Critical Pioneers: The Short Interviews Season – 6. Thiago Allis

During June and July 2021, the Northern Notes Blog, a blog published by the School of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Leeds is recruiting international scholars who have published a book or a collection of academic papers in the field of tourism mobilities and critical tourism analysis. By both endorsing critical theoretical scholarship and inviting innovation and critiques of critique, this summer the Northern Notes Blog invites cross and trans-disciplinary dialogue in tourism analysis.

Interviewed scholar: Thiago Allis, Assistant Professor in Leisure and Tourism, School of Arts, Sciences and Humanities (EACH-USP), University of São Paulo (thiagoallis@usp.br).

Theme of interview: Tourism, cities and justice

(In)justicias urbanas, ciudades (in)justas: Políticas urbanas, mercantilización y turistificación en ciudades de América Latina y España.

What is the central argument in the co-authored book you chose to discuss today on Northern Notes?

This book is the corollary of 4 years of academic collaboration undertaken by scholars from Brazil, Argentina, Spain and Mexico, under the scope of the Iberoamerican Universities Group (or UIU, from the acronym either in Portuguese or Spanish). A series of conferences and academic meetings took place in Madrid, São Paulo and Buenos Aires, gathering young and senior scholars who had the opportunity to present their research and become acquainted with a wide range of urban contexts.

Although the scholars in charge of the project – Thiago Allis (Brazil), Victor Delgadillo (Mexico), Guillermo Jajamovich (Argentina), Marc Pradel (Spain), Manuel de la Calle Vaquero (Spain) and Maria Velasco (Spain) – come from different disciplines (political science, geography, sociology, urban studies, history), they all have in common a strong focus on urban issues and specifically tourism.

However, tourism is not necessarily the central topic of all contributions in this book. The book has 17 chapters in total, and each of them delivers reflections on topics that make tourism happen in urban contexts: public policies, heritage, urban economies, planning principles, housing market, and social movements, among others.

Therefore, tourism is not treated as an isolated economic activity; instead, the purpose of the book is to look at processes of touristification in combination with urban issues – something particularly important in the book’s third part (Touristification and urban conflicts). The other two parts of the book cover, most specifically, public policies from a local perspective and by examining the nature and effect of commodification in several Spanish (Alicante, Barcelona, Madrid, Zaragoza) and Latin-American cities (Armação de Búzios, Bogotá, Buenos Aires, Mexico City, Quito, São Paulo). Despite the enthusiasm of policy makers, such processes often have adverse impacts on the basic needs of urban citizens, who live at the bottom of the social pyramid. Therefore, not rarely, they spark conflicts, sometimes more visible, such as the “Tourists Go Home” grassroots movements; at other times these conflicts are placed under the discrete veil of the day-to-day urban dynamic.

Urban tourism per se is something under analysis in academia for at least five decades – see, for instance, the founding contributions from Douglas G. Pearce (Pearce, 1981), Sir Gregory Ashworth (Ashworth, 1989) or Christopher M. Law (Law, 1992). By not being treated as a market segment, as any others, touristification requires accurate analysis from the perspective of on-going urban studies. This is indeed one of the main contributions of this book to tourism and mobilities studies likewise.

What is, in your opinion, your work’s most important contribution to tourism studies?

We are discussing the intertwining of tourism and urbanity in the contemporary world in a critical, multidisciplinary and multi-situated perspective.

However, in doing so, the chapters do not threaten tourism as an applied group of social and economic activities. This is a tricky point, because every scholar – especially those in the social sciences – is expected to be critical on the topics he/she is researching. Nevertheless, when it comes to tourism studies there is also a need for an applied approach since tourism is regarded as an autonomous economic sector more than a research topic: this is where most of the students will work professionally after finishing their studies.

In this book, the authors touch upon several aspects of urban life in regard to tourism, bringing to the discussion a list of markers that go beyond the typical marketing approach. Our approach goes beyond that of “planning and selling” a “tourist city”; instead, we search for the tools that have to be mobilized in order to critically understand the multiple combinations of applied and conceptual elements in the development of urban tourism.

