Emotional Tourism

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An interpretive study of online hospitality exchange systems as a new form of tourism

By Paula Bialski
June, 2006
Also available in Polish: Albo Turystyka Emocjonalna

The way people move, the way we shift space, the way we push and explore the boundaries between “us,” the tourists and “them,” the native citizens, has become a fascinating and quickly changing phenomenon. Take the example of Grzesiek, a Pole living in Utrecht, Holland, traveling to Geneva, Switzerland. Rejecting the classic route of hotel or hostel accommodation, Grzegorz joined the rapidly-growing phenomenon of what is known as “hospitality service” and “slept” on Frank’s, the Genevan’s, couch. I put “slept” in quotation marks because instead of sleeping, Grzegorz spent the entire night listening to Frank’s life story. Grzegorz didn’t experience a strictly material, sensory view of Geneva. His experience was not limited to the sights of a museum, or the smells and tastes of a Swiss restaurant. In staying at his host, Frank’s, apartment, Grzegorz became a new form of tourist, where emotion and closeness to another human being was transferred into the practice of tourism. Within two days, he experienced an interpersonal connection that went further than just a relationship to sights and smells of the city. In being hosted by Frank, he was guaranteed another sensory experience beyond material values.

Grzesiek is only one in many cases verifying the fact that tourism today is experiencing a great fragmentation, and moreover, is starting to take on new meaning and purpose for each individual traveler. This fragmentation and change within the discipline is not something new. The purpose of travel has been changing since its origin. Yet before I move on, I want to emphasize that new processes within the practice of tourism do not replace each other in time, but merely become new sub-practices within the grand scheme of tourism itself. Motivations to tour, to shift space, are growing and constantly being reinvented which, one can argue, is a direct result of modernity. To emphasize my point, George Simmel and Anthony Giddens both observe that one of the conditions of modern social life is interaction with others who are strangers to them. The need for interaction with strangers also encompasses the sphere of tourism, and becomes a motivation to tour, as I have mentioned earlier. But this interaction with strangers was not a primary motivation of tourism prior to modernity. So, we can see here that the motivations of tourists become fragmented, causing division within the whole discipline of tourism itself.

But let’s get back to the basics. Originally, tourism began as a form of exploration, colonization, and then simply an upper-class privilege, where individuals abandoned their home in order to experience another setting. The original version of tourism had one single purpose – to experience, first-hand, a new setting. The new “experience” was an all-sensory experience – involving new sights, sounds, smells, and tastes. These sensory experiences were locked up in material “touchables” such as a hotel room, a local dish, or a busy street. Photography itself became a way in which these “touchables” could be documented and brought back home.

Post-tourism can be called the first fragmentation. Mike Featherstone, John Urry and other sociologists researching the discipline of the “new tourism” placed an emphasis on the mechanisms of globalization – where an individual, now middle to-upper class -- travels in order to experience the real, the local. Where classical tourism was about going to one area and seeing things, Featherstone explains that post-tourists “seek a whole range of experiences and direct encounters with locals.” In order to explain this phenomenon, theorists heavily borrowed Erving Goffman’s metaphor of stage/curtain or private versus public space, where the tourist yearned to not only experience the public sphere of drinking the coffee from a café, but also longed to observe the private sphere of how that coffee was harvested and served.

Post-tourism and the emphasis of the local has now formed a new hybrid of tourism, and yet another fragmentation within the tourism process. This new hybrid is inextricably complex and is something I have termed “Emotional Tourism,” where the travel experiences are not strictly limited to sensory “touchables” (such as the hotel room I mentioned in the previous paragraph), but provide various emotions linked to the closeness achieved with another human being. Where post-tourism was the tourism linked to experiencing processes and private-sphere events (such as the daily life of a villager in the Swiss alps), Emotional Tourism is now the experience of human-to-human emotion. An easy way to explain this is to go back to my example of the tourist photograph. In the first two stages of tourism, the tourist could capture his/her experience through a picture (“This is the food we ate at the restaurant in Geneva,” or “This is me at the villager’s cabin in the alps”). Yet the Emotional Tourist’s experience cannot be captured on film. Grzegorz could have taken a picture of Frank, his host, but the photo would mean nothing without the emotions linked to his experience. The origins of emotional tourism are deeply rooted within the processes of globalization, Internet discourse, new social stratification, the western individualist society and post-modernity. I admit that all these processes are hard to digest at once. Yet in the following essay, I seek to break them down in order to develop a new interpretation of tourism as a new, emotional phenomenon. The hospitality network Grzesiek used is a direct result of Emotional Tourism, and deconstructing the main processes of this new type of home-stay exchange will hopefully help us grasp the complexity of Emotional Tourism itself.

