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Leiper’s Tourism System: A simple explanation

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Leiper’s Tourism System is a basic conceptualisation of the structure of the tourism industry. It is one of the most widely accepted and most well-known models used in tourism research when attempting to understand the tourism system.

Many tourism students will learn about Leiper’s Tourism System towards the beginning of their studies alongside the history of tourism and the importance of tourism. Many people working within the industry learn about Leiper’s Tourism System in order to underpin and inform their operational plans.

But what is Leiper’s Tourism System? In this article I will tell you about who Leiper was, why he was a credible scholar (and why people listen(ed) to him) and how his Tourism System model works in the context of tourism management.

Who was Leiper?

Neil Leiper was an Australian tourism scholar who died in February 2010. His work was extremely influential and continues to be well cited throughout the tourism literature.

Leiper has four major areas in which he focussed his research: tourism systems, partial industrialisation, tourist attraction systems and strategy. It is his work on tourism systems that I will discuss in this post.

Leiper’s research was identified as having a significant influence on travel and tourism academic literature, as well as the conceptualisation of tourism as a discipline. This applies to both research and educational contexts.

Leiper was famed for the connections that he made between theory and strategy, which helped to bridge the gap between theory, policy and practice.

You can read more about Neil Leiper and his academic contributions in this paper.

Leiper's Tourism System

Why was Leiper’s Tourism System developed?

Discussions about what tourism is and how tourism is defined have been ongoing for many years.

Leiper’s contribution to the debate was to adopt a systems approach towards understanding tourism.

Leiper (1979) defined tourism as:

‘…the system involving the discretionary travel and temporary stay of persons away from their usual place of residence for one or more nights, excepting tours made for the primary purpose of earning remuneration from points en route. The elements of the system are tourists, generating regions, transit routes, destination regions and a tourist industry. These five elements are arranged in spatial and functional connections. Having the characteristics of an open system, the organization of five elements operates within broader environments: physical, cultural, social, economic, political, technological with which it interacts.’

Rather than viewing each part of the tourism system as independent and separate, Leiper’s definition was intended to allow for the understanding of destinations, generating areas, transit zones, the environment and flows within the context of a wider tourism system.

In essence, therefore, Leiper’s Tourism System was developed to encourage people to view tourism as an interconnected system, and to make relevant assessments, decisions, developments etc based upon this notion.

Leiper’s Tourism System – how does it work?

So now that we understand who Neil Leiper was (and that he was a credible tourism scholar), lets take a deeper look at his Tourism System.

Leiper's Tourism System

In the diagram above you can see the way in which Leiper depicted tourism as being a system.

Leiper did not want people to view each part of the tourism industry as being separate and independent, because it is not. Rather, each component of tourism is closely interrelated.

This means that each part of the system relies strongly upon other parts in order to function properly.

Lets take an unrelated example of a car engine. If one part of the engine isn’t working properly, the car won’t run efficiently or may not run at all…

Lets put this into the context of travel and tourism. If the airline isn’t running flights to a destination, then the hotel will have no business. And if there are no available hotels in the destination, then people will not book flights there.

Now, this is a very simplistic example, but hopefully that helps to provide a clearer picture of how the ‘tourism system’ is interconnected.

The basic elements of Leiper’s Tourism System

There are three major elements in Leiper’s Tourism System: the tourists, the geographical features and the tourism industry.

The Tourists

The tourist is the actor in Leiper’s tourism system. They move around the tourism system, consuming various elements along the way.

The geographical features

In Leiper’s tourism system he identifies three major geographical features: the traveller generating region, the tourist destination region and the tourist transit region.

I will explain which each of these geographical features means short.

The tourism industry

The tourism industry is, of course, at the heart of the tourism system. All of the parts that make up the structure of tourism, are found within the tourism system.

The geographical features of Leiper’s Tourism System model

Leiper identifies three main geographical regions in his tourism system. These are visually depicted in the diagram above.

I will explain what each of the geographical features mean below.

The traveller generating region

The traveller generating region is the destination in which the tourist comes from.

Exactly what this means, is not entirely clear. Does it mean the departure airport? The home country? The area of the world? The home town? Well in part, I think that this depends on the nature of the tourism that is taking place.

