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Mass Tourism vs Alternative Tourism? Challenges and New Positionings

Tourisme de masse vs tourisme alternatif ? Enjeux et nouveaux positionnements
Sopheap Theng, Xiao Qiong et Corina Tatar


Le tourisme de masse s’inscrit dans une construction historique. Il prend son origine au lendemain de la Seconde Guerre Mondiale avec la croissance économique soutenue des pays occidentaux. L’affirmation économique des nouveaux pays industrialisés conforte ce phénomène. Le tourisme de masse correspond à l’émergence des classes moyennes et à la démocratisation du tourisme dans les pays riches. Il se concentre dans quelques destinations internationales réputées. Cette concentration massive de visiteurs a des conséquences économique, sociale, culturelle et écologique. Si le volume global de ses revenus touristiques est intéressant (en matière d’emplois et de croissance économique), il pose également des problèmes sur le plan local (fuites des revenus, la répartition). C’est dans ce contexte que se développent les réflexions sur les approches touristiques alternatives. Il s’agit de développer de nouvelles formes de tourisme durable qui intègrent les populations locales et les environnements naturel et humain des pays d’accueil. Ecotourisme, tourisme communautaire, etc. soutiennent une autre philosophie du tourisme.

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1"An offspring of industrialization and democracy, good student of consumption and globalization" (Hillali, 2003), mass tourism has developed in Western societies since the 1950s, in a period of strong economic growth. The urban and industrial regions of Western Europe, North America, Japan are the first countries issuing international tourists worldwide. The globalization of tourism is primarily the result of continued growth in international tourist flows that spread first to the oldest tourist destinations (Western and Mediterranean Europe) to emerging destinations, from the center to the periphery, until the borders of the world (Dehoorne et al., 2014).

2From 25.3 million international tourists in 1950 to 1,133,000,000 in 2014, tourism has become a new dimension of our "leisure civilization" (Dumazier, 1962). Tourism has become a social phenomenon with economic enrichment of industrialized societies and social progress and the reduction of working time. Economic advances have enabled a constant modernization of means of transport available for tourists: from the railway to the automobile for all, from the transatlantic liner to the development of air transport. The lowering of air transport costs with the advent of high-capacity aircraft (such as Boeing 747) and the development of charter and low-cost flights supported by the liberalization of air transport, has opened every part of the world to tourism. Technically, the whole world can be accessible to international tourism (Dehoorne et al., 2008). Shorelines become the top tourist destination; they are no longer restricted to aristocratic resorts of some privileged minorities (Veblen 1899).

The advent of mass tourism

3Mass tourism as the epitome of aggressively large-scale sold standardized packages stands in stark opposition to elite or luxury tourism (Dehoorne et Theng, 2015), the latter triggered as a wanted strategy to diversify the coveted-by-all 3S tourist product meant to keep at bay the mass by creating up market facilities such as golf grounds, marinas, exhibition centers, so as to attract less low budget visitors and more high spend visitors (Bramwell, 2004). Although most countries bordering the Mediterranean basin are known as mass tourism coastal destinations (with a high variety of coastline from 20 km in Boznia-Herzegovina to 15,000 km in Greece; 7953 in Italy; 5790 in Croatia; 5,191 in Turkey; 2,580 in Spain; 1,703 in France) (Bramwell, 2004), they do not manage to rank very high when it comes to receipts or expenditures made by tourists. Such is the case of France, which registered 71.4 million arrivals in 2004, but merely earned 40.8 $ billion in receipts with an average expenditure of 543 $ per tourist, in sharp contrast with coastal destinations whose number of arrivals was smaller but the economic returns were much higher: Australia, UK, Italy, USA, Cambodia, India etc (Aramberri, 2010).

4From flow growth to tourism practices’ massification; since the 1990s, mass tourism could be found in the most reputable international places: from the historic center of Venice to the shorelines of the Caribbean, Cancun Punta Cana.

