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Dossier : The changing world of coastal, island and tropical tourism

Tourism Incognita: Experiencing the Liminal Edge of Destination Places

Tourisme Incognita : l’expérimentation du pré-tourisme dans les destinations
Alan A. Lew


À l'ère de l'exploration européenne, la terra incognita faisait référence aux terres alors largement inconnues des Européens. Dans le monde du tourisme contemporain, le tourisme incognita se renvoie aux terres et aux expériences qui sont en grande partie inconnues de l'industrie du tourisme de masse globale (tourisme cognita). Tourisme incognita comprend des créneaux touristiques spécialisés qui opèrent sur les marges du tourisme de masse, ainsi que l'ensemble du monde dela non-lieu touristique. Des exemples de tourisme et le tourisme cognita incognita traités sont: Dubaï et Oman Musandam Peninsula, Angkor wat au Cambodge et du Tonlé Sap et la destination de Manado plongée sous-marine sur l'île indonésienne de Sulawesi. Tourisme incognita est révélée déterminante pour le succès de l'économie touristique parce que les lieux et les expériences de tourisme incognita font partie de l'imaginaire qui entraîne la décision et le désir de voyager dans un pays lointain.

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1Terra incognita is the term that European cartographers used in the 16th to 19th centuries to identify lands on their maps that were yet to be explored, mapped and documented. It is used today in a variety of disciplines to refer to unknown territories of knowledge. Applying this concept to the field of tourism studies, we can conceive of a tourism incognita that comprises lands beyond world of tourism, especially mass tourism (Figure 1).

Figure 1. A Framework of Tourism Incognita

Figure 1. A Framework of Tourism Incognita

2Based on traditional concepts of the tourism system (Leiper, 1990), tourist space includes the home place or point of origin, where tourist motivations and tourism decision-making occurs, the transit zone, consisting of transportation networks and closely affiliated support systems, and the destination place comprising a range of attractions, accommodations and related infrastructure. Together, this tourism system comprised tourism cognita – the known world of tourism. Beyond the tourism system lies tourism incognita. The geographic boundary between the known and unknown is a liminal zone in which tourist transit from the safety of the tourism industry into the more risky, but potentially more authentic, periphery.

3Below are three personal examples of explorations of the periphery of tourism cognita. While these examples are idiosyncratic, they are representative of a very common type of tourist experience and are, therefore, effective examples to illustrate the concept of tourism incognita.

4“I'm looking for the unexpected. I'm looking for things I've never seen before.”
Robert Mapplethorpe, American photographer

1. Dubai, UAE and the Musandam Peninsula, Oman

5Dubai is part of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and is the leading tourism destinations in the Middle East, in terms of total international arrivals. Dubai International Airport, for example, received over 29 million passenger arrivals in 2011 (estimate by ACI, 2011), which far outdistanced the 20 million passengers received by Istanbul’s Atatürk International Airport, the second busiest airport in the Middle East. Dubai is best known for its ultramodern urban landscape, including the Burj Al-Arab hotel, shaped like a boat’s sail and billed as the first seven-star hotel in the world, with rooms starting at about US$1000 a night (Figure 2). The Burj Al-Arab was also the world’s tallest hotel, until a couple taller ones were built, also in Dubai. The Burj Khalifa became the world’s tallest building when it opened in January 2010, far outstripping all of the other skyscrapers of the word.

Figure 2. Dubai, United Arab Emirates (Burj Al-Arab hotel and Ski Dubai)

Figure 2. Dubai, United Arab Emirates (Burj Al-Arab hotel and Ski Dubai)

Source: Alan A. Lew

6Financial services drive the Dubai economy, though its image is shaped more by the extremes of its urban form, which also includes man-made islands in the shapes of palm trees and the continents of the world (Bagaeen, 2007). For tourists visiting the emirate, attractions include amusement parks, beaches, golf, and a historic core along the Dubai Creek. Shopping, however, is Dubai’s main tourist activity supported by some of the largest and most modern shopping malls in the world. The Dubai Mall (in the Burj Khalifa complex) is the second largest mall in the world in total area, though it ranks seventh (tied with Canada’s Edmonton Mall) in actual retail space. It also includes one of the largest aquarium tanks in the world and an Olympic size ice skating rink. The Mall of the Emirates, formerly the largest mall in the Middle East, contains a 400 meter indoor ski run, complete with a quad chair lift.

