Tourism Isn’t About Culture


Berlin is evidence that most tourists don’t actually care so much about history, culture, and museums, as it is not for most people a major tourist destination, despite having world-class offerings in each of those areas.  Mostly tourists like large, visually spectacular sites, or family activities, combined with the feeling that they are taking in culture or seeing something important.

I come across way too many signaling examples to post them all, but I should at least post some of them.

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  • Belisarius

    Hah! This rings true for me. I work for Tourist Information in Oxford and I would say about a third of the questions we get are variations on, “Where is Hogwart’s?”

  • cournot

    The tourism isn’t a signal. It’s the claims about culture that are the signal. If people like hanging around interesting buildings or feeling warm and fuzzy from doing “cultural” activities that’s not signaling anymore than liking a particular television show is signaling. If you watch Aida for the nice dresses, there’s no “signal” involved. It’s only the latter if you don’t care about opera and only do it to impress others.

  • UserGoogol

    It’s kind of a false dichotomy (that I think you make a lot) to say that if X is not really about what-is-traditionally-viewed-as-the-purpose-of-X does not mean that X is just about signalling.

    All Tyler’s argument supports is that tourists care more about looking at aesthetically interesting stuff and having a nice hotel room or whatever more than they care about actually examining another culture. That doesn’t mean the cultural aspects of it are purely for show, it just means that they don’t care about it as much other components of the vacation. (There’s certainly some signalling to it, but I think it’s always been quite openly the case that people go on trips overseas so they can talk about how cosmopolitan they are.)

    But of course, talking about signalling isn’t really about talking about signalling.

  • botogol

    i went to berlin. there was loads of tourists. friends have gone to.

    but the problem with berlin – the weather is rubbish….

    why do you think people go to florida? a clue: not the cultural artefacts.

    • Doug S.

      “Cultural artifacts” such as Disney World?

  • Paavo Ojala

    What would be about culture? Tourism wouldn’t be about culture even if Museums of Berlin were full.

    But tourism isn’t about signalling either because a lot of people go and enjoy those beach resorts that are low-class and touristy. Finns go to Canary Islands and Thailand though they are careful not advertise their low class tastes. It’s like eating fast food.

  • Drewfus

    In Australia, which is a long way from just about everywhere, travel is therefore expensive, and i think the signalling aspect is even more important to ‘travellers’ here than elsewhere. For many of these people, the most important aspect of travelling would not even seem to be the wonderful views, rather its the oppurtunity it brings to inform others that one has ‘travelled’. That is, the signalling occurs after arriving back home.

  • Is it really true that Berlin is not a popular tourist destination?

    • It is moderately popular, but far less than, say, Paris, Rome or London.

      Perhaps even more interesting is what it gets most often recommended for (on a travel forum I read): not history or culture, but its nightlife.

  • josh

    “Mostly tourists like large, visually spectacular sites, or family activities, combined with the feeling that they are taking in culture or seeing something important.”

    How is this signalling? People are just doing what they enjoy and aren’t necessarily broadcasting it. If this is signalling, everything is signalling.

    • Tim

      The signaling in question here is not some analysis of what tourists like to do, but what Tyler’s post is trying to signal about himself.

      • John Maxwell IV

        If what Tyler said is signalling, everything is signalling.

  • Curt Adams

    I think Berlin ranks low because it doesn’t create as much of a brand. London, Paris, and Rome all have strong images (capital of the British Empire; city of everyday pleasure; and city of history, respectively). Things that would reflect poorly on the city or interfere with its brand are suppressed. You don’t see much reflection on the harms from British wars of aggression or stealing artifacts in London. You don’t see much about the Franco-Prussian war and the suppression of the Commune in Paris.

    Berlin really struck me as a city that is honest about both the good things and the bad things of its history. It’s got both the Brandenburg Tor and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe; Checkpoint Charlie and Alexanderplatz. I loved it, precisely for the complexity and honesty; but it’s an intellectual pleasure and not the kind of thing that many people care about. It doesn’t sum up easily, so it’s hard to describe in a way that inspires others to go.

  • The problem of tourism has to do with what has been called ‘framing the sign’…this is not the place to be detailing the problem, yet it has to do with tourist anticipation…

    Until some other time and place,