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Computer and quantitative methods in tourism history: contributions and limitations

Nicolas Chachereau et Cédric Humair
Cet article est une traduction de :
Méthodes informatiques et quantitatives en histoire du tourisme : apports et limites [fr]

Texte intégral

1Historical research, like other human and social sciences, has been deeply transformed by the digital. This is an obvious observation, even if it might be useful given the fascination, irritation, dread, or indifference that are still commonplace. As far as the materiality of their practices is concerned, historians in 2023 undoubtedly do not work at all as they did in 1990, from accessing scholarly publications online, to researching and collaborating, to publishing and disseminating results (Grandi and Ruiz, 2012; Vinck and Natale, 2015; Milligan, 2022). As such, this transformation does not merely result from the rise of information technologies as an automation of calculation—this was already used in history in the 1940s, and then more so from the 1960s (Lejeune, 2021)—nor does it merely result from the spread of personal computing from the 1980s onwards, a previous fundamental change. What matters here is the mass adoption of what some have called the “personal-computer-connected-to-the-Internet” (Delalande and Vincent, 2012, p. 6), for which we have collectively come to use the nominalization “the digital” (or “le numérique”, “das Digitale”, etc.).

2To what extent and in which way has the history of tourism been affected by such transformations? The question deserves attention, given the specificity of subjects and fields of historical research, for instance in matters of human and financial resources available or prevailing historiographical traditions. What quantitative and digital methods have been adopted by historians of tourism, with what contributions and with what limitations? The Journal of Tourism History initiated reflections on this issue in a round table published in January 2018 and entitled “Digital humanities and tourism history”. However, it focused on anglophone scholarship and on a few methods specific to the “digital humanities” (Anderson et al., 2017). Indeed, apart from the transformations that affect all research practices in history, the digital has also offered new methods and approaches, or renewed the interest in older ones. But to what extent and for what results? After the “linguistic turn” and the “spatial turn”, should we speak of a “digital turn”?

3In order to attempt to answer these diverse questions, an international workshop took place at the University of Lausanne in November 2021. It gathered specialists of several European and American countries, allowing to account for historiography in French, German, Italian, English, and Spanish. The goal was to take stock of the use of computer and quantitative methods in tourism history, on the basis of two series of contributions: the first brought together overviews of the digitization process in each language area, while the second was a series of case studies allowing to understand the contributions made possible by various methods, but also their limitations and difficulties of application. With the exception of the specialist of the French-speaking area, who considered that the historiographical material he had was not sufficient to make a tenable assessment, all the participants of the workshop accepted to contribute to this special issue of Mondes du tourisme. Of course, we should point out that the articles, whether overviews or case studies, do not claim to cover the historiographic ground exhaustively. Moreover, some interesting historiographies, such as studies on Belgium, are not the subject of a specific article. Nevertheless, the contributions in this special issue provide a fairly precise and comprehensive overview of the use of quantitative and computer methods in tourism history. This introduction presents a summary with the sole ambition of motivating the reader to delve into the various articles.

The new centrality of digitized information

4The transformations linked to the digital are clearly of uneven importance. Surveys of historians confirm common intuitions in this regard, even if they cannot claim scientific rigour, carried out as they were by individual scholars (Ruiz, 2015b) or trade associations, such as the American Historical Association in 2010 and 2015 (Townsend, 2010, 2017). The 2015 survey, for instance, reveals a clear disparity in the adoption of digital practices. While some remain very marginal—a point we will come back to—, others concern a very large proportion, between 80 and 90%, of the researchers surveyed. This is the case for accessing research literature and digitized sources online, as well as using a digital camera for archival work. As the contributions in this special issue show, this fundamental observation also applies to tourism history. The core of the digital revolution resides in the new ways of mobilizing information needed for research.

5First, several articles report on the catalogs and other digital research tools available at the regional or national scale that greatly facilitate the work of researchers. For instance, in Germany, the portal of the Historisches Alpenarchiv gives access to a database containing the archival collections of the alpine clubs of Germany, Austria, and South Tyrol (Knoll). In Spain, the autonomous community of Catalonia has made a search engine available that makes it possible to identify documents in all the region’s archives and to find out whether they are available in digital format (Larrinaga). In Italy, consulting analogue archives has been greatly facilitated by the platform of the national archival system (SAN) that gives access to the catalogs of all archival institutions. A search using the keyword “turismo” lists 454 different archives (Battilani).

