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Why post-COVID-19 tourism recovery needs affective/aesthetic education

Written by Dr Rodanthi Tzanelli


Collage creator: R. Tzanelli (original images by Lisanto and EDC on Unsplash)

In her presentation at the 1st Congress of RedISS, Dr Tzanelli considers the normative direction of scholarly writing about tourism in the era of the coronavirus pandemic.

Event: “Trust, Crisis and Social Sciences”, 1st Congress of the International Network of Sociology of Sensibilities (RedISS), June 23, 24 and 25, 2021.

Organisers: Center for Research and Sociological Studies (CIES) and the Latin American Journal of Studies on Body, Emotions and Society (RELACES), & University of Palermo, Argentina.


We live in troubled times. I refer generally to the raging pandemic which refuses to pass, but not just the practical obstacles we face in coordinating our efforts to stop the devastation it creates in its path. Specifically, I want to explore the emotional blockage involved in the ways we try to alleviate pain and promote equitable wellbeing across the world. The styles in which we do this, in writing and activism alike, tend to promote equality by suppressing other forms of difference that are considered self-sufficient, privileged and thus not worthy of consideration.

One of these forms of difference, which is at once mundane and extraordinary, is what we find in tourism and forms of travel. In our life-saving mission for the disenfranchised of the pandemic, we tend to treat the tourist as a privileged species unworthy of discourses of development. Subsequently, tourism is treated as a means to an end, an economic tool in political and business discourses of recovery. The tourist studies scholars are considered as maidens of capitalism and no further consideration is given to what they study and its value in human flourishing.

There is as much short-sightedness in this as there is self-denial – for, the tourists and the travellers are us - and I mean really us: people such as those attending this event, who are stuck at home because of the pandemic. Why then this self-flagellation? In this presentation I will not focus on the poor or the ‘dispossessed’ as we frame such nebulous categories in our work as scholars or crystalise as policymakers. Note, however, that I do not do this to promote indifference to world problems – there are people out there in need of support, vulnerable to the virus and in a much worse stead than most of us. Instead, I am asking you to ponder for a moment what actually happens when we rush to save the world symbolically, in our writing, or practically. I want to propose that in this rush, doing and feeling are not treated as a complex nexus outside moralistic frameworks of action. And that by not treating them as de facto entangled in indiscriminate ways, we do not reflect on the broader implications of our neglect to consider tourism as a social good in the era of the pandemic. This hostility endorses a particular reading of the ‘brief of development’ as an always-already rule-subjected, necessary movement to a ‘good future’, but not necessarily a diversified collective material and psychic good. In this respect, I will challenge monological implementations of Arturo Escobar’s thinking-feeling rules, which validate emotional investment in developmental projects only if they combat deep social inequalities. If plurality is a universal value, then tourism and travel have a place in it. Development should not be driven just by poverty alleviation or inequalities beyond sex, gender or disability. Erasing a social category from scholarship or suppressing its study in times of crisis is a very insidious form of violence that may not have to do either with inequality or poverty – at least not directly.

I will limit my observations to tourism mobilities in the coronavirus era and treat such entanglements as manifestations of a phenomenon integral to human flourishing, which comes under more than one names. Some call it wellbeing, others call it welfare, or eudemonia and yet other non-European scholars call it buen vivir. I find buen vivir a useful term because of its life-affirming properties. But I also believe that it must be excised from its patriarchal origins, which consider demonstrating mirth in public a male privilege. Interestingly, the term finds it equivalent in other sociocultural contexts that experienced delayed modernisation but cannot be translated currently in so-called advanced contexts. I cannot but stress how this alludes to a ‘loss’, an advanced rationalisation in how we organise our life, with evident emotional dimensions – we forget how to enjoy life in fully developed societies. But buen vivir is not pre-rational or backward – on the contrary, it is characterised by emotional movement towards an end, which also features a predetermined purpose: this end and purpose is the enjoyment of the good life for individuals and collectivities. Note however that the means humans use to achieve such ends are not moralistic in any conventional ethical way but bond-building in practical ways. Practical action is the key to the good life, and we all make ends meet on this front, regardless of whether we are rich, poor, abused or otherwise. Here is what I struggle with in my vocation that connects to such forms of rationalisation: I find that some conventional discourses concerning the protection of the wretched of the earth deeply offensive – they may be making us feel good and virtuous about our contributions to development but rob the recipients of our charity of their agency and humanity.

