Researching ‘metropolitan tourism’

Aleksandr Zykov, Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

The growing role and relevance of tourism in cities has resulted in the emergence of it as a topic of great interest to scholars across many social sciences disciplines. What forms does tourism take in today’s metropolises and metropolitan regions?


Angotti, T. (2013). The new century of the metropolis: urban enclaves and Orientalism. Routledge

Brantz, D, S. Disko, and G. Wagner-Kyora (eds) (2014). Thick space: Approaches to metropolitanism. transcript Verlag, 2014

Bourdeau-Lepage, L., & Huriot, J. M. (2004). The Metropolis in Retrospect: Permanence and Change. GAWC Research bulletin, 140, 1-28

Murray, M. J. (2017). The urbanism of exception. Cambridge University Pres

Neal, Z. P. (2012). The connected city: How networks are shaping the modern metropolis. Routledge.

OECD (2015). The metropolitan century: Understanding urbanisation and its consequences. OECD Publishing.

The growing role and relevance of tourism in cities – and of cities in tourism – has in recent decades emerged as a topic of great interest to scholars across many social sciences disciplines. Yet while urban tourism research has flourished, various aspects and issues relating to tourism in cities remain that would benefit from more scholarly work and engagement. The latter involves questions regarding the particularity (or lack thereof) of tourism development in metropolises and metropolitan regions. What forms does tourism take in today’s metropolises and metropolitan regions? How do these forms differ from tourism in other (urban) contexts? Are these differences significant enough to warrant the classification of ‘metropolitan tourism’ as a distinct type of (urban) tourism? What are their implications for policy and planning processes? How do policy and planning processes in different metropoles and metropolitan regions differ from each other, and what can they learn from each other? And finally, how could tourism in metropolises and metropolitan regions be made more sustainable, resilient, and inclusive?

As of yet, these and related questions remain largely unanswered. In fact, considering the significance commonly ascribed to large metropolitan regions as contemporary engines of development and change one the one hand as well as widespread portrayals of tourism as a leading economic and social force of the 21st century on the other hand, it is astonishing how little systematic study there has been to date on tourism development in the world’s large metropolitan areas.

In part, this may be owed to the fact that the terms ‘metropolises’ and ‘metropolitan regions’ are surrounded by definitional ambiguity and have multiple meanings and applications in practice. There is no denial that the term ‘metropolis’ and associated concepts may take on a host of different meanings – both in popular parlance and academic discourse – depending on the specific contexts within which it is used (Brantz et al. 2012). It may denote scale – after all, a common dictionary definition of the term ‘metropolis’ is ‘large city’. It may, following the original meaning of the Greek metrópolis as ‘mother city’, also denote function; thus many writers see the metropolis as a significant economic, political, and cultural centre for a country or region, and an important hub for regional or international connections, commerce, and communications. Yet another usage of the term ‘metropolis’ is one that denotes large built- up areas extending across jurisdictional boundaries and including both major centres plus their surrounding territories, e.g. their suburbs and nearby towns, over which they exercise a commanding influence. These usages are, of course, neither exhaustive nor mutually exclusionary, yet illustrate the plurality of ideas associated with the term metropolis and its derivatives. It is often suggested that we are living in a ‘metropolitan century’ (OECD, 2015; Angotti, 2013, p.6), yet explaining exactly what a metropolis is and what ‘metropolitan’ means is, to say the least, challenging (Neil, 2012, p.110).

The network, while recognising that a diversity of contemporary metropolitan realities – as well as a diversity of frames and discourses to make sense of them – exists, is interested in exploring tourism in environments that meet all of the criteria alluded to above. It refrains from setting forth a rigid definition for authors to follow, but rests on the premise that a metropolis is ‘something other than a very large city’ (Bourdeau-Lepage and Huriot, 2004), i.e. typically extends far beyond the traditional boundaries of the ‘city proper’ and exerts economic, cultural and political influence over areas much wider than their own territories and hinterlands.

Further to this and following the arguments of Brantz et al. (2012), we conceive ‘metropoles’ and ‘metropolitan regions’ as being endowed with a particular ‘thickness’ in terms of the social and spatial dynamics and relations characterising them. Citing Doreen Massey’s argument that ‘if it is now recognized that people have multiple identities, then the same point can be made in relation to places’ and that such ‘multiple identities can either be a source of richness or a source of conflict, or both’ (Massey 2001, p. 153, cited in Brantz et al, 2012, p.18) while also alluding to Jane Jacob’s view of cities as irreducible systems of ‘organised complexity’, Brantz et al. (2012) suggest that metropolitan spaces’ specificity may be owed to the particularly variegated layers of complexities, contradictions, co-constitutive relationships and multitudes inherent to them as parts of ever more complex, multi-scalar networks of increasingly global interconnectedness. This perspective resonates with studies that draw attention to contemporary metropolitan transformations, emphasising the rise of ‘polycentric’ spatial configurations, the increasingly fragmented nature of metropolitan regions as patchworks of complex cultural and social realities as well as the increasingly ‘boundless’ character of ‘metropolitan landscapes beset with new contradictions and tensions [making] it nearly impossible to discern where borders are and what is ‘inside’ and what is ‘outside’’ (Murray, 2017 p. 109).

Interestingly, and this is one of the main reasons why we founded the network, very little scholarship to date has addressed the question of what role tourism development plays in contemporary metropolitan transformations, be they social, cultural, spatial or political. Similarly, as mentioned above, there has been relatively little research to date on how tourism plays out in metropolitan settings and how contemporary metropolitan transformations affect the dynamics of tourism. We want to change that. Initially in the form of a collaboration between two institutions based in Europe’s two largest (tourism) metropolises, London and Paris, and prospectively with the aim of attracting partners covering a wide range of geographical contexts, including established metropolises in the global North and South and rapidly emerging metropolises in Asia and Africa.

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Researching ‘metropolitan tourism’

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