6Secondly, like so many other scholarly and social practices, the history of tourism now relies heavily on information available on the web. Besides online secondary literature and specialized journals, as well as historical dictionaries and encyclopaedias, there are platforms of cultural institutions, online historical databases, and the web pages of large research projects in tourism history. Very often, these do not simply showcase the projects themselves, but communicate some or all of their results; in some cases, they make archival material, other sources, databases, or statistical data available to other researchers. For instance, resulting from a large research project, the biographical database Biolemano, online since 2021, offers new perspectives of analysis to researchers interested in the Lake Geneva region (Chiarelli and Lapointe Guigoz). Such practices will certainly become more common under the impetus of research funding bodies. Indeed, as part of their support for open science, these institutions strongly promote and/or even require that datasets constituted by research projects funded by them be made publicly available online. Finally, the most significant change is the online availability of historical material including textual sources, images, and statistical data. Started at the turn of the 21st century, this digitization of printed and archival sources and data is carried out by a galaxy of actors that cannot be analyzed here, including public and private archives and libraries, other cultural institutions, as well as tourism associations and organizations.

7Based on the contributions in this special issue, we can note that historians of tourism have made use of several collections of digitized sources that are not specifically linked to this social and economic activity. The major advance is the increasingly common and still developing mass digitization of the press (Burnout et al., 2022). The Austrian national library and the Bavarian State library in Munich offer thousands of digitized newspapers in German (Knoll). In Switzerland, the press is gathered on several platforms of varying scope—national, cantonal, or related to specific businesses (Tissot). In Italy, the digitization of major titles is left to the initiative of the media groups that determine access, while the regional press is included in the national project of a digital library (Battilani). In Spain, online press libraries were created by the national library, the Ministry of Culture, and various local and regional authorities (Larrinaga). In addition to the press, the digitization of trade registers in Switzerland is also of particular interest, making it possible to retrace the career of individual actors of the tourism sector, as well as the trajectory of touristic companies (Chiarelli and Lapointe Guigoz). As for the digitization of the minutes of local, regional, and national political authorities, it enables the analysis of the relationship between the tourism sector and politics, and, in particular, the evolution of policies related to tourism (Knoll, Battilani). In some cases, tourism history can benefit from collections of sources digitized for other more general history projects (James and Hughes). This is, for instance, the case for a study on Italy’s major hotel companies that relies on the IMITA.DB research project on the country’s largest companies (Battilani).

8In contrast, the digitization of sources specifically linked to tourism remains quite limited. In fact, cultural institutions such as archives and libraries do not seem to make this rather marginal research field a priority in their digitization efforts. There are some noteworthy exceptions in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland with the digitization of travel narrative collections by large public libraries (Knoll), or in Spain with the dynamic digitization policy pursued by the municipal archives of San Sebastian, a tourist city par excellence (Larrinaga). Public bodies promoting tourism seem, for their part, rather reluctant to digitize their archives, as illustrated by the cases of the Instituto de Turismo de Espana (Turespaña) and, in Italy, of the Agenzia nazionale del Turismo (ENIT). The financial demands of such an operation are likely to be the reason for this situation. In some countries, successful digitization projects were carried out by private associations involved in tourism, such as the Touring Club Italiana (Battilani) or the German-speaking alpine clubs that created the Historisches Alpenarchiv (Knoll). Finally, we can turn to the collections of sources and images built during large historical research projects. English-speaking research distinguishes itself in this domain, with the online publication of large databases related to projects such as Lake District Online or Livingstone Online (James and Hughes). All things considered, as far as digitized sources specific to tourism are concerned, the ones that seem to have been used the most often are the periodicals published by certain collective players involved in touristic development. In Switzerland, the Revue suisse des hôtels has enabled some hoteliers to be identified and their careers followed (Chiarelli and Lapointe Guigoz), while the journals of the Swiss Alpine Club were used for a lexical analysis of mountaineers’ accounts.

9Finally, quantitative approaches have benefited from easier access to statistical data. The Spanish case is very revealing, as it exemplifies the evolution of access to numerical data (Larrinaga). First, some data on tourism was made available by a publication in 2005 of an edited volume dealing with Spanish historical statistics. The analyses of the pioneers of the quantitative history of tourism were then digitized and thus made more easily available. Finally, the Instituto de Turismo de España has digitized compilations of tourism statistical series, even though the data was not transcribed in easy-to-use digital formats. In Switzerland, the latter operation was carried out for all the data series published in 1996 in the Swiss Historical Statistics, some of which concern tourism. This book resulted from a huge research project that aimed at publishing existing statistics and reconstructing missing series. Its content is now available as Excel files downloadable on a website.1 In addition to the statistical series gathered or constituted by research, the statistical offices of several countries have made data available on their websites (Knoll, Battilani).

