What is tourism? A definition of tourism

Apr 4, 2019 | Learn about tourism, Tourism management

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(Last updated on: 29/09/2020)

Whilst most of us have been tourists at some point during our lives, you might find yourself asking ‘what is tourism?’ or ‘what is the definition of tourism’?

A definition of tourism

Having studied, worked in and taught tourism management for many years (see-about Hayley Stainton), I can tell you that there is no straight-cut answer to this question!

The tourism industry is argued to be the largest industry in the world, providing more employment than any other industry. Note, however, the use of the word ‘argued’. You see, the tourism industry is somewhat grey in nature. Elements that some may consider ‘tourism’, others may not. Some people believe they are ‘tourists’, when others do not. Some things are black and white, and others are not.

In this post I will explain why there is no simple explanation in answer to the question ‘what is tourism?’. I will explain the diversity of the tourism industry and provide a range of definitions of tourism that have been developed by academics and practitioners.

Read also: Types of Tourism: A Glossary

What is tourism?

Tourism is the generic term used to cover both demand and supply that has been adopted in a variety of forms and used throughout the world. 

Tourism essentially refers to the activities undertaken by visitors, also known as the visitor economy. The tourism industry encompasses all activity that takes place within the visitor economy.

This includes activities that are directly related to the tourist, such as staying in a hotel, ordering a meal or visiting a tourist attraction. It also includes indirect activities, such as the transport company which delivers the food to the restaurant in which the tourist eats or the laundry company that has a contract with the hotel for cleaning bed sheets.

It is largely due to the indirect contributions to tourism, that defining and measuring the tourism industry is so difficult!

Tourism comes in many different shapes and sizes and there are many different types of tourism. There is mass tourism, niche tourism and special interest tourism. There is domestic tourism and international tourism. There is inbound tourism and outbound tourism.

Whilst there is a range of different forms of tourism, they all come under the broad tourism umbrella, nonetheless. This is because they all revolve around visitors and they all feed the visitor economy in one way or another.

A definition of tourism

A definition of tourism

Tourism is a phenomenon with no universally accepted definition, owing to the complexity and individualism of the travellers themselves and the activities that they choose to undertake.

The most widely utilised definition of tourism, proposed by the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and United States (UN) Nations Statistics Division (1994), prescribes that in order to qualify as a tourist one must travel and remain in a place outside of their usual residential environment for not more than one consecutive year for leisure, business or other purposes.

Matheison and Wall (1982) on the other hand, do not impose a timeframe, simply stating that one must travel to a destination temporarily.

Leiper (1979) believed that defining tourism is more complex than this, proposing that there are three approaches that can be taken. The economic stance focuses on tourism as a business, the technical stance focusses on the tourist in order to provide a common basis by which to collect data and the holistic stance attempts to include the entire essence of the subject.

The Cambridge Dictionary define tourism quite simply as; ‘the business of providing services such as transport, places to stay or entertainment for people who are on holiday’.

Whilst such attempts to define the concept of tourism may be useful from a generic perspective, the practical application of such definitions is difficult when applied to specific tourism types, such as those outlined in this post outlining the different types of tourism.

In fact, Robinson and Novelli (2007), in their introduction to the niche tourism phenomena, postulate that tourists have developed as consumers, becoming increasingly sophisticated in their needs and preferences as a result of an emergent culture of tourism.

Despite such acknowledgements of the progressive and adaptive nature of tourism, particularly evident through the limitless introduction of new and niche tourism forms, there appear to have been no attempts to develop the commonly accepted definitions of tourism in parallel.

As such, I would argue that there is a need the definition of tourism to be revisited by academics and industry practitioner, to ensure that it is representative of the tourism industry that operates today.

How would you define the term tourism?

For more information on what makes up the tourism industry, I recommend the key text Tourism: Principles and Practice by John Fletcher, available from Amazon here.

  1. vahid shokoohi

    I do agree with you, there is no simple explanation about Tourism but the only thing that everyone believes is that the Tourism industry would be the biggest one in the near future.

    • Sinovuyo Mgcwaba

      According to me, I can define Tourism as the movement or travel of people from one place to another for some specific reasons.

  2. Vladimir filipovic

    It is basically very simple the problem is THE POINT of view and the understanding that “only change is constant in this world” also the definition changes as fast as the actors in tourism change …. to day the best definition for tourism is “The sum of the phenomena and relationships meeting the expectations of the environment through images posted on social networks” …. “tomorrow” will be different VIRTUAL EXPERIENCE is NEXT step in TOURISM and it will be 100% eco friendly . TIME-SPACE is reducing the world is smaller and one day soon tourists will want it all and now….

    • Hayley

      Interesting perspective!



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Hi, am Dr Hayley Stainton

I’ve been travelling, studying and teaching travel and tourism since I was 16. Through Tourism Teacher I share my knowledge on the principles and practice of travel and tourism management from both an academic and practical perspective.

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