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Soft Tourism in Inner London: Getting Off the Beaten Track

Our previous research in London and other WTCs has shown that some tourists want to get away from popular hotspots to places that seem off the beaten track. In London, the research has included visitor surveys with almost 400 respondents, and lengthy semi-structured interviews with a total of more than 200 interviewees, at non-central locations in the inner city. Drawing on this research, we can identify three aspects of their experience that allow urban explorers to get off the beaten track and feel they can embed themselves in the city. They are the combination of morphology and consumption landscape; image and imagined geography; and experiencing everyday life (Maitland, 2008; Maitland and Newman, 2009; Pappalepore et al., 2011; Pappalepore et al., 2014).

The morphology of the areas is crucial for visitors, and they frequently describe and comment on buildings and urban form in detail. The areas visited are characteristically formerly industrial, working class and under-privileged, often with a strong representation of ethnic minority populations. Their urban form seems organic and unplanned, is at comparatively high density, and has intricate street patterns and buildings of a human scale. Visitors contrast this with tourist hotspots, seen as having monumental architecture and layout, or commercialized environments that seemed planned for visitors. Unlike monumental or carefully choreographed commercial environments, such places offer simultaneous rather than successive arrangements of spatial elements (Gospodini, 2001), meaning that visitors have many options and choices in how they move around them. They are, in other words, easily and temptingly explorable. Indeed, a minority of visitors specifically commented on the pleasure of ‘getting lost’ - whilst knowing that they could and would regain their bearings. This intricate urban form contains a mix of land uses and a predominance of independent businesses, often in the creative sector - arts, fashion, food, craft beers and so on - providing an attractive landscape of consumption. Branches of national and international chains are rare.

The imagined geography of space intersects with this objective material space and contributes to fulfilling the expectations many visitors have of the ‘real London’. In these multi-purpose and heterogeneous spaces ‘with blurred boundaries ... a wide range of activities and people co-exist. Tourist facilities coincide with businesses, public and private institutions and domestic housing, and tourists mingle with locals, including touts . heterogeneous tourist spaces provide stages where transitional identities may be performed alongside the everyday actions of residents, passers-by and workers’ (Edensor, 2000, p. 64). Novy and Huning (2009) point out, discussing Berlin, that ‘particularly edgy, transitional and allegedly authentic urban settings such as industrial and warehouse districts, ethnic or immigrant enclaves and other neighborhoods where people on the margins of urban society live and work are today part of a growing number of tourists’ travel itineraries (...) Former no-go-areas have been turned into desired travel destinations, as their “authenticity”, the alternative lifestyles of their residents and their different tangible and intangible cultural resources - music, art, history, traditions, the aesthetic of their built environment etc. - became attractive for outsiders’ (p. 87). This links to Nancarrow et al’s (2001) discussion of what constitutes ‘cool’. For them it revolves around a search for the authentic and a valuing of insider knowledge about trends and consumption patterns outside the mainstream - a form of cultural capital. Off the beaten track areas can satisfy the demand for a real London hidden from the mainstream, known only to insiders, and are in some ways responding to a nostalgic desire for a city with an intimate villagey built environment and a consumption landscape of trend-setting independents, removed from homogenizing global businesses. These places are imagined and represented as distinctive, since they have emerged organically through micro interactions in the market, and have not been planned as spaces for consumption by developers or public authorities. They are yet to be ‘commercially appropriated’ (Neill, 2001) and their rundown origins offer ‘grit as glamour’ (Lloyd, 2000) where visitors can experience ‘safe danger’.

As places that are distinct from established, planned or commercially developed tourist bubbles, they offer the opportunity to experience the everyday life of the city, and mundane activities and routines are invested with interest and meaning. Observing quotidian activities like daily shopping, people at work or going to a cafe is both interesting in itself and confirmation that these are not places planned for visitors. As one interviewee commented, ‘it doesn’t feel artificial ... you don’t feel like you’re in Disneyland’. Local people are key markers and signifiers that these are real places, and provide both confirmation of authenticity and a sense of the exotic. This opportunity is valued: ‘it’s more authentic and fun, because local people and tourists, they also mix. Here, you are not treated as a tourist’ (Maitland, 2008). A convivial relationship between tourists and locals seems an essential element in the experience of everyday life - ‘it is the site that contains the extraordinary within the ordinary if one is prepared to look’ (Till, 2009, p. 139). However, we should bear in mind that ‘local people’ from the tourist perspective mean simply non-tourists. High levels of migration and rapid churn in the population of London’s neighbourhoods means that meeting with truly ‘local’ people is comparatively uncommon - if by that we mean those born and bred in the area or who are long-term residents.

Subsequent work (Pappalepore et al., 2011; Pappalepore et al., 2014) has investigated the role creative clusters play in the development and experience of tourism off the beaten track. We found that concentrations of creative industries provide visitors with opportunities for consumption and for the accumulation of cultural capital, drawing on and exploiting the presence of creative producers and other creative visitors, who are themselves perceived as an attraction. In such creative tourism areas, these elements combine with others we have already discussed - a particular morphology, and the opportunity to embed oneself in the everyday life of the city - to produce places that visitors see as real, with a bohemian atmosphere and cool image. Whilst we identified several varieties of practice in the ways that visitors engaged with the areas, for most tourists the sense that they were getting away from the mainstream was central to the appeal of the areas.

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