The benefits of digitized information available online: a critical look

10Taking note of easier access to a large mass of online digitized information gives rise to a critical epistemological reflection that highlights the ambivalence of this evolution. On this point, the contributions in this special issue echo remarks published elsewhere. First, the ease of access to digitized sources obviously allows finding information more rapidly and at lower cost. With digitized corpora, it is no longer necessary to organize long travel or even stays abroad to sift through documentation. On the one hand, it allows for the combination of information from more sources or even, as mentioned, to use sources more easily that have no apparent link to the domain of study. On the other hand, there is clearly a risk that historians focus on certain themes and questions depending on the availability of digitized sources. This danger appears all the greater given the importance that a greater efficiency can have for positions and careers in the academic field. The risk is not merely theoretical. In a landmark article, Ian Milligan has shown that the online availability of Toronto newspapers has led, in Canadian historiography, to a significant increase of studies concentrating on that city (Milligan, 2013). In other words, digitization has an indirect, and hardly visible, impact on the way the history of a country is written. The same change could undoubtedly be shown for other spaces and on other geographic scales, given the uneven availability of digitized sources. From this point of view, it is unsurprising that the contributions gathered in this special issue frequently insist on the need of using digitized sources as a complement to, rather than a substitute for, traditional documentation.

11Secondly, let us take note of the importance of optical character recognition (OCR). For instance, the potential of digitized newspapers is greatly increased by the option of searching for the occurrences of phrases or names over long periods of time, rather than consulting only precise dates. In the case of administrative sources such as the Feuille officielle suisse du commerce (the Swiss official gazette of commerce), character recognition constitutes, in practice, a necessary condition for its use, as the dull prose of these thousands of pages would hardly have attracted the interest of historians. Thanks to OCR, such sources make it possible, for instance, to retrace the evolution of touristic companies (Chiarelli and Lapointe Guigoz). While they are less discussed in the articles of this special issue, such possibilities nevertheless have their limitations. Admittedly, searching for word occurrences in administrative sources, such as censuses or death and birth certificates, allows researchers to find the trace of companies for which no archives remain, or even of outsiders, women, or other ordinary people whose lives are more difficult to capture through more conventional sources (Bishop, 2017; Alexander and Howkins, 2011). But is there not a risk for this opportunity to create the illusion of complete knowledge, for instance, by making us forget that other social groups have left no trace to be digitized? (Hunter, 2017) Furthermore, does the possibility of directly finding an interesting passage not lead too often to overlooking its context and more broadly the structure of the source consulted (e.g., Bingham, 2010)?

12There is hence a contradiction between, on the one hand, the attention to be paid to the context, to the materiality of sources, or to the detail of argumentation, and, on the other, the aspiration of analyzing the integrality of sources of a given historical period (Lilti, 2015, p. 968). Given that this is a quixotic hope, it is crucial to ask which sources are digitized, in other words to know the boundaries of the corpus in which one is searching. Yet that question is rarely asked (Lemercier, 2015). For instance, thanks to its Ngram Viewer, the Google Books corpus is frequently used to trace the change of vocabulary over time. Leaving aside the grand pronouncements on the “quantitative analysis of culture”, dubbed “culturomics” (Michel et al., 2011), that were made with little concern for historical knowledge, the usefulness of the tool and its popularity are to be acknowledged, but so should its limitations. Problems include the quality of the OCR, quite mixed because of the varying quality of print and the changing spelling and fonts, but also the erroneous dates assigned to some documents, so that occurrences of “internet” or “google” are allegedly to be found in 19th-century books (Hodel, 2013). Besides such flaws in the execution, it is worth emphasizing that the documents digitized by Google, however numerous they may be, do not reflect French or English language as such, and even less “culture”, but are inevitably affected by the constitution of the corpus and by historical events. Alexander Koplenig, who has examined Google Ngrams, gives the example of both world wars, during which terms such as “bernois”, “canadien” or “Lausanne” become much more frequent in the French corpus. The reason for this is not to be found in an evolution of language or discourse, but in the drastic decline of the number of publications and of book length in the warring countries, in contrast to Switzerland or Canada (Koplenig, 2017). Moreover, Google has collaborated extensively with university libraries, resulting in an over-representation of academic works. All of these issues remain invisible, because the interface does not allow us to consult the documents that correspond to the number of occurrences of a term in a certain year and so to check the accuracy of the results (unlike a tool such as Gallicagram: de Courson et al., 2023).