Let’s digress for a minute to explain what hospitality networks like CouchSurfing.com exactly are. The first hospitality network, called Servas Open Doors, was established by Bob Luitweiler in 1949 as a cross national, non-profit, volunteer run organization advocating interracial and international peace. While Servas had only a few hundred members worldwide, the Internet in the 1990s paved way for a number of other hospitality exchange services. Today, some of the services number over 140,000 members.

The main example I will use is one of the largest systems called Couchsurfing.com, with 70,000 members globally. Its main purpose is establishing a global network of users who wish to travel to foreign places while residing with other members of the network. Couchsurfing, like other hospitality exchange systems, functions on a system of reciprocity. I chose Couchsurfing.com, due to the fact that in my opinion, the website itself is the most advanced and user-friendly of all the hospitality exchange systems, especially when talking about the visual dynamics on the site. Each new user forms a profile of themselves – a calling card of sorts that establishes the “self” to other users in the system. Most users add pictures, hobbies, and links to other friends within the system to their profile. Once one’s profile has been established, a user can search other “couches” located in the destination he/she is traveling to (ex. Geneva). This member then emails the member in Geneva, requesting to “surf” their “couch.” By "surfing" a couch, bed, tent, etc., the individual actor often builds some sort of bond with their hosts. An emotional (either positive, negative, or neutral) link is often formed because the tourist or “surfer” enters the private sphere of the host. Moreover, social ties are maintained both on and off line.

In order to dissect the way hospitality services function, I could easily use a long list of social theory, including James Coleman’s social capital theory or Manuel Castell’s social network theory (as an example), yet it is not my the purpose of this essay to delve deeper into the forms of reciprocity involved in hospitality services. I could dive into ardent discourse regarding the McDonalization of tourism, or the standardization of place, but I’m not going to do that here. The problems I have just listed represent the problems surrounding the sociology of tourism today. While this dialogue is important, I believe that not enough discussion has been constructed surrounding the motivations pushing people to travel from one place to another. Today, these motivations are directly stimulated by the forces of post-modernity, and involve the need to be close to another human being, and the need to re-establish the concept of “self” to another foreign person. These phenomenons within Emotional Tourism can be split into two phases: relationship tourism, and tourism of constructing the “self.”

As Kenneth Gergen puts it, emotions can be viewed as constitutive features not of individuals but of relationships. But today, the process of establishing a close emotional relationship with another human being is experiencing a modern crisis. Gergen derives examples from Durkheim as he writes: “with the increasing complexity of the modern state, ‘organic solidarity’ has given way to ‘mechanic’ relations.” Highly individualistic “me-first” societies of the west have greatly increased the displacement of each individual from the rest of their surroundings. The emotional disconnectedness individuals feel towards one another on a day-to-day basis starts from childhood. Francis Fukuyama reminds us that much of the classical social theory written at the turn of the nineteenth century assumes that as societies modernize, the family diminishes in importance and is replaced by more impersonal kinds of social ties. The hollowness of impersonal social ties has led the individual to search for more substantial relationships. And since the bond of family has become weak, broken, or never fully established, the individual shall search elsewhere – to other spaces and places that will provide him/her with the experience of closeness.

Frank, Grzegorz’s host in Geneva, was not unlike many of the other Couchsurfers I have come into contact with during my research: a white male in his early 30s, well educated, and clearly experiencing a sort of existential crisis. Grzegorz described him as being deeply in need of human contact, someone to listen to his stories, someone to be there as verbal and moral support. Frankly, Frank sounds a bit like someone in dire need of a good therapy session. But, Grzegorz was keen to reciprocate the emotional support, despite the fact that he had just hours before met Frank face-to-face. Why this sudden need to open up to a complete stranger? And why is Grzegorz so keen on experiencing Frank’s raw emotions?