If, for example, a person is taking a domestic holiday, then their home town will almost certainly be classified as the ‘traveller generating region’.

However, when we travel further away, the precise details of our home locations become less important. For example, you may refer instead to the country or district in which you live. Or you may simply refer to the country.

For example, if I were to travel to Spain, I may refer to my traveller generating region as the United Kingdom.

Similarly, sometimes we refer to areas of the world. This is especially the case with travellers from Asia. Some countries in Asia (such as China) are substantial tourist generating regions. Rightly or wrongly, however, the traveller destination region is often given the vague description of simply being ‘Asia’.

Within the traveller generating region there are many components of tourism.

Here you will often find stakeholders in tourism such as travel agents and tour operators, who promote outbound or domestic tourism.

The tourist destination region

The tourist destination region can largely be described in the same vain.

In Leiper’s tourism system, the tourism destination region is the area that the tourist is visiting.

This could be a small area, such as a village or tourist resort. For example, Bentota in Sri Lanka or Dahab in Egypt.

The tourist destination region could be an entire province. For example, Washington State.

Likewise, it could be a country, such as Jordan. Or it could even be an area of the World, such as The Middle East.

In the tourist destination region you will find many components of tourism. Here you will likely find hotels, tourist attractions, tourist information centres etc.

The tourist transit region

The last geographical region identified in Leiper’s Tourism System is the tourist transit region.

The tourist transit region is the space between when the tourist leaves the traveller generating region and when they arrive at the tourist destination region. This is effectively the time that they are in transit.

The tourist transit region is largely made up of transport infrastructure. This could be by road, rail, air or sea. It involves a large number of transport operators as well as the organisations that work within them, such as catering establishments (think Burger King at the airport).

The tourist transit region is an integral part of Leiper’s Tourism System.

The benefits of Leiper’s Tourism System

There are many benefits of Leiper’s tourism system.

Leiper’s model allows for a visual depiction of the tourism system. The model is relatively simple, enabling the many to comprehend and use this model.

Leiper’s Tourism System model has been widely cited within the academic literature and widely taught within tourism-based programmes at universities and colleges for many years.

The way in which this model demonstrates that the different parts of the tourism industry are interrelated and dependent upon each other provides scope for better planning and development of tourism.

The disadvantages of Leiper’s Tourism System

There are, however, also some disadvantages to Leiper’s Tourism System model.

Whilst the simplicity of this model can be seen as advantageous, as it means that it can be understood by the many rather than the few, it can be argued that it is too simple.

Because the model is so simple, it is subject to interpretation, which could result in different people understanding it in different ways – I demonstrated when I discussed what ‘region’ meant.

Leiper developed this model back in 1979 and a lot has changed in travel and tourism since then. Take, for example, the use of the Internet.

Lets say that a person lives in Italy and books a trip to Thailand through an online travel agent who is based in the USA. Where in the model does the travel agent fit? Because they have little place in either the traveller generating region or the tourist destination region….

The post-modern tourism industry is not accounted for in this model, thus it can be argued that it is limited in scope because it is outdated.

Likewise, this model fails to address the way in which the tourism system is actually part of a network of interrelated systems. What about the agriculture sector? Or the construction industry? Or the media? All of these areas play an essential role in [feeding, building, promoting] tourism, but they are not represented in the model.

To conclude

Leiper’s Tourism System is a key part of the foundation literature in travel and tourism.

It provides a good representation of the way that the many parts of the tourism industry work together as a system, rather than individually. However, it fails to account for many of the complexities of the industry and its ties with associated industries.

Nonetheless, this is an interesting model that is widely applicable both in an academic and practical sense.

If you would like to learn more about the fundamentals of the travel and tourism industry, I have listed some key texts below.

Further reading

  • An Introduction to Tourism: a comprehensive and authoritative introduction to all facets of tourism including: the history of tourism; factors influencing the tourism industry; tourism in developing countries; sustainable tourism; forecasting future trends.
  • The Business of Tourism Management: an introduction to key aspects of tourism, and to the practice of managing a tourism business.
  • Tourism Management: An Introduction: gives its reader a strong understanding of the dimensions of tourism, the industries of which it is comprised, the issues that affect its success, and the management of its impact on destination economies, environments and communities.

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