As is the case in my forthcoming book, so in this presentation I treat buen vivir’s physical, cognitive, and affective movements in unison and not in any hierarchical order, as some enemies of technology do. My argument is that a combination of such mobilities can pave the path to recovery in travel and tourism. This is not the argument that circulates outside tourist studies publications, however. Note that I am not interested in economic recovery, but a recovery of purpose to be free of risks and act in our aspired roles as human beings. Currently, we cannot always be international embodied tourists. However, out of necessity we have discovered alternative physical mobilities that involve local travel, on-screen entertainment, and sports leisure. Let me reiterate against conventional Escobarian analyses of development: as specimen of the embodied homo ludens, in the context of the pandemic, we have become a species at risk of extinction. I want to suggest that this should also be treated as a form of difference essential to Escobar’s suggestion to design pluriverses, even though it stands outside conventional understandings of inequality.

This peculiar species extinction rests on an ironic reversal of social structures: the pandemic has subjected also the ‘haves’ to state-controlled laws of immobility. At the same time, it opened up local leisure and travel options to the masses. The elite tourist may be enjoying more safety due to faster vaccination but is more under the watchful eye of the state and corporate travel agencies, if they want to travel, than the working-class leisurers, who can only afford local travel. The old mass vs. romantic tourism divide has been reversed – the nature and local pilgrims are now those who visit local amenities in groups of friends or as families. These are the new romantics, and not the elite tourists, who are more managed as viral flocks even in their luxury destinations and even with refined protection in place.

If this is so, we really need to reconsider what it means to endorse pluriversalism not only in a world that moves carefully and selectively, but a world that has lost its embodied mobility compass. What guides our rules of recognising and respecting difference in leisurely contexts today? Again, I stress that I do not object to humanitarian interventions, but caution colleagues to rethink the scope of interventions to ‘difference’ and the principles determining them.

Buen vivir has been considered in relation to degrowth initiatives and slow tourism to address the faults of capitalist acceleration, social inequality, and environmental destruction. But are these suggestions enough to consider buen vivir as a planetary good that does not eliminate difference in tourism and travel mobilities? We cannot fall back on conventional examinations of status and class and expect fulsome conclusions. To me, the challenge and the solution lies beyond conventional understandings of speed vs. slowness or deceleration. Our focus on the modern homo ludens needs to address modern problems without regressing to an idyllic Neanderthal living in the Garden of Eden (we are not ‘noble savages, nor should we aspire to become that- is this not a relic of the cryptocolonial imaginary of tourism, anyway?). We must be otherwise as COVID-limited subjects and modern leisurers, but also scholars studying such phenomena. Above all, we should not reject technology. For example, when it comes to showing compassion, the modern homo ludens needs to turn digital distance into a tool that addresses local problems without repeating the mistakes of patronising volunteering in developing regions of the world.

To address pluriversality’s pragmatic engagement in cultural mobilities, we must consider the affective pillars of buen vivir. These focus on digital distance as a form of aesthetic education and an inclusion of the emotional tourist subject into relational (host-guest) formations of wellbeing. I propose two different things in combination: first that websurfers committed to travel they cannot do engage with local custom and needs without performing the saviours of localities in need. And second that when travel is permitted, the embodied tourist invests more in intercultural sensitivity without taking for granted the innocence of locals and international tourist labour. It is important to consider buen vivir as a relational product that does not reinstitute a locality’s cultural boundaries as regressive localism, chauvinism, anti-tourism, and anti-globalising ideals. Equally important is to consider the tourist’s welfare as a conditional state in motion. By this I mean that tourists are not reinstituted as aesthetically reflexive agents who do not care for their hosts but are equipped with knowledge of their flows and needs and the strength to defend their own needs as mobile citizens. My conception of pluriversal mobilities introduces a serious modification in Escobar’s scientific program, which involves being aware of the presence of performance in discourses of development as a situational agent – sometimes good and other times very bad indeed.

Rodanthi Tzanelli is Associate Professor of Cultural Sociology at the University of Leeds, Director of the Mobilities Research Area in the Bauman Institute and Northern Notes Editor. Her forthcoming book, Cultural (Im)mobilities and the Virocene: Mutating the Crisis will be published with Edward Elgar in November 2021.


Dr Rodanthi Tzanelli

Associate Professor of Cultural Sociology