13While the contributions in this issue are less concerned with such challenges, they do evoke one last benefit of this massive online availability of documents, without abandoning a critical reflection. Easier access to sources from distant geographical spaces has greatly stimulated comparative and transnational historical approaches. Indeed, it is now possible to draw on the press, reports of political debates, or legislative acts of several regions or states so as to compare them. For instance, Elisa Tizzoni recently adopted a global history approach to analyze the contribution of tourism to the construction of Europe (Tizzoni, 2021). This change had already been noted by the historian Lara Putnam in an article that has justly become a classic. Putnam showed that the coincidence of growth of transnational perspectives and that of the digital was no accident: the online availability of masses of digitized sources (books and press) makes it easier to see the presence of a historical figure in another national context, or to discover links between two places. In this rich and reflective piece, Putnam also brought out the risks and challenges of this new situation. As Martin Knoll’s contribution reminds us, Putnam points out that by having recourse to these sources in the transnational turn, “we risk overemphasizing that which connects, and underestimating the weight of that which is connected: emplaced structures, internal societal dynamics” (Putnam, 2016, p. 377-378).

Computer methods and historical research: problems of scale

14Easier access to information of various origin and type is not the only effect of the digital revolution. The daily use of computers of considerable power by the overwhelming majority of researchers in the geographical areas under consideration, as well as the spread and development of new software, raises the issue of the potential of these tools to ask new questions or answer old ones differently. In particular, a number of proposals have emerged in the last decades under the label of “digital humanities”. Despite the grandiose statements that sometimes accompanied the digital humanities, and in spite of the media coverage given to some projects, tools and methods, such as geographical information systems, software specialized for statistics, or text analysis / text mining programs, remain marginal practices, as shown for instance by the survey carried out by the American Historical Association in 2015 (Townsend, 2017). To what extent has tourism history exploited the potential of these various tools, and to what end? Has there been a genuine renewal of research questions and methods?

15It is worth pointing out first that the digital humanities do not offer a coherent and unified view of the future of the humanities. Without delving into the old issue of defining the “digital humanities”, we should take note of the various uses of the expression. On the one hand, some large-scale interdisciplinary projects, making extensive use of computational techniques, bore the label. On the other hand, for many researchers in the 2010s, the phrase did not refer to a specific set of methods, much less a discipline, but enabled the meeting between a wide variety of disciplines and brought about discussions on methodology and techniques, including more modest or individual practices. Indeed, spaces of experimentation opened up for these practices concerning research (methods and software), discussion (other forms of scholarly meetings than the traditional conference), and communication (blogs, research notebooks shared online, virtual exhibitions, social networks).

16These different scales of digital practice are reflected in the contributions in this special issue. The first type, which tends to impress, is precisely the large-scale interdisciplinary digital humanities project, mobilizing substantial financial resources and including collaborations between humanities scholars and computer scientists or engineers. They rely most often on the mass digitization of textual and iconographic documents, and frequently have ambitions of public history through the creation of publicly accessibly online platforms. A second type, on a financially more modest scale, resides in the disciplinary research project rooted, for instance, in history, literature, geography, or anthropology. Without excluding interdisciplinary collaborations, such research more rarely calls for highly complex digital methods needing the intervention of computer scientists. Finally, there are individual research projects, for instance doctoral dissertations.

17These problems of scale raise a whole series of concrete problems, often discussed by specialists of digital history or digital humanities and are echoed by the contributions gathered here. Interdisciplinarity features prominently in the reflections. Laurent Tissot considers that partnerships with other branches of knowledge, such as computer science, cartography, visual anthropology, linguistics, statistics, or économie territoriale, are indispensable for the carrying out of large digital humanities projects. Furthermore, according to Tissot, collaboration should not be seen as the provision of services but as a stimulating dialogue that enriches historical analysis. He concedes, however, that contact with computer scientists or engineers is not always easy, and that it does entail certain risks. In particular, the research process and questions might be conditioned and subordinated to the constraints and technical choices imposed by engineers, and thus escape the humanities researcher. Faced with the black boxes of large-scale projects, such as the Google Ngram Viewer mentioned above, others have argued for a “small digital”, whose implications are more easily understood and which can be deployed without large interdisciplinary teams (Hodel, 2013).

18These disciplinary- and individual-scale endeavours, where bringing in outside skills is rarely an option, present their own challenges. Mobilizing quantitative methods implies that historians acquire a certain level of training in computer tools and methods, with the risk, in the long term, of having to sacrifice the learning of more traditional qualitative methods and approaches (Battilani). Kevin James and Gavin Hughes, for their part, express concern about the financial stakes of developing large-scale digital humanities projects. They note that the magnitude of necessary funding far exceeds the financial standards of historical research, and they see this as a risk that historians become excluded from this promising and socially valued field.

When historiographical traditions affect the use of computer methods

19Besides diversity in the scale of projects, there is diversity in the use of computer methods according to research questions and the historiographical approaches. While historians take part in the discussions around the “digital humanities” mentioned above, they also refer to examples specific to the discipline, and increasingly speak of “digital history” (Salmi, 2021; Lässig, 2021).

