sort of case, when the experience fails for one reason or another, can the providers of co-created services blame the tourists? In other words: if one is a co-creator only when the initiative is a success, is one really a co-creator?

What tourists experience in a co-creation situation is therefore less the strictly speaking co-created product or service, than the very procedure of co-creation itself. If one wants to be cynical by following the view of Dujarier (2014), the tourist experience then proposed to tourists is one of a new ideology of consumption in which the externalization of certain production tasks has been diluted. In short, when it is circumscribed within the space opened and closed by consumption, the tourist experience appears as an experience of control of the experience whose characteristic would be that it engages in the experience itself in a similar way to Eco’s hyperreality (1985).

To conclude, there appears to be three main trends in defining the concept of tourist experience nowadays. The first is to apprehend it as a sort of equivalent of “the tourist life of tourists”. Experience then is the presupposition of the journey defining the mode of apprehension of everything that happens to the tourist on the occasion of his practice of the new horizons. More restricted, the second trend is processual. The tourist experience is then turned towards learning. Corporeal, it is an incorporation of the world by the transformation of its resources into knowledge. Finally, the third definition, even more restrictive, considers the tourist experience in a strictly mercantile dimension: experience is the moment that occurs when tourism is considered as a market and the products and services that constitute and construct it can be assessed under “customer satisfaction”.

This last definition is particularly interesting insofar as it accompanies what might be called “the secularization of the notion of experience”. Nowadays, consumption – whether touristic or not – is almost entirely “experiential”. In other words, experience has become a mass product that is traded on the marketing market: professionals of this market thus sell to their customers – to the brands – the promise that their consumers will have an “experience” by browsing the shelves of their supermarkets or placing an order on their website. This secular experience is valued on the professional market on the pretext that it is in the end a brand experience capable of producing differentiation in a competitive universe, and therefore of preference.

Yet this is not what is marketed towards consumers: the brands explain that they will make them have the experience of a memorable and multisensory moment which will have value in itself (hoping however that the memorial imprint left by the experience will work and will subsequently produce the expected preference).

In short, experience is increasingly turning into a mode of management of brands by themselves, containing its own communication model for consumers. This can also be noted in the marketing approach to the definition of the tourist experience, in which the management of the experience becomes a real stake. In this perspective, for the tourist, experience ultimately is a program for consumption yet destined to be carried out as if it were not one.

If the approaches to the tourist experience as a transformation of resources for the production of knowledge on one side and as a program of consumption on the other may seem contradictory, it yet seems to me that they match on one point: a tourist career – borrowing here the term used by Pearce and Caltabiano (1983) – is also a consumer career from the moment one considers tourism as a practice of consumption. The tourist experience thus in fact appears to be a consumption experience and, when conceived in terms of long-term career, it highlights the fact that, as a tourist, one develops knowledge relative to each new situation of tourist consumption that one encounters and configures.

Being a tourist thus finally appears to develop communicative skills through the experience that one makes of the frameworks of the tourist experience as a mode of management of the brands of tourism.

[1] The title refers to the transformation of the planet into some sort of Disneyland. (T.N.)


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Translation French > English

Jean-Michel Decroly, IGEAT – DGES – Université Libre de Bruxelles