5Mass tourism is characterized by an extreme concentration of tourists in one place, like the tourist traffic in the streets of Santorini Island (Greek). Saturation of a place, and therefore its degradation and its loss of attractiveness are the result of massification. Mass tourism is defined by the volume of tourists compared to the concerned territory and to the local population density. For example, total attendance of Caribbean islands is humble on the scale of global activity (less than 25 million tourist stay-overs; so two times less than Northern Europe. But it is necessary to reconsider the total tourist arrivals for the purpose of the small size of the islands (a total of 235,000 square kilometers) and the population level (37 million people in the islands); their limited resources (such as freshwater) and the fragility of host environments (coral reefs) (Dehoorne, 2006). At sub-regional level, the spread of selective tourists is reflected locally by a powerful pressure on some island micro-territories (such as St. Barthelemy which hosts over 120,000 tourists on a surface of 23 km2, inhabited by 9 000 people; Theng, 2014). Its tourist pressures were highlighted by McElroy and Albuquerque (1998) in their work on the “Tourism penetration index in small Caribbean islands”.

6Mass tourism brings an overall volume of revenue that supports economic growth. The massive arrival of visitors (who are all consumers) offers hope for a fruitful tourism entrepreneurship and tourism revenues in the host country. Tourism supports employment and multiple opportunities for small investors. These varieties of jobs are directly related to tourism (hotels, restaurants, taxis ...), indirectly (in trade in general) or induced (stimulated by the additional money supply circulating in the economy of the host territory). They support a local market fuelled by the occurrence of "minor expenses" (Mitchell et al., 2001; Ashley et al., 2000).

7But the impact of tourism economy is not without negative effects on the host economy. There are effects on land values between overvaluation and speculation. The logic of the economy in particular leads to the exclusion of uses considered less profitable (like fishing, gardening, agriculture). Tourism precipitated the breakdown of fragile local economies, inflation and exclusion.

8The other problem is the "leakage": there is much money flow, but ultimately how much the host societies really benefit in this globalized system. The rise of the internationalized market economy establish an informal economy, parallel or underground, essential to survive in the context of social exclusion, where "private affluence goes side by side with the public squalor" (Galbraith, 1964). This evolution led to the deterioration of subsistence production, the foundations of local life, the links and the social fabric with a more or less heavy impact on families and social relationships.

9In this economic context, mass tourism associated with social, cultural and ecological dilemmas, has opened prospects for the research of alternative tourism. The volume of revenues will be less but the share of direct economic benefits to local economies must be improved.

Alternative Tourism or research of other tourist development models

10The search for other tourism models, other forms of tourism development, other tourism practices with another relationship to the environment, host societies, responds to the need of building other tourism models, more sustainable and more ethical (Brookfield, 1988; Butler, 1990; Smith and Eadington 1992; Bramwell, 1996; Wall, 1997; and Mowforth Munt, 2003). This is to break with the model of mass tourism and to imagine other types of tourism, with another philosophical approach, which favors encounter with the host population (De Kadt 1990).

11Alternative tourism concerns a variety of approaches: eco-tourism, agro-tourism, community tourism, ethical tourism ... There are many possible alternative approaches which allow to get out of the dominant mass tourism model. Beyond the economic issues, we must also consider the social and cultural dimensions, the relationship to the environment, the participation of host communities (Duterme, 2007) and develop sustainable tourism strategies with more significant economic benefits for the host country.

12Alternative Tourism can be referred to many other names, for example, green tourism, sustainable tourism, ecotourism and so on.

Table 1. Sustainable tourism, alternative forms according to Buckley (2009)



Green tourism

An old name associated with ecotourism, but never well defined.

Alternative tourism

A term used in the official tourist literature to denominate an alternative to mass tourism or main tourism; Indeed, it is well to distinguish any form of tourism centered on a small market or any product that may not be distributed or relayed by traditional travel agencies.

Endemic tourism

A name very little used, whose biological vocabulary is meant to designate any type of tourism that would move from one attraction attached to a particular geographic location.


Tourism whose basic attraction is a geological feature, a term rarely used. Appellation taken over by National Geographic. It is close enough to ecotourism, but its meaning is rather blurred.

Responsible tourism

Term little used, certainly from an analogy with "responsible care" from the pharmaceutical industry; mainly tied to social considerations.

