Liberty Tours: Why Tourism Matters to Liberty
By Mikayla Novak
What is the relevance of tourism to a classical liberal?
For the casual observer, tourism may “merely” be interpreted as an opportunistic, temporal break from everyday routines. As important as this may be for many, tourism is an important subject of research inquiry for liberals. Alongside arts, film, literature, music, and sports, tourism is a talismanic marker of enrichment increasingly enjoyed by the many. Not only is tourism economically significant, but its non-economic implications are profound. Indeed, we should consider the potential role of traveling and tourism in shaping liberal worldviews of cosmopolitanism.
Tourism as an element of material growth and change: Economic dimensions of tourism
The sizable contribution of tourism to aggregate measures of economic activity is well known. According to one estimate, prior to the Covid-19 pandemic tourism accounted for about ten percent of global GDP.1 Perhaps of greater interest to classical liberals, and to economists in Austrian and related heterodox traditions particularly, is the sheer breadth, complexity, and dynamism of tourism activities, and the sense of value that they generate. It is in this respect that one begins to understand why tourism matters to liberal theory and practice.
Speaking generally, tourism is a facet of human action characterized by a diverse array of cultural, emotional, physical, social, and other experiences. These are all made feasible through a highly complex array of contestable economic activities aimed at bringing tourists experiential bundles of joyfulness, insight, leisure, and recreation, irrespective of their traveling distances. The complex nature of tourism is not simply the result of its patterns of activity unfolding over space and time, potentially touching all corners of the globe, but by virtue of ever-changing offerings aiming to provide new activities and experiences.
There can be little doubt that tourism’s complexity is shaped by constantly energetic acts of entrepreneurship. It is here that individuals bear economic risks and uncertainties when striving to deploy capital and other resources (tangible and intangible) in anticipation of profitable outcomes, secured by attaining sufficient (and, hopefully, repeat) visits by travelers. The entrepreneurial decision not only involves spatial dimensions, in which attractive and interesting geographical locations are selected for tourism facilities, but time is also of the entrepreneurial essence. Consider the temporally extensive, and capital intensive, processes engaged by entrepreneurs when building critical infrastructures—such as airlines, hotels, and other facilities—together with building organizational, logistical, and other capacities. All of these economically painstaking activities are performed with the objective of realizing commercial viability.
The exercise of economic alertness and the talent for interpreting socio-cultural meanings valued by potential tourist clientele, are necessary for successful tourism entrepreneurship. To the extent that entrepreneurial ventures in tourism do succeed they are empirically observed to be implicated in the long-run reduction in consumption inequality.2 Take, for example, the efforts of Thomas Cook, the famed nineteenth-century British travel agent who introduced an assortment of package tour offerings to European markets. His efforts represent one of the innumerable examples of how entrepreneurial action, during Cook’s time and beyond, substantially improved tourism accessibility for individuals and families of lower- and middle-class backgrounds.
An implication of all this complexity is that tourism itself is beset with definitional ambiguity. What is tourism? Is it travel to a place for rest and relaxation? Is it travel to a place for business opportunities, such as networking? Is it a digital experience in the comfort of one’s home? Who is a tourist? Is the tourist a hedonic pleasure-seeker? Is the tourist someone who is profoundly touched by religious and spiritual experience? Is the tourist a medical patient? Arguably tourism and the role of being a tourist can suggest all these things and more,
From the complexity perspective, tourism defies definition and rigid attempts at boundary specification. This might frustrate top-down planners with seemingly well-defined, ex-ante plans for how other people should conduct themselves but, for liberals, this complexity is inherently praiseworthy. In a turn of phrase that an iconic figure such as Friedrich Hayek might approve, tourism encapsulates the inherent marvel of the market as a process, ordered in no uncertain terms by the entrepreneurship and innovation that are hallmarks of value-adding commercial activity.
Tourism is not just complex, it is also typified by entangled relations among a web of individuals and collectives, including individual suppliers, conglomerates of interested intermediaries, and public sector entities. The dense ecology of human relations is conducive to the sharing of commercial insights about present-day successes and failures, and future growth prospects, as well as the economic densification of certain activities as network effects promote scaled emulations of successful, early-stage tourism entrepreneurialism. What I describe here could be regarded as the “bright” commercial side of tourism entanglement.
A twist in the tail of entangled political economy is that the pursuit of gains is actively undertaken in variegated contexts. One context is political. Legislators, bureaucrats, vested interests, and others are embroiled in an entangled chain of activities that includes compulsorily acquiring revenues, imposing regulations, expending funds, and absorbing resources in the name of attracting mobile tourists. Political involvement in tourism activities, unsurprisingly, attracts lobbying and other rent seeking activities which, along varied margins, derange market processes. But lacking the incentives ordinarily faced by commercial entrepreneurs, tourism politics is, furthermore, prone to poorly-valued initiatives failing to sustain tourism growth.
The “dark,” political side of tourism entanglement has recently darkened further, this time not by distortive subsidies but by mass travel restrictions during the Covid-19 pandemic.3 The consequences of government responses during the period have been stark, entailing the severe reduction of consumer welfare, not to mention damage to the tourism production structure in many parts of the world (including, for example, island economies and sub-national regions dependent upon overseas visitors). Acknowledgement of the political dimensions of entangled tourism interaction serves as a reminder to liberals of the great risks of governmental interference with the terms and conditions of where people wish to go to enjoy themselves.
Learning more about others and self: Socio-cultural dimensions of tourism
Liberal thought is inseparably possessed with the cosmopolitan spirit. This claim is suitably affirmed by the writings of an esteemed twentieth-century liberal, Ludwig von Mises. Mises, an immigrant with a cross-continental traveling history, spoke of liberalism as possessing “the whole of humanity in view and not just parts. It does not stop at limited groups; it does not end at the border of the village, of the province, of the nation, or of the continent. Its thinking is cosmopolitan and ecumenical: it takes in all men and the whole world.”
