The Ethics of Tourist Destination Promotion
A. V. Seaton
One of the intermittent subjects of academic tourism discourse is a critique of the
biased, "distorted" representation of destinations offered in commercial NTO
promotion. Anthropologists and sociologists have analysed NTO promotional
materials demonstrating that they are manipulated by powerful agencies to offer
stereotypical,optimistic images which exclude harsher, more complex, socio-political
realities. Host populations, even in developed countries, such as Wales and Scotland,
have criticised tourism representations of their countries as simplistic, reactionary and
often based on "invented traditions" and "staged authenticity" (e.g Scotland as a land
of bagpipes, kilts, and picturesque tartanry).
At the back of such critiques are several assumptions:that a representation of a
destination could be "truthful" rather than misleading; that a representation could be
complete rather than partial and selective; that the aim of promotion should be
documentary realism rather than a persuasive text.
The purpose of this paper is to suggest that such criticisms represent a
misunderstanding of tourism promotion, its relationship to the prime audiences for
whom it is intended, and also the ultimate effect it is designed to achieve for host
populations. The arguments are as follows:
1. All representations are selective. There is no such thing as absolute truth,
particularly about such a complex entity as a destination, only different, often
2. Since all tourism promotion is designed to attract visitors it is naive to expect that
destination promotion will do anything but offer favourable constructions. Advertising
never attempts documentary realism (whatever that might be, and whoever might
claim authority to know and represent it); it is essentially a paid-for, sponsored
message of advocacy, not an objective report. Still less is any advertiser going to
allocate scarce promotional funding to deliver a hostile message which shows a
destination or society in a bad, threatening light, or even to portray it as similar in
many respects to others (increasingly the case as urbanisation, industrialisation and
modernisation work their homogenising effects internationally). The amplification of
societal problems is not part of the agenda of NTOs.
3. Since tourism promotion typically consists of a few images on a page or a few
seconds of broadcast time there is little time or space for complex narratives.The good
news will invariably be delivered in stereotypical chunks
4. Stereotypes are also the way in which tourists think about destinations. Stereotypes
are constrained by the expectations and entrenched images the visitor already holds.
Americans think Scotland is a land of romance and bagpipes therefore it would be
dangerous and also probably impossible to alter this through NTO advertising.
Generally speaking advertising cannot achieve major educative transformations.
5. Tourism promotion must be judged by its economic effects, as a means to an end,
that of generating tourists, rather than as an end in itself.
6. That once the purposes of promotion, and the constraints under which it is
produced, are recognised the effects of promotion must be judged in terms of its
effectiveness in a) generating visitors b) prefiguring expectations which are actually
realised in the visitor experience.
As long as the visitor experiences some of the elements carried by the stereotypes
presented (however "staged", "invented" or unrepresentative these may be e.g.
watching a rodeo show at the Calgary Stamepede; attending a tartan military display
at the Edinburgh search-light tattoo; being attended by hula-hula skirted girls in a
Hawaian bar), then the promotion may be deemed appropriate.
7. That the primary issue in relation to the ethics of tourism promotion is not its
representational means, but its social effects. This is a political matter (e.g.involving
such questions as the balance of power in tourism development; the question as to
who actually benefits materially from tourism etc)
8. Academic analysts will always be able to deconstruct NTO promotion as
ideological,stereotypical myths in the same way that all advertising can be seen as
such. Such deconstructions are easy to do (getting a sample of brochures and
performing desk analyses is a relaxing and comparatively easy way of writing a
paper).But if the end result is mainly to point out how far promotional images differ
from other kinds of construction (including that seductive ideological construction
called "reality") they will always be stating the obvious.Though such critiques are
useful as a way of contesting particular representations (that "struggle over the sign"
which semiologists debate) they have very little relevence to the function of tourism
promotion. In short sociologists and anthropologists are doing one kind of activity;
promoters are doing another.
NB The arguments in this paper are, of course, highly oversimplified and somewhat
crudely expressed to meet the 800 word limit for internet use.
Is there an irreconciliable difference between the way a destination must be promoted
to tourists and the way in which a destination may be perceived by its indigenous
Is it possible to avoid the selective, glamorous imaging of destinations which may,
almost inevitably,camouflage or misrepresent other aspects of a destination (social
problems, poverty, etc).
Can tourism promotion of destinations ever avoid stereotypical presentations?
Tony Seaton is Reader in Tourism and Director of the Scottish Tourism Research Unit,
the Scottish Hotel School, University of Strathclyde whose main interests are tourism
marketing, tourism behaviour and tourism history.