7I visited Dubai in 2008, drawn to the many superlatives of its famed urban landscape. I found Dubai to be a fascinating place, and pretty close to how I conceived it in my mind. I enjoyed seeing the different attractions, learning more about the older parts of the city (or at least what remains of them), and taking photos of the dramatic construction taking place everywhere I looked.

8My host in Dubai suggested that we take one day to cross the border to Oman to visit the Musandam Peninsula. The Musandam Peninsula is an exclave of the country of Oman (separated from the rest of the country by the UAE) and sits like a finger, creating a very narrow entrance to the Persian Gulf (Machan, 2006). Crossing the border from the UAE to the Musandam Peninsula was like entering a different world. The Musandam Peninsula has a population of only about 30,000, living in scattered small and quiet towns and settlements. The lack of cars and people was apparent starting from the border. Even the two towns we passed through had very few people on the streets, possibly due to the heat of the Arabian Peninsula.

9The second difference was the physical geography. Whereas the UAE was mostly sand with some scattered hills, the Musandam Peninsula was mostly rugged rock in varying shades of white, grey and tan, with small beach heads scatted along the water’s edge. The modern, two lane highway that we drove along hug the rock cliffs as they sloped to the waters below (Figure 3). It truly was a different world, and one that was visited mostly by wealthy expatriates living in the UAE as a weekend getaway. Our destination was the town of Khasab, which is the closest to Iran and at the end of the paved road from the UAE. Khasab is the largest town on the Musandam Peninsula, though it is still very small and quiet. It has a port where a small cruise ship was docked, and shops there advertised scuba diving trips.

Figure 3. Musandam Peninsula, Oman

Figure 3. Musandam Peninsula, Oman

Source: Alan A. Lew

10The port of Khasab had about 40 colorful dhows tied up and waiting for tourists. Dhows are traditional fishing boats that today take tourists out to the islands off the coast (Oman MOI, 2002). The floor of our down was covered by a deep red soft cloth and pillows were set along the edges for sitting. Besides us two Americans, there was an Emeriti couple in their pristine flowing robes, and a couple of South Asian families with children. Some of the other boats had almost entirely western (probably European) expatriate tourists from the UAE.

11We passed a number of smuggler boats who cross to and from Iran at this location as we headed out to the islands. Eventually we our boat slowed and we looked … for dolphins. Eventually we found them and the whistling of one of our boatmen attracting them to us as they raced along the side of our boat. There were a few other dhows, but the dolphins seemed to be most attracted to ours. We also passed a couple of boats that were taking people to small, isolated beaches where they were likely to set up camp for one or two nights. We stopped, along with about six other boats, at a small island were some of us went swimming and snorkeling. The Emeriti and South Asians never get in the water because they generally do not know how to swim.

12Lesson: The Musandam Peninsula was the surprise of this trip and clearly the most memorable part of it for me. I knew that we were probably going to go there. But I knew almost nothing about it, except that it was an Oman exclave. For me as an individual tourist, Dubai was tourism cognita and the Musandam Peninsula was tourism incognita. The Musandam Peninsula is part of the tourism economy, because local tourists come to visit it from Dubai and by small cruise ships from Muscat (the capital of Oman). However, it is clearly on the peripheral edge of both of those larger destinations due to its remoteness. Only a tiny fraction of the more than 40 million international tourists who visit Dubai each year have probably ever heard of the Musandam Peninsula, let alone considered visiting it. As such it is tourism incognita.

“Creativity comes from looking for the unexpected and stepping outside your own experience.”

13Masaru Ibuka, co-founder of the Sony Corporation

2. Angkor Wat and the Tonlé Sap, Cambodia

14Siem Reap is the gateway city to the Angkor Wat Archeological Park of Cambodia. Angkor Wat is the main temple, built in the 12th century, among many other temples that comprise this UNESCO World Heritage Site (Winter, 2004) (Figure 4). It is one of the most spectacular and best known heritage sites in Southeast Asia, and is visited by a million or more tourists each year. Siem Reap is where the airport is located and this small city’s streets are lined with hotels, resorts, restaurants and gift shops that cater to international visitors from around the world.