During recent years liberals have meditated on cosmopolitanism as a response to the tensions and strains of a polarizing world. In his recent reflections on the subject, Peter Boettke refers to two principles of cosmopolitanism.4 First, we are another’s dignified equals. Second, we are strangers nowhere in the world. Those two principles are relevant to tourism. The relevance of the first point is that dignified equality applies to both tourist and resident, regardless of their backgrounds and circumstances. As for the second point, the lack of earthly estrangement remains operational, irrespective of one’s location and for how long one might stay in any given location. A liberal may, thus, lay claim to tourism as a practical instantiation of cosmopolitan attitudes seen as necessary to forge economic cooperation and social peace.
The “crowding in” of cosmopolitan values through tourism materializes via the capacity of travel to facilitate encounters amongst diverse individuals. It is, then, through exposure to the customs, norms, and practices of people in the host destination that visitors can learn about, and learn to tolerate, others and their differing ways of doing, knowing, and being. The specialized sub-strand of cultural tourism is especially held to facilitate tourists’ exposure to divergent lifestyles, including those pursued by certain minority groups. Even so, to the extent that conventional, majoritarian cultures vary cross-country the processes described here should remain applicable. In this context, tourism could also be seen as a broad ranging catallactical process; tourists and their hosts, even in the face of strong cultural, linguistic, religious, and other differences, engage convivially in exchange processes with overlapping economic, cultural, and social implications.
The cosmopolitan idea implies something greater than social learning and, through it, toleration, as important as these are. There is a strain of thinking within academic literature suggesting that certain facets of tourism align well with the cultivation of liberal values such as empathy and solidarity. For example, researcher Hazel Tucker considers that tourism providers are incentivized to show empathy to their traveling customers. A range of experiences—even confronting ones, such as visiting Cambodia’s Killing Fields or Poland’s Auschwitz—can generate empathic opportunities through the combination of abridging socio-cultural divides and revealing historical injustices. Others have posited that tourism could help promote peace, in accordance with the dictum (often attributed to Frederic Bastiat, but in fact, originated by Otto Mallery) that “when goods (or, in this case, tourists) don’t cross borders, soldiers will.” These issues are the subject of a critical book-length treatment edited by Moufakkir and Kelly,5 and by other scholars.
When extolling the liberal virtues of tourism as an indelibly cosmopolitan affair, we should be mindful of a related idea: travel might shape the construction of an individual’s sense of self in a diverse and kaleidic world. Academic studies indicate that some people tour local, regional, and global locations as part of an existential process of becoming an authentic, or knowledgeable and worldly, self. Specialized tourism experiences, such as backpacking tours, or visits to specific places in the world (e.g., young Australians traveling to the Indonesian island of Bali), are justified based on securing a “rite of passage” to adulthood. Others engage with tourism to achieve a sense of religious or spiritual enlightenment, or to seek an experience of cultural worth (such as visiting ancestral homes). The contributions of tourism toward the development of individual beliefs, identities, and understandings rest upon maintaining an environment which not only permits, but affords dignity and respect toward easy freedom of movement.
Tourism has long been identified as presenting socio-cultural opportunities of the nature described above. Of note is the emergence of tourism practices, observed by a variety of suppliers and demanders, of consciously ethical traveling experiences and standards. Similar ideas are conveyed about tourism as a means to promulgate social change, for both tourists and for residents in host destinations. But the notion that tourism can make the world a more cosmopolitan place is not universally shared. A budding critical literature questions whether the consumption of foods, music, and the like by tourists represents more than just ephemeral signaling. Sensational reports in popular publications often refer to travelers apparently conducting themselves in ways that offend local sensibilities. Added to these critiques is the phenomenon of anti-tourism agitation, with more than an unnerving hint of xenophobia, demanding the suppression of future visits.
What is a liberal to make of these criticisms? A two-part response would be, first, to recognize that members of the traveling public do trek around the world for an incredibly diverse range of purposes. The second would be for liberals to assert the legitimacy of tourists acting upon their subjective preferences for travel—and this can range from “highbrow” tourism as a moral experience through to “lowbrow” tourism to have fun and leisure in all its variety. This position appears to fit well with the general liberal commitment to freedom.
In this essay, I consider tourism as a subject of intellectual inquiry, in the hope of opening conversations and research by others about the nature and consequences of tourism from a liberal perspective. How does tourism, this intriguing mode of short-term movement, affect our broader understanding of freedom?
I, among so many others in this modern age of affluence, have extensively engaged in travel and tourism activities. In addition to traveling through much of my home country (Australia), I have traveled to Cambodia, Czech Republic, Hong Kong, New Zealand, and the United States where I now live and work. Tourism has long represented an activity of great personal value. I see tourism as a practical facilitator of cultural, economic, political, and social learnings about how other people live, and a means of reflecting upon my own life experiences. Tourism has added to many other features of life experiences that, in turn, combine to encourage personal growth.
In short, tourism matters. So far, so good. But what also stands out, and I’m not the only one to observe this, is the sheer sense of wonder that going from place to place enduringly imprints upon the mind and the senses. In this respect, tourism, much like liberalism itself, opens new vistas of perception and the confidence to grasp the abundant opportunities available in our world.
 Tourism dependent economies are among those harmed the most by the pandemic, by Adam Behsudi. International Monetary Fund. December 2020.
 Tourism, Progress, and Peace. CABI, 2010.
*Mikayla Novak is Senior Fellow, F.A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics and Economics, Mercatus Center at George Mason University.