Tourism affects the lives of an increasing number of people across the world and has been growing and diversifying immensely since the turn of the 21st century. Anthropological approaches to tourism have also expanded from the early contributions of the 1970s, which tended to focus on the nature of tourism and its “impact” on peripheral host communities. These first interventions see anthropologists theorizing tourism as a “secular ritual,” studying its workings as a process of “acculturation,” and countering macroeconomic views of tourism’s potential for the economic development of peripheral societies by underscoring instead its neocolonial and imperialist features. Tourism is linked to the exacerbation of center-periphery dependencies, seen as an agent of cultural commoditization and responsible for the promotion and dissemination of stereotypical images of people and places. Moving beyond the impact paradigm, which has the disadvantage of portraying tourism as an external, disembedded, and imposed force on a passive population, constructivist approaches highlight its creative appropriations and integral role in the reinvention of culture and traditions. Anthropologists pay attention to the varied range of actors and agencies involved in tourism, accounting for the multi-scalar dimensions of this phenomenon and the uneven circulation of images, discourses, and resources it engenders.
Tourism exerts a powerful global influence on how alterity and difference are framed and understood in the contemporary world and contributes to the valorization and dissemination of particular views of culture, identity, and heritage. Tourism is increasingly intertwined with processes of heritage-making, whose study helps advance anthropological reflections on cultural property, material culture, and the memorialization of the past. A key source of livelihood for a growing number of people worldwide, tourism is also becoming more and more associated with development projects in which applied anthropologists are also enrolled as experts and consultants. The study of the tourism-development nexus continues to be a key area of theoretical innovation and has helped advance anthropological debates on North–South relations, dominant responses to poverty and inequality, and their entanglements with neoliberal forms of governance.
Given its diffuse and distributed character, tourism and touristification have been approached as forms of ordering that affect and restructure an ever-growing range of entities, and whose effects are increasingly difficult to tease out from concomitant societal processes. The ubiquitous implementations of tourism policies and projects, the influx of tourists, and the debates, reactions, and resistances these generate underscore, however, the importance of uncovering the ways tourism and its effects are being concretely identified, invoked, acted upon, and confronted by its various protagonists. Research on tourism has the potential to contribute to disciplinary debates on many key areas and notions of concern for anthropology. Culture, ethnicity, identity, alterity, heritage, mobility, labor, commerce, hospitality, intimacy, development, and the environment are among the notions and domains increasingly affected and transformed by tourism. The study of tourism helps understand how such transformations occur, uncovering their features and orientations, while also shedding light on the societal struggles that are at stake in them. The analysis of past and current research shows the scope of the theoretical and methodological debates and of the realms of intervention to which anthropological scholarship on tourism can contribute.