Figure 4. Angkor Wat, Cambodia (Angkor Wat, left, and Bayon Temple)

Figure 4. Angkor Wat, Cambodia (Angkor Wat, left, and Bayon Temple)

Source: Alan A. Lew

15The park itself is well organized and maintained. Tourists arrive at a central payment center and receive tickets that have their photos on them. Certain locations in the park have large numbers of tourists and hawkers selling trinkets, foods and arts and crafts. Elephant rides, hot air balloon rides, and more formal restaurants can also be found in the park. Other areas and some of the temples, though, are very quiet, including parts of the large Angkor Wat temple itself. I spent one full day in the park and saw most of the main temples. Two to three days would be required to take in a fuller range of what is offered there.

16My second full day was devoted to visiting the Tonlé Sap (sometimes translated as the Great Lake). I remember reading about the Tonlé Sap in school when I was ten years old, and thinking at the time that it was a place that I would like to see because it sounded so different from any other place. Maps of the Tonlé Sap are often odd, because the lake, which is the largest in Southeast Asia, changes so dramatically in surface area between the dry season (2,700 km2) and wet season (16,000 km2). During the wet season (June to October) the Mekong River flows into the lake and during the dry season the lake’s waters flow into the Mekong. In addition, fish production from the incredibly rich waters of the Tonlé Sap account for 80% of Cambodia’s protein consumption (UNESCO, 2007).

17Other than a few of these geographical facts, however, I knew almost nothing else about the Tonlé Sap, except that I wanted to see it. I had hired my driver from the hotel who took us in a minivan on a road that was under construction. It was the dry season and the construction project was to raise the road above the wet season lake level and extend it to a year-round boat harbor – one that would work for both the wet and dry seasons (Figure 5). That road, which is probably finished now, was an adventure in itself. Even more than the rough surface, though, was the whole idea that everything below the elevated roadway is underwater for almost half of the year. Some thin plywood buildings were built at the road level, but many other buildings along with forests and agricultural fields were at the lower ground level where they would be inundated by lake waters.

Figure 5. Tonlé Sap, Cambodia

Figure 5. Tonlé Sap, Cambodia

Source: Alan A. Lew

18As we got closer to the lake, the road descended to the current water level where a narrow channel was filled with long boats, most of which were just tied up and empty. A few were bringing fish to be sorted, weighed and sold in roadside stalls. We boarded one of the long boats and made our way along the channel, passing people fishing in the thick muddy water with lines and nets, and passing a floating school, which included a floating basketball court that was encased with wire fencing to keep the balls inside. Medical clinics and other floating buildings were also seen, many of which indicated that they had been donated or funded by different countries and aid agencies. We had also seen water spigots along the road that were fed by wells and had been funded by travel companies and even specific tour groups.

19The channel finally opened into the lake, which was so vast (even in the dry season) that you could not see across it. Children and families could be seen rowing boats from the shoreline to the floating villages where houses, livestock (pigs and chickens), vegetable gardens, restaurants, churches and schools were all seen on their own floating platforms. Some boats could be seen selling cooked foods, fruits and vegetables, and other goods from floating house to floating house. The people in these floating villages were ethnic Vietnamese and Cham (from central Vietnam), many of whom fled here during the Vietnam War (Keskinen, 2003).

20We ended up at a floating restaurant that also had a gift shop and a small interpretive museum. Some villagers, including children, hung to the side of platform selling food items, including bananas, for which they were asking US$1.00 for a bunch (the currency used for all purchases in the Siem Reap area is the US dollar). The roof of the restaurant gave a good view of the incredible flatness of the Tonlé Sap and its surrounding landscape, though there was one large hill in the distance. For me, this day trip was full of unexpected surprises, including some very moving experiences and self-reflexive moments.

21Lesson: In this second example, Angkor Wat was tourism cognita and the Tonlé Sap was tourism incognita. Similar to Dubai, Angkor Wat is an internationally known tourist attraction that is visited by large numbers of people and, because of its fame, it mostly matches its international media and marketing image and holds fewer surprises as a result. As important as Angkor Wat is, I am often surprised at the number of people I meet who have never heard of it. Needless to say, the Tonlé Sap is even more unknown outside of the Southeast Asia region. Both the Musandam Peninsula and the Tonlé Sap lake are destinations that are peripheral to their nearby main destinations, and almost entirely below the global tourism radar. As such, they both provide opportunities for deeper and more memorable experiences, and greater insight into the traditional life and culture of the destination.