Sustainable tourism

Term widely used but poorly defined, it refers to a tourism that is in line with the concerns of sustainable development, a term also very vague and contested, relating more to the main environmental concern of tourism, without being restricted to Ecotourism; adopted in UNWTO, Tour Operators Initiative for Sustainable Tourism.

Source: Buckley, R. 2009

13Ecotourism is the most unifying alternative approach, often considered as « a panacea capable of reconciling economic development, environmental protection and the well-being of communities » (Tardif, 2003). Lequin (2001:12) highlights the interest of the concept of ecotourism "considered primarily as a form of tourism oriented towards relatively undeveloped natural areas and protection of territories opposed to mass tourism operating in the built environment (Knowles, 2004)".

14By combining the various existing definitions, we can identify some essential and recurring traits such as environmental protection, cultural and social capitalization of the heritage, involvement of local people in project development and optimization of the economic benefits for the host community.

15Priority access to the conservation of resources, the main objective of ecotourism is to regulate attendance levels and control the consumption of natural resources. Gradually, the concept of ecotourism grants increasing importance to the human dimension by focusing on the cultural aspects and, more generally, heritage; this approach facilitates the integration of host communities in a sustainable project. As spotlighted by M. Lequin (2001), ecotourism is seen as a form of tourism whose impact on the physical and cultural environment should be low. The concept integrates fast into a conservation dimension of the resource in relation to the sustainable development of a community.

16But as Knowles points out (2004: 123), the ecotourism qualifier is demean, often used “just a marketing tool" for the tourism industry to address the economic losses caused by the abandonment of mass tourism, being a growth strategy to the extent that, the ecotourism doesn’t limit any mass tourism.

Table 2. The six main points of ecotourism

Nature and culture

Preservation of the environment and taking into account of the cultural dimension. The revenues help finance the protection of the environment and tourism activities have a low impact on the environment and the host societies.

Welfare of host societies

Improving living conditions and economic diversification.

Responsibility of touristes

Respect of environments and visited places and desire to discover other cultures

Participation of host societies

Accountability and participation in decision-making, ownership of the activity and / or the host institutions.


Control volume of tourist consumption, development of host societies and preservation of resources.

Art of encounter

Involvement of tourists, notion of experience and encounter that contributes to the establishment of more equitable and supportive relationships.

Source: Dehoorne et al., 2007

17Weaver synthesizes the various existing definitions: “Ecotourism is a form of tourism that fosters learning experiences and appreciation of the natural environment, or some component thereof, within its associated cultural context. It has the appearance (in conjunction with best practice) of being environmentally and socio-culturally sustainable, preferably in a way that enhances the natural and cultural resource base of the destination and promotes the viability of the operation (Weaver, 2004: 15)”.


18This issue of the journal Etudes Caribéennes, devoted to tourism, aims to lay the foundations of a reflection on the functioning of tourist places, their development programs and the different challenges presented to them.

19Exposed/open or close location, concentrated or diffused flows, the nature of these tourist places with their traditional or original customs, orientate different types of potential impacts. The choices made in tourism development are essential: in which conditions one should opt for the traditional seaside tourism, or for mass tourism, for alternative tourism? Are certain properties linked to specific territories? Should we oppose these two approaches or consider them as complementary in their respective environments and can they share the same place?

20The objective of this thematic issue is to call for various and renewed approaches which develop analysis in terms of economy, regional planning, sociology, geography etc. Articles propose a theoretical reflection or focus on case studies, dealing with the relations of mass tourism, alternative tourism, or illustrating one of these two aspects.

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Sopheap Theng, Xiao Qiong et Corina Tatar, « Mass Tourism vs Alternative Tourism? Challenges and New Positionings »Études caribéennes [En ligne], 31-32 | Août-Décembre 2015, mis en ligne le 15 décembre 2015, consulté le 14 avril 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Sopheap Theng

Université des Antilles ; PhD. Student ;

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Xiao Qiong

Southwest University for Nationalities of China; Associate Professor;

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Corina Tatar

Université d’Oradea ; Maître de Conférences ;

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