  • 2 Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, “La fin des érudits. L’historien de demain sera programmeur ou ne sera pas (...)

20In fact, as mentioned, the use of computers in historical research to quantify and calculate, is not as new as it might appear. In France, for instance, the 1960s and 1970s saw an increasing interest in quantitative research, inter alia in the form of doctoral dissertations under the supervision of Ernest Labrousse (Lemercier and Zalc, 2008; Lejeune, 2021). The subtitle of a 1968 article by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, according to which “the historian of tomorrow will be a programmer or he will be nothing”2, is frequently quoted, as is François Furet’s 1971 assessment that “quantitative history is in fashion” (Furet, 1971, p. 63). Furthermore, the boundaries between history and other social sciences can be porous. The same 1960s-1970s saw the birth in the United States of a quantitative economic history, or more precisely econometric techniques applied to history, soon named “cliometrics” (Hudson, 2000).

21It is customary not only to recall these references, but also to remind the reader that historical research turned away from such methods in the 1980s. This disenchantment was partly due to a refusal of the significant degree of abstraction and disconnection from the richness of the sources implied by these approaches. This refusal was all the more founded in that this quantitative historiography did not always address satisfactorily the main challenges of these methods, such as the unreflective use of the categories found in the sources, or, conversely, excessively anachronistic categories, unclear definitions of the population (in the statistical sense of the word), danger of anachronism in long data series (Lemercier and Zalc, 2008). The rejection of these methods was certainly reinforced by irritation at the effusive discourse about history finally becoming scientific or objective. Both the discourse and the irritation are not without echoes nowadays (Spinney, 2019).

22While we should not lapse into technological determinism, given that a renewal of quantitative approaches long remained limited, it is, nevertheless, clear that the advent of personal computing and the concomitant development of spreadsheet software, of which Microsoft Excel is the most well-known representative, have contributed to changing the situation. Even for a relatively large number of entries, many quantitative tasks no longer required staff to be hired to punch cards or computing time to be reserved on machines managed by institutes and laboratories, as had been the case for the quantitative history of the 1960s-1970s. Furthermore, already existing data series were made available in digital form. In 2008, Claire Lemercier and Claire Zalc thus proposed that historians take up quantitative methods again, provided that they do so with caution and reflexivity (Lemercier and Zalc, 2008; see Lemercier and Zalc, 2019 for the English translation). In fact, the computing power now at the disposal of any historian, as well as the ability to easily and quickly create various data visualizations, greatly increased the heuristic gain from quantification. Indeed, charts and graphs, whether they represent a change over time or the situation at a given moment, allow us to pursue various goals: confirm or infirm research hypotheses; expose new research questions; enable a comparative approach; establish or test correlations between various evolutions; challenging historiographical myths (Humair and Gigase).

23The “digital humanities” partly constituted themselves against such traditions and renewals. For their part, they are less in discussion with sociology or economics. Indeed, the expression “digital humanities” itself reflects the anglophone distinction between the arts and humanities, on the one hand, and the sciences (natural sciences and social sciences) on the other. This runs counter to the idea of “human and social sciences” (e.g., sciences humaines et sociales) as a whole, common on the European continent, at least in French-speaking and German-speaking countries. This place of the “digital humanities” in the “humanities” as distinct from the social sciences affects which methods are most commonly discussed: they tend to keep statistics at a distance. The phrase “distant reading” can serve as an example, as it originates in contrast with “close reading”, a central method of literary criticism. Franco Moretti’s suggestion when he invents the expression “distant reading” is clearly intended to be provocative. The “little pact with the devil” he proposes in an oft-quoted passage, that of not reading texts (and quantifying instead their use of certain words or other features), makes sense because it is opposed to the “theological exercise” of reading very carefully texts of a “small canon” (Moretti, 2000, p. 57). However, this proposition, while very suggestive, loses some of its originality when it is transposed in history, where the idea of serializing and quantifying sources rather than (only) carefully reading a few paramount texts, is at least as old as the Annales school.

24These distinctions and associations are reflected in the contributions in this issue. While the economist Patrizia Battilani includes “cliometrics” in her overview, Martin Knoll considers, on the contrary, that the weakness of the relationships in Austria and Germany between the history of tourism and economic and social history might explain that there are few publications displaying a digital history of tourism. The presentation of the projects that exist in English-speaking countries focuses on endeavors far removed from economic and social history, and closer to fields such as literary studies (James and Hughes), while some of the studies discussed by Laurent Tissot pertain to cultural history and others to economic and social history.