22A second lesson from the Tonlé Sap is that journeys into tourism incognita can be fully guided and still result in an existential experience. Although my guide was mostly a driver with no professional guide training (or certification), I still found his assistance invaluable and just what I needed. Yes, there were other tourists doing the same, or similar, trip to the floating villages that I did. However, there were not very many of them, and none of them was in a large group (maybe 10 participants at the most). As such, their presence did not overwhelm the local reality of the Tonlé Sap place. Guiding, therefore, is not anathema to an authentic experience. What is more important for creating the opportunity for an existential experience is being on the periphery or beyond of the mass phenomena of tourism cognita.

“You have to take risks. We will only understand the miracle of life fully when we allow the unexpected to happen.”

23Paulo Coelho, Brazilian author and lyricist

3. Manado and the Lembeh Strait, Indonesia

24I spent part of my sabbatical in 2008 in Singapore where I signed up for an advanced scuba diving certification class. While we were in Malaysia doing the dive part of our training and testing, I asked several instructors where the best dive spot they had been to was, and answer they all gave me was Manado, on the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia. This was a place that I had never really heard of, but which is actually located near the center of the biodiversity rich Coral Triangle region (extending from the Philippines to Bali to the Solomon Islands).

25Beyond its diving fame, Manado is not an international tourist attraction in any way. The small dive resort I wanted to book was full the day my plane was to arrive in Manado, so I stayed in town for a night and explored the city. One of the interesting characteristics of Manado is that most of the people follow different denominations of Christianity (Figure 6). There may be more churches per capita in the Manado area than any place on the planet. One very small village near the Lembeh Strait, for example, had four large churches.

Figure 6. Manado, Indonesia

Figure 6. Manado, Indonesia

Source: Alan A. Lew

26I visited a large Chinese Temple and saw the city mosque, a new shopping mall (Manado is the largest city in the region), and some fascinating shanty towns. English was a challenge in the hotel, but I did manage to have them get a taxi to take me to the Lembeh Strait, which took a few hours including many stops for photos of volcanoes, cemeteries, oxen, an a visit to a small, private zoo. It was a beautiful and interesting landscape, but overall not much different from most of rural Indonesia.

27I did not see any other foreign tourists the entire time between my airport arrival and my arrival at the dive resort. Dive tourists frequently are only interested in diving (Musa, 2002). They arrive at the airport, are picked up by the dive resort, and hope to start diving soon after they settle in. They will spend up to a week at one resort, doing three to four or more dives a day, each lasting about 45 to 60 minutes, with decompression times between them. Buffet meals and drinks are usually included in the dive resort package. The divers spend good money for internationally trained guides, thus contributing to the local economy, but they generally have very little interactions beyond the dive experience.

28The Manado area actually has three major dive locations, which are estimated to encompass 70% of fish species in the western Indo-Pacific region. The best dive holiday is to spend one week at each of the three locations. Because I only had one week, I decided to go to the Lembeh Strait because it sounded so different from the other two, and from any place I had previously been to.

29The Lembeh Strait is a muck diving site, not a coral reef site which is characteristic of most of the more popular dive areas in the world. Muck is basically mud and dirt. Muck sea life tends to be very tiny, so it is important to have a good guide who knows how to see and find them. Among the amazing array of tiny and colorful life that I saw were a huge variety of colorful anemones, nudibranchs (a type of sea slug), urchins, frog fish, and star fish (Figure 7). There was a small flamboyant cuttlefish whose colors changed rapidly as it walked along the bottom of the sand. There was an electric clam that had white specks of electricity rising up its outstretched feelers. There was a pregnant pink pygmy seahorse, just a centimeter in height. And there were some very prolific mating mandarin fish, who became active just after sunset.

Figure 7. Lembeh Strait, Indonesia (rainbow colored anemone and a baby frog fish)

Figure 7. Lembeh Strait, Indonesia (rainbow colored anemone and a baby frog fish)

Source: Alan A. Lew

30I was the only American at the small resort I was at. Europeans were the most common visitors there, followed by Singaporeans. After almost week at the Lembeh Strait, I consider it the best dive experience I had ever had. On the flight back to Singapore, a Canadian couple sitting next to me noticed the photos I was reviewing on my computer. They told me that they spend one month traveling around Indonesia every year, and always include a stay at the Lembeh Strait for diving.

