Places – not Destinations

Screenshot from an article in a mainstream UK newspaper

by Prof Ares Kalandides

Forest fires devastate large areas on the Mediterranean every year, some of them – such as the 2018 fire in Mati, Greece which cost 100 people their lives – with numerous casualties. These are places, built over decades or centuries, where people live the year round, with or without visitors. It is with growing horror that I read – year after year – media outlets referring to these places as “holiday islands” (or “Ferieninsel” in German). Admittedly, for many Brits and Germans, this is what most of these islands are, and the local population is just a folklore backdrop for their holiday spending. But, even if we see it just from the journalist’s viewpoint: what exactly would the article (s. screenshot above) miss in terms of information if its title were “Wildfires hit Greek island” omitting the attribute “holiday”?

Not as dramatic, but with similar undertones is the common use of “destination” in the tourism industry. When places become destinations then what we focus upon is the movement from outside towards them. They are not part of the journey – they are its goal. The word “destination” risks obliterating the place, turning it something you move towards, a point in the horizon. Yes, of course we all know that people live on that point in the horizon, but do we really care? Words matter because they shape the way we think. And the way we think shapes the way we act.

What if we drop the term destination? What if we start talking about places where people meet – locals, visitors and everything in between?

Screenshot from the BBC facebook page. In the article the term “holiday island” has indeed been deleted.

The term destination becomes fuzzy when you start reconsidering the concept of the tourist (or visitor):

It is not that you cannot make distinctions between locals and visitors, but these distinctions in many places (though by no means everywhere) become blurred.

Who exactly is a tourist? The one-off visitor from the other end of the globe who will visit once in their life as part of a tick-off list? The foreign student who spends six months in a university as part of an Erasmus programme? The artist who moves back and forth because she has an ongoing project or a series of projects in a foreign place (and probably also pays local taxes)? A flat owner who spends some weeks every year in a place away from his main home (and probably also pays local taxes)? The visitor from another town not very far away? A visitor from another neighbourhood? It is not that you cannot make distinctions between locals and visitors, but these distinctions in many places (though by no means everywhere) become blurred. Indeed, patters of mobility are very unequal, but people interact in places, creating new relations and changing the place as they do so. I would argue that the larger the gap in terms of economic (but also cultural and social) capital between groups of locals/visitors is, the easier it is to conceive the difference in terms of clear dichotomies, which may be of class rather than provenance – but this is a different argument.

From a German news outlet: “Firestorm on the holiday islands, Mallorca, Crete and Rhodes”

Otherwise, we are talking about a continuum, with the permanent resident on one end, the one-off tourist from far away on the other, and a multitude of categories in between. The concept of destination is fixed to this second type of tourist – one-off from far away – the only one deemed a “real” tourist. I have tried to conceptualize this in the following image:

Putting frequency on the x axis and distance on the y, I argue that the traditional idea of a tourist, places her/him in the circle in the top right, ignoring all the space in between, creating an overly simplistic dichotomy between local and visitor. Field A, for example, could include visitors from another neighbourhood who visit regularly. In field B, we could have visitors from far away, who,  having family in the place, also visit frequently. Field C would include people from a neighbouring town, who only visit occasionally. There are innumerable possible combinations. The Tourist is a figment of our imagination.

“The fire brigade puts out fire on holiday island”. Notice the that the name Rhodes, only appears outside the title.

This is not just an intellectual exercise (although it is that, too). This kind of shift in vocabulary and thinking will mean that we will have to approach planning differently in places that receive visitors, who may stay shorter or longer, develop relationships with people in that place or not, return or stay away (see how the direction of the movement changes when we talk about “receiving” rather than “destination”?). Such  a shift can have a serious effect on how we plan infrastructure that would serve different groups with the same or competing needs.  It also changes the role of DMOs (Destination Marketing Organizations), who will then be there to manage a place – together with other place managers  – a task not limited to marketing a destination.

So, what if we drop the term destination altogether? What if we start talking about places where people meet – locals, visitors and everything in between?  Not just because I find the term destination neo-colonial and offensive (I do), but because it will change the way we think about and act on tourism and the relationship between people, places and mobility. And please, please, no more “fires on holiday island”.