The contribution of computer and quantitative methods to the history of tourism

25Let us turn to the concrete applications of computer methods in tourism history. While the use of statistical methods predates digitization, it remained relatively underdeveloped for a long time, inter alia because of methodological challenges of quantifying this sector (Tissot, 2003; Walton, 2014). But the same evolutions that have affected the whole discipline of history resulted, first, in a more systematic use of existing historical statistics for the analysis of tourism. In Switzerland, several publications have made it possible to highlight the macro-economic importance of the tourism sector over the long term (Püntener, 1994; Humair, 2011; Tissot and Moser, 2021). The same is true in Italy (Battilani et al., 2014; Incerpi, 2019). In Spain, the publications of the Tourism History Research Group have developed statistical approaches to better understand the economic evolutions of this industry (Vallejo and Larrinaga, 2018). However, historians of tourism are quickly confronted with the limitations of existing statistics. The lack of quantitative data is especially severe when the analysis deals with the 18th and 19th centuries. In such cases, it is necessary to reconstruct these figures using a variety of sources. As the Swiss Guestbook Project clearly illustrates, various types of touristic registries make it possible to estimate the number and characteristics of people traveling to a tourist location (Magnin and Vincent). The authors highlight the methodological challenges of such counts, as well as the considerable imprecision of results that must be interpreted with caution. Such circumspection is praiseworthy, whether it results from the background of the authors in disciplines (English literature and history) that pay attention to details and particular cases, or whether it results from taking into account critical discussions among proponents of quantitative methods on the construction of statistics (Ruiz, 2015a). Nevertheless, the reconstructed statistics of visitors by nationality in Zermatt and Chamonix in the 1860s are of great value. They reveal among other things an early and significant presence of tourists from the American continent. Along the same lines, we should note Michael Heafford’s studies that make use of Geneva’s passport registries to estimate the number of English tourists on the continent in the 1830s (Heafford, 2006, 2021).

26The press, when its digitization is combined with OCR, has also enabled interesting quantitative approaches. In Spain, the Tourism History Research Group has constructed an index of media intensity for the word “tourism” based on the number of occurrences in the digitized press of the period 1900-1936 (Vallejo et al., 2016; Vallejo, 2021). This index pinpoints the beginning of media interest in tourism and the tourism industry. Using digitized medical journals, Roberta Limongi extracted announcements of scientific conferences held between 1840 and 1860 in Italy and in Great Britain, which allowed her to build a database concerning 130 conferences. In doing so, she underlines the importance of congress tourism as far back as the mid-19th century (Battilani). Another very illuminating quantitative approach is a study of land management in the Swiss resort of Champéry (Lorenzetti and Delmenico, 2017). It relies on the recording of 1,023 real estate transactions between 1874 and 1969, which were identified in notarial archives. In particular, it enables a periodization of the sales by showing how exchanges accelerated in the 1950s in line with the development of winter sports infrastructures. Furthermore, the study identifies a core group of a few families who owned the land and shaped its management. Finally, the contribution on tourism in the Lake Geneva region between 1852 and 1914 suggests many avenues for reconstructing statistical series (Humair and Gigase). These include quantifying hotels thanks to local and regional directories, creating an economic index on the basis of the number of passengers of tourist transport companies, and estimating the profitability of capital thanks to financial journals that publish stock market prices and the dividends of touristic companies.

27In addition to the renewal of statistical approaches, digitization has led to significant advances in the analysis of the spatial dimension of tourism. Historical geographic information systems (GIS and HGIS) make it possible, for instance, to create spatial visualizations based on georeferencing. Various types of spatiality have been studied thanks to such systems. In the history of hotels, one Belgian and one Italian dissertation have been written on the spatial development of hotels in the cities of Milan and Brussels (Geronimo, 2008; Jourdain, 2011). Such approaches also make it possible to trace the trajectories of tourists. Relying mainly on guestbooks, one historian has analyzed transnational tourist flows around the Baltic Sea in the 19th century (Antons, 2021). The conclusion he draws relativizes the importance of transport infrastructures for directing tourist flows and brings cultural and climatic factors to the fore.

28Cartography software has also been used in several large-scale digital humanities projects such as Mapping the Lakes and Deep Map, the goal of which is to link digitized textual sources, in this case travelogues, to a map and to pictures allowing the landscapes traversed to be envisioned (James and Hughes). Relatively similar approaches were adopted in digital humanities projects in Switzerland (Tissot). Developed at the University of Lausanne, the Viaticalpes and Viatimages platforms offer digital journeys through time and space in the Alps. Maps are also used in the project of digitizing sources and photographs that document the journeys of the Swiss doctor and mountaineer, Jules Jacot-Guillarmod. Finally, relying on digitized guidebooks, one article deals with the globalization of tourism and offers a long-term analysis of the development of tourism on a global scale (Antonescu).