31Lesson: The example of Manado and Lembeh Strait is different from those of Dubai/Musandam Peninsula and Angkor Wat/Tonlé Sap. In terms of the global scuba diving community, Manado’s resorts and underwater world are tourism cognita. However, the dive community is relatively small and is part of the niche periphery of global tourism (Lew, 2011). My experience of the city of Manado clearly shows that it is in the realm of tourism incognita. I did not have any deep experiences there, though perhaps I might have given more time, and perhaps if I were Christian. The first lesson here is that tourism incognita does not always guarantee an existential experience (Steiner & Reisinger, 2006). Entering tourism incognita is taking a risk, the experience could be very good, or it could be very bad, though mostly it is probably relatively neutral.

32The second lesson is the unique role that adventure travel plays as a niche service on the edge of liminal periphery between tourism cognita and tourism incognita (Kane & Tucker, 2004). Adventure travel is a niche market that attracts people who are willing, trained and able to take physical risks, which in turn will mostly likely result in experiences of exhilaration and discover (Lavoilette, 2011). In addition to scuba diving, examples of adventure travel include mountain trekking and climbing, white water rafting, and bicycle touring. Scuba diving, in particular, takes participants into mare incognita (unknown seas), which, even though they cover most of the planet earth, are still hidden from the awareness and experience of the mankind.

“If you do not expect the unexpected you will not find it.”

33Heraclitus, Greek philosopher, 500 BCE


34In the age of European exploration, terra incognita referred to lands that were largely unknown to Europeans. In the world of contemporary tourism, tourism incognita refers to the lands and experiences that are largely unknown to the global mass tourism industry. It includes specialty niche tourisms that operate on the edge and beyond of mass tourism, as well as the entire world of non-tourism places.

35Journeys into tourism incognita requires an openness to new experiences, a willingness to take risks and accept disappointments, and a curiosity about the larger world beyond the places that we know (Lepp & Gibson, 2003). The world renowned destinations of Dubai and Angkor Wat should certainly be on the list of places to visit for any international travelers. Like many of the other leading attractions of the world, they have developed their resources and infrastructure to meet the expectations of millions of visitors, who will share their memories of them with friends when they return home. Most of those visitors, however, will stay in the tourist bubble of tourism congnita (Jaakson, 2004). They will stay in the known, the secure and the trusted. Unfortunately, they will likely miss opportunities to transcend the front region of a destination. It only takes a little risk and a little curiosity to have a deeper and more memorable tourism experience (Hwang & Fesenmaier 2011).

36Tourism incognita is vital to the success of the tourism economy. The places and experiences of tourism incognita are part of the imagination that creates the desire, and ultimately the decision, to travel to a distant land. The places and experiences of tourism incognita are what give tourists opportunities to experience exploration, discovery and existential encounters, as well as opportunities for self reflection, identity formation, and personal transformation. In that sense, tourism incognita is what drives tourist motivation and the tourism economy.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1. A Framework of Tourism Incognita
Fichier image/jpeg, 36k
Titre Figure 2. Dubai, United Arab Emirates (Burj Al-Arab hotel and Ski Dubai)
Crédits Source: Alan A. Lew
Fichier image/jpeg, 64k
Titre Figure 3. Musandam Peninsula, Oman
Crédits Source: Alan A. Lew
Fichier image/jpeg, 104k
Titre Figure 4. Angkor Wat, Cambodia (Angkor Wat, left, and Bayon Temple)
Crédits Source: Alan A. Lew
Fichier image/jpeg, 108k
Titre Figure 5. Tonlé Sap, Cambodia
Crédits Source: Alan A. Lew
Fichier image/jpeg, 76k
Titre Figure 6. Manado, Indonesia
Crédits Source: Alan A. Lew
Fichier image/jpeg, 68k
Titre Figure 7. Lembeh Strait, Indonesia (rainbow colored anemone and a baby frog fish)
Crédits Source: Alan A. Lew
Fichier image/jpeg, 86k
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Alan A. Lew, « Tourism Incognita: Experiencing the Liminal Edge of Destination Places », Études caribéennes [En ligne], 19 | Août 2011, mis en ligne le 15 août 2011, consulté le 21 octobre 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Alan A. Lew

Department of Geography, Planning and Recreation, Northern Arizona University, Ph.D., AICP, Professor and Graduate Program Coordinator,

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