Giddens writes that we live in a peopled world, not merely one of anonymous, blank faces, and the interpolation of abstract systems (faith in symbolic tokens or expert systems and institutions) into our activities is intrinsic to bringing this about. Essentially, an individual must find her or his identity amit the strategies and options provided by abstract systems. So, an abstract system, as Giddens calls it, can be a multitude of processes involved the entire system of tourism – processes like flying a plane, taking a tour of a city, making use of a local museum, and the process of Couchsurfing or any other form of hospitality exchange. Most importantly, to use Giddens’ theory, these abstract systems (here Couchsurfing) bring a rise of personal trust relationships, and these relationships demand for “opening oneself up” to the other, to hide nothing from the other. What we are experiencing here is not only the individual’s desire to experience the private space, the “home”, but a need to experience another human. The Couchsurfing mechanism provides users with the immediate emotional exchange they are yearning for. On the other hand, as the tourist, Grzegorz didn’t exactly need to experience human emotion, but by becoming Frank’s guest, he was instantly thrown into an engaging relationship whether he wanted to or not. In turn, his experience in Geneva was marked by Frank’s personality. Now when he looks back at his trip to Geneva, his experience with Frank becomes most memorable. Moreover, this is not to say that those Couchsurfers who “surf” go into the experience blindly. They too, often choose this means of travel because they want to experience an “interesting” person. I’d also like to underline that I’m not implying that Frank and Grzegorz became best friends. What I am trying to show is the way the experience of human emotion takes precedence over the experience of material “touchables” classically tied to a tourist. If we assume that hospitality exchange communites exist with a level of emotional exchange, it would be worthwhile to bring Michel Maffesoli and his idea of “Neo-tribalism” into this discussion. In his argument, Maffesoli rejects the idea of an individualized society, and argues that the modern global world is segregated into “neo-tribes,” to which individuals become members in order to exchange the same emotions. When Couchsurfers travel and exchange thoughts and feelings, they seldom come into conflict. Emotional exchange is an exchange of empathy, understanding, and agreement. Instead of a “rationalized social” environment, in which we see the world as a rational individual, we are witnessing an empathetic “sociality” expressed by a succession of ambiences, feelings, and emotions. Without getting too abstract, the point I wish to make here is that the emotion Couchsurfers wish to experience is usually an emotion of understanding and insight, but seldom conflict. Dialogue between “surfer” and “host” often involves social commentary or personal narrative which is almost always greeted with approval. On one hand, Grzegorz’s support (and not rejection or critisism) to Frank’s emotional queries can be simple decency as a guest in someone’s home. Yet, it can’t go unstated that Couchsurfing is a sort of neo-tribe which trives on empathetic exchange.

Now that I’ve defined the process of relationship tourism, let’s return to Frank as a person. His “desperate need to talk about himself” as Grzegorz put it, is not all-encompassing within hospitality exchange. But it does happen quite often. Each individual I have encountered has shown elements of “establishing the self,” in which he/she spends time to explain who he or she is to the other person. According to Grzegorz, Frank stayed up until 7 in the morning talking about his life, and was less interested in what Grzegorz had to say. Establishing the “self” while Couchsurfing is done in two ways: for one, we present a live profile of ourselves presenting our interests, our skills, and our likes and dislikes. This profile resembles our online Couchsurfing profile (for example: “I speak 4 languages and I love the Beatles). The second way of establishing the self is by telling stories. Note how Kenneth Gergen addresses his analysis of self-narration: “…saying that we use stories to make ourselves comprehensible does not go far enough. Not only do we tell our lives as stories; there is also a significant sense in which our relationships with each other are lived out in narrative form.” Almost the entire relational experience Grzegorz was constructed through Frank’s self-narration. He told stories of his years as a TV reporter, his travel experiences, his tales of love. Each piece in this narrative was used to “paint a picture” of Frank as a whole person. One can presume that creating such a narrative was as helpful for Grzegorz (to understand Frank as a person) as it was to Frank (to assert who he is and what exactly he accomplished in life). The fluidity of modernity leaves the individual without an exact definition of self. Specifically, we are not set in stone. Therefore, the more monologue and dialogue we have concerning ourselves help us assert ourselves, helps verify who we are as people. Giddens would blame it all on the reflexivity of modernity, explaining that the construction of the self is a reflexive project. This narrative and presentation of our profile is part of our reflexive project, and is now instantly available through contact with another human in hospitality exchange networks – tourism has just taken on a whole other level.

Yet as we dissect the pieces within Emotional Tourism, one question remains: “Why must individuals shift space in order to experience human-to-human contact and ‘real emotion’? Why can’t we just stay experience this at home?” Ostensibly, establishing relationships and experiencing intense person-to-person contact is much easier outside one’s immediate realm. Moreover, the idea of meeting another human outside of one’s own cultural context, and forming some kind of bond with them, becomes an exotic and foreign experience when compared with the backdrop of the individual’s home setting. We must also take into account that one consequence of modernity is that it “dis-places” us, and place becomes ambivalent, phantasmagoric as Giddens eloquently puts it. Therefore, the fact that we are experiencing a new emotional relationship in another country or city is really secondary to the fact that new global mechanisms such as Couchsurfing and hospitality exchange allow us to form relationships while traveling outside our normal setting.

Let me restate my claim. Firstly, the modern “self” longs for union with another. Secondly, our fluid modernity forces us to the constant re-telling of our self-narrative. Couchsurfing and other hospitality exchange systems fulfill these needs. Couchsurfing embodies the global nature of our time – and creates the Emotional Tourism mechanism.

Frank and Grzegorz do not visit each other. They don’t exchange emails. Some may say their two-day emotional exchange was a no-strings-attatched affair. But perhaps, Grzegorz will always feel some attachment to his trip. If not to Geneva, they definitely to his experience with Frank.