29Another very important contribution of the process of digitization to the history of tourism pertains to the analysis of actors. Besides the multiplication of online biographical dictionaries and genealogy websites, the digitization of sources and the refinement of database software offer invaluable tools for prosopographical analysis. For instance, the digitized press has been an essential resource underlying the prosopography of the pioneers of Spanish travel agencies (Larrinaga). The biographical database Biolemano, for its part, enables the analysis of almost 1,700 actors of the touristic system of the Franco-Swiss region of Lake Geneva between 1852 and 1914 (Chiarelli and Lapointe Guigoz). Its search features make it possible to select samples of actors and to analyze them according to various research questions. It has already been used for a study of the financial actors of regional tourism, which shed light on the close relationships maintained by touristic companies with the banking sector (Humair and Chiarelli, 2021). Even more significantly, this tool has enabled a comprehensive analysis of the regional tourism system, highlighting the importance of lesser-known actors, such as engineers, doctors, and women hoteliers (Humair and Chiarelli, 2023). The Grand Tour Project is another emblematic example of what new technology offers for analyzing touristic actors (James and Hughes). First, it presents a prosopographical analysis of architects who undertook this educational journey, identifying and mapping their destinations (Ceserani et al., 2017). Second, this research uses network analysis to identify relationships between travellers. We should note that this type of analysis does not seem to have gained much currency among specialists of tourism history, even though it certainly is one of the most talked-about digital methods.3

30The same can be said of a range of other quantitative methods that have flourished in other human and social sciences, or in other fields of historical research, starting with the “distant reading” of corpora of textual sources. The contributions in this special issue only mention one research project making use of such a method (Tissot). This Swiss study examines the vocabulary of the Swiss Alpine Club journals (Gutknecht and Mathieu, 2020). Its authors analyze the terminology used to describe the mountains over the long term (1864-2014) and question whether the representation of this space has changed. In particular, they reflect on the gradual disappearance of the notion of the “sublime”. Finally, the complete absence of more complex quantitative methods is noteworthy, for instance, factor analysis or regressions, tools of choice in sociology and econometrics that are also, if more rarely, used in history (Mercklé and Zalc, 2018).

The internet and public history: revolutionizing relationships between research and society

31The potential of digital tools and the social and geographic spread of the internet have completely transformed the relationship between historians and the public. Indeed, communicating research results has benefited from various developments that we cannot delve into here. First, the internet and the web have multiplied the potential consumers of popularized historical content. Second, digital tools have made content more attractive, not only allowing textual sources to be systematically combined with visual ones, but also allowing the public to interact with historical material. As far as tourism history is concerned, this attractiveness is further reinforced by the characteristics of the object of study. Indeed, studying this history is also traveling in time and in space, admiring landscapes, or appreciating the architecture and the decor of dreamy palaces. Reading a travelogue and crossing the Alps in a stagecoach can feel a little like embarking on an adventure and discovering the world…

32This new technological and communicational context has generated much enthusiasm for the popularization of the history of tourism and travel, in particular. Firstly, researchers increasingly try to communicate the results of their projects on dedicated web pages, in a form more or less adapted to a wide audience. Secondly, we witness a multiplication of research projects that take considerations of public history into account from the start. This trend seems particularly pronounced in English-speaking countries (James and Hughes). Thirdly, those involved in cultural tourism, such as museums, libraries, and tourism associations, express an increasing interest in a popularized form of tourism history as entertainment, and some produce it themselves on their web sites (Knoll).

33The main advantage of this profusion is that it provides a showcase for tourism history research. It also brings a wealth of material online, some of which can be used by researchers. One should, however, also take note of more negative consequences for historical research. Most importantly, the goals of basic research and those of public history can be at odds. Should the research questions be phrased based on their presumed interest for a wide audience? How can a balance be struck between historical complexity, as revealed by an investigation, and its simplified and playful presentation on a website? To what extent should the historical reality described be distorted to make it more understandable and attractive for a wide audience? The allocation of financial resources is also a question worth reflecting on. Will large-scale public history projects not secure more public funding at the expense of more specialized but less attractive research? How can the long-term maintenance of websites dedicated to research projects that are themselves limited in time be funded?

Reviewing the overviews: promising perspectives and significant obstacles

34Based on the contributions in this special issue, this overview shows that the general process of digital transformation of historical research has also strongly affected the specific field of tourism history. In fact, every single step of research has been affected to some extent: finding information, analyzing, communicating results. Moreover, computer and quantitative methods have not only concerned large-scale interdisciplinary digital humanities projects, but have also spread to both collective and individual disciplinary projects.