In fact, urban tourism is a category of analysis that, from an epistemological perspective, encompasses several theoretical approaches, methodological choices, and analytical entries. This diversity – or multidisciplinary scope – is deemed to be a promising starting point for tourism studies. For many tourism schools around the globe, where future practitioners or researchers are trained, it is crucial to accept this analytical diversity for the sake of the capacity to act and perform wisely in complex contexts.

In the post-pandemic context especially urban thinkers and actors will be invited to promote new approaches to urban tourism – see, for instance, the (re)emergence of discussions around staycation and proximity tourism. Although our book was designed before the COVID19 pandemic, we believe that it provides insightful observations on certain urban practices, that can be very helpful in considerations of the so called “new normal” in regard to tourism.

What vision of criticality do you uphold in this book? Does your showcase work belong to a school of thought or a paradigm and why/how?

The book’s theoretical inspiration is the notion of “just city”, as proposed by Susan Fainstein (“The Just City”, Cornell University Press, 2010). Drawing on the conceptual rigor of ideas associated with urban political economy, our work seeks to rethink the foundations for a more just urban environment. Interestingly, almost 20 year ago, Fainstein also edited two volumes that contributed significantly to our understanding and discussion of tourism practices and policies in cities: The tourist City (1999) and Cities and Visitors: Regulating People, Markets, and City Space (2003).

Relying on Fainstein’s ideas means that one assumes a utopian stance. But, by embedding this vision into the core of the project and, turning it thereafter into the unifying principle of (In)Justicias urbanas, ciudades (in)justas, we wanted to bring to reflection this assumption in regard to tourism.

On the one hand, the conventional argument in favour of tourism development is its capacity to generate and share income; on the other, from a different critical perspective, one would say that tourism concentrates wealth and generates new problems (environmental pressure, chaotic territorial occupation, inflation etc…).

So, we wanted to consider if and how tourism could become a feasible form of development by embracing Fainstein’s thesis, which thinks about processes fostering vision of a ‘more just city’. Different chapters cover different aspects of the debate upon links between tourism and cities. These include: a critical approach to the fashionable concept of the “smart city”; an analysis of the ways by which urban policies are created and developed, questioning the structures of heritage preservation policies; a denouncement of the ways real estate deforms cities socially and physically, highlighting how tourism narratives are created, appropriated and questioned, etc.

All these themes introduce variations of critique on urban justice, in which tourism is a direct or indirect factor for urban development. We hope that our critical intervention will open the floor to more nuanced analysis from various disciplinary approaches.

Sao Paulo 2018, image creator Thiago Allis

Is there an area in tourism scholarship that remains underdeveloped?

Although the urgency of studying, operating and theorizing tourism in an interdisciplinary way is already recognized, it seems that it remains an ongoing challenge. It is an obvious statement, but difficult to carry out. Even so, in an increasingly unspecific world – if we believe that “the great narratives are gone”, as decreed by Jean-François Lyotard (“La condition posmoderne”, Les Éditions de Minuit, 1979) – there is no other way but to embrace the complexity, diversity, multiplicity of urban life and, from that, to design better versions of tourism.

As a historical reference for the tourist gaze in the heydays of modern tourism, but also today, the urban condition posits a challenging phenomenon. Although our globalized world has reached some contentious homogeneity, it is impossible to understand tourist experiences in urban contexts without taking into account the contrasts between the Global North and the Global South. Indeed, theorizing about the contemporary urban condition, which desirably should follow a decolonizing approach, presents us with a two-fold challenge and a double project. The first project seeks to advance understandings of the nature of the phenomenon of tourism mobilities, whereas the second places it against the backdrop of a contrasting yet articulated urban world.

Dr. Thiago Allis holds a PhD in Urban and Regional Planning from the University of São Paulo, in Brazil. His research interests cover tourism, urban planning and all sorts of mobilities – including urban mobilities, migrations and emerging practices of urban tourism, particularly in regard to mega-urban projects in large metropoles.