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Cohen’s tourist typology- The 4 major types of tourists

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(Last updated on: 18/04/2022)

Cohen’s tourist typology was one of the first major typologies developed in the travel and tourism space. If you are studying travel and tourism, you will probably be introduced to Cohen’s tourist typology at some point (and that’s probably why you are here now!). If you are wondering what this tourist typology is all about and how Cohen categorised his four major types of tourists, then you have come to the right place… read on….

Who is Erik Cohen?

Erik Cohen is an Emeritus Professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Erik focuses his research in Social Anthropology, Sociological Theory and Tourism Studies. Erik is most well known for his work on tourist typologies published in the 1970s.

What is Cohen’s tourist typology?

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Cohen’s tourist typology is a model that aims to categorise tourists into different types. Cohen’s theory is well known as being the first to attempt to categorise types of tourists. Cohen derived this theory on the types of tourists based on his knowledge of sociology and anthropology and applied it to the context of tourism, he is not necessary a tourism specialist. Cohen’s theory was first published in 1972 in his article entitles ‘Towards a Sociology of International Tourism’.

Whilst a lot has clearly changed in the tourism industry since the 1970, Cohen’s tourist typology has continued to be used as a guide for understanding the different types of tourists throughout the years by academics and tourism industry professionals.

Cohen’s types of tourists

The types of tourists identified by Cohen in his typology are based on a continuum- a spectrum that allows tourists to be placed at some point between the familiar and the novel. Essentially, Cohen teaches us that there are many different types of tourists, some who seek familiar experiences (such as familiar food chains, branded accommodation options that they know or languages that they can speak), others who seek entirely new experiences (new cultures, new locations, new languages etc) and those who fall somewhere in between.

types of tourists. Cohen's tourist typology

In Cohen’s tourist typology there are two groups of tourists- the institutionalised tourists and the noninstitutionalised tourists. Lets take a look at what these are-

Institutionalised tourists

Cohen describes institutionalised tourism as the organised mass tourism. This is the tourism industry that is designed to make the tourist experience as smooth and as organised as possible. There are a number of tourism agents involved with institutionalised tourism, such as travel agents, tour operators and tourism resorts. Institutionalised tourists experience novelty with the comforts of the familiar.

Noninstitutionalised tourists

Cohen’s noninstitutionalised tourists are the opposite of institutionalised tourists. These types of tourists do not seek the commodified products and services that the mass tourism industry provides, instead, the institutionalised tourist seek deep immersive and experiential travel experiences that cannot be obtained through institutionalised tourism. These types of tourists travel independently and are often in search of adventure, the new and the unfamiliar and authenticity.

Cohen’s tourist typology- 4 types of tourists

Cohen breaks down his tourist typology further, suggesting that there are four main types of tourists:

  • The Drifter
  • The Explorer
  • The Individual Mass Tourist
  • The Organised Mass Tourist

The first two types of tourists (the Drifter and the Explorer) are deemed noninstitutionalised tourists and the latter two (The Individual Mass Tourist and the Organised Mass Tourist) are examples of institutionalised tourists. Now, lets take a deeper a deeper look at what each of these four types of tourists are…

types of tourists. Cohen's tourist typology

The Drifter

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The Drifter is the type of tourist that is least connected with the mass tourism industry. Drifters typically have an authentic and deep immersive experience, opting for staying with members of the local community rather than in hotels and spending their time in the local community. They seek adventure and plan their own itineraries. This type of tourist always opts for novelty over familiarity- you won’t see a Drifter eating in McDonalds or shopping in Zara!

The Explorer

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This type of tourist is similar to a Drifter in that they seek novelty over the familiar, however Explorers do often have a little more interaction with the commodities associated with the tourism industry. For example, an Explorer may travel independently and enjoy an immersive cultural experience, but they may rest their head on a hotel pillow at the end of the day. This type of tourist will generally eat and shop local, but don’t be surprised if they enjoy a Big Mac from time to time too.

The Individual Mass Tourist

In Cohen’s tourist typology the Individual Mass Tourist seeks the familiar. This type of tourist wants familiar food, they want to be able to communicate in a familiar language and they want to stay in types of accommodation that they are familiar with. However, the Individual Mass Tourist is not constrained by the likes of group tours and activities- yes, they may book their holiday through a travel or use a local tour guide, but they will typically opt for solo travel over group tours.

The Organised Mass Tourist

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The last of the types of tourists outlined in Cohen’s tourist typology is the Organised Mass Tourist. The Organised Mass Tourist seeks the familiar in the same way that the The Individual Mass Tourist does, however, they tend to do this as part of an organised group. This type of tourist seeks the familiar over novelty every time and they are often found with tour guides and undertaking group tours. The Organised Mass Tourist will generally have an itinerary or a plan and they will stick to it.

Why is Cohen’s tourist typology beneficial?

Whilst we can easily criticise this theory for being too generalised and for accounting for the specific and the individual, there is no questioning that it does have real-world value. By better understanding the different types of tourists tourism businesses and tourism industry stakeholders can better provide for the tourists- they can tailor their products and services better, they can understand the tourist demands and desires and they can help to improve the overall quality of the tourism provision that is offered to particular tourists.

There are many academic studies which utilise Cohen’s tourist typology as a means to understanding particular issues within the tourism industry, you can see one example here.

Types of tourists- further reading

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