35The adoption of these new approaches has led to significant progress in answering some research questions and has shed light on several previously obscure aspects of tourism. One of the most important results is a better quantification of tourism as an economic sector on a national, regional, and local scale. Another important contribution resides in the analysis of various spatialities at play in the practice of tourism: tourist flows, origins of customers, locations of the hotels, geography of tourism development. Additionally, historians have gained a deeper knowledge of the actors involved in the touristic development. Moreover, tourism history has emerged as an important field for public history, with the creation of several online platforms about historical traveling.

36That said, the contributions also underline that the degree of adoption of new quantitative and computer methods is very relative. The review of the developments in the German-speaking countries even speaks of “trace amounts” (“quantité négligeable”). The same observation also led to the omission of a review for French-speaking countries, justified by the insufficient material to be dealt with. This raises a number of questions that are difficult to answer. The first concerns geographical or linguistic differences. The contributions suggest that digital approaches are more developed in the anglophone countries, where several major projects have been carried out. The publication of a first review of the field in the Journal of Tourism History would seem to confirm this observation. If developments on the Continent are actually coming later or more slowly, does this situation result from a simple time lag that will be overcome, or should it be explained by more structural causes linked to the organization of scientific disciplines, university administration, or funding mechanisms? Another difference that should be taken into account is the disciplinary background or the thematic orientation of historians of tourism: the influence, or lack thereof, of social and economic history, might play a role, given that it is a traditional promoter of quantitative methods. Secondly, one wishes to ask about the periodization of the adoption of the new methods. The contributions do not make it possible to identify a clear temporal break or moment that would mark the beginning of an increase in computer and quantitative techniques. Nor is the generational question discussed by the reviews: are younger historians more knowledgeable about these methods?

37On the other hand, the contributions make it possible to provide an admittedly partial answer to a third question, that of the causes of the limited use of such approaches in the history of tourism. Indeed, the articles gathered here point out and discuss a whole series of limitations and methodological challenges. A first challenge, discussed in several contributions, is the way sources resist encoding the information in a way that supports “distant reading” or geolocalisation. In some cases, it is simply impossible to apply the new technologies because of the poor quality of a source or handwriting (Magnin and Vincent). In other cases, the encoding and/or the poor OCR result in weak reliability of the data and consequently of search results. The changes in the names of places and in spelling create, for their part, major problems for georeferencing software (Antonescu). Because of such difficulties, it can be necessary to enter data manually or to systematically check the data gathered by automatic means. The resulting expenditure of time, energy and money raises the question of the relevance of the whole operation. In a research project, these efforts can indeed come at the expense of a qualitative reading of sources that is often essential to the analysis. It can thus be difficult to employ qualitative and quantitative methods concurrently and complementarily. Finally, at a certain degree of complexity, the use of these methods undeniably requires relatively specialized technical and mathematical skills, despite the existence of dedicated software programs. It is not always easy to acquire these skills. When an interdisciplinary approach is required, two obstacles can prove quite discouraging: the need to secure larger funding than usual for research projects in the humanities; the collaboration with computer engineers or statisticians, which might constrain research questions, or at least complicate the management of the project.

38We should bear in mind that, like any new technology in its relationships with society, the digital revolution thus presents advantages and disadvantages, which have to be dealt with collectively and individually. Universities and institutions must adapt their research management to the new digital reality and allow researchers to appropriate these new tools in order to improve the quality of their work. Moreover, historians must be aware of the epistemological pitfalls of a shift towards purely quantitative studies or an unskilled use of these methods. They must also confront the domination of the disciplines specialized in the digital and refuse to subordinate their research and questions to technical or financial imperatives, or to the pursuit of popular success.

39Beyond these concerns, one last theme is missing from this special issue yet deserves consideration. The contributions do not question the environmental footprint of digital history practices. Generally speaking, greenhouse gases related to digital technologies are on the increase, and this issue also affects historical research as a whole, including the growing reliance on online sources and resources. While some practitioners of the digital humanities have publicly called for the matter to be taken up (Baillot et al., 2021), it remains little explored. The problem is particularly acute for large-scale projects that make use of large computing power and advanced computational methods (e.g., machine learning), operations that require a lot of electricity. It would therefore be important to question the benefits of these endeavours in relation to their environmental consequences.

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Nicolas Chachereau et Cédric Humair, « Computer and quantitative methods in tourism history: contributions and limitations »Mondes du Tourisme [En ligne], 24 | 2023, mis en ligne le 15 décembre 2023, consulté le 28 mai 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Nicolas Chachereau

Assistant-postdoc, département d’histoire, Université de Bâle
Collaborateur scientifique, École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne

Cédric Humair

Maître d’enseignement et de recherche, section d’histoire, Université de Lausanne

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