Environment, Society, and Literary Tourism

Lorenzo Bagnoli (University of Milano-Bicocca, Italy)

The relationship between societies and the environment has, from time to time, been inspired, more or less consciously, by different models and theories. It is, therefore, useful to briefly retrace the different paradigms that followed, at least in the 20th century, since they also prove valid for the study of tourism in general and literary tourism in particular.

In contemporaneity, the first phase, which mainly characterised culture from the 19th century until around the Great War, is commonly defined as “determinism”. According to this conception, even the human being and his actions are subject to rigid and incontrovertible natural laws. It is the phase in which models are elaborated according to the fact that nature (i.e., latitude, climate, central position, access to the sea...) determines human choices and directs them towards the one and only possible lasting solution (Ruocco, 1999). Even the civilisation or incivility of the populations is put into the function of the environmental aspects, and the best-gifted society is charged with a civilising mission that is given to it by its “natural” – in the sense of attributed to it by “nature” – propensity for the good (colonialism).

In the modern sense, tourism is just making its debut in this era, and above all, it has not yet assumed the mass dimension that will characterise it much later. Regarding literary tourism, this is usually made by the poets themselves, as witnessed by the famous report of the Italian journeys made by Goethe, Stendhal, Dickens, etc. The determinist conception can appear in travel diaries, such as in Stendhal’s, where there is a description of what is now commonly called “Stendhal’s syndrome”. During his stay in Florence in 1817, Stendhal was affected by this disease caused by admiring the outstanding artistic beauties of that town (Capecchi, 2021).

The second phase, roughly from the end of the 19th century until about the Second World War, is instead that of “possibilism”. It no longer makes human choices and behaviours depend on nature but begins to place the environment and society in an equal position, where the former undoubtedly influences but does not determine human action and where the latter has broad autonomy over the environment, which can be modified by, and for the benefit of, societies.

Tourism, which begins to experience the transition to a less elitist modality, is affected by the emergence of this new paradigm with the organisation of a whole series of tourist services, usually described on travel guides, published to offer tourists the possibility to make better journeys and stays. Also, literary tourism has been quite an important development, so the first literary guides were published. Among them: the Italian Guida-almanacco letteraria scientifica artistica amministrativa e commerciale della città di Palermo (published by F. Zerman in 1875), where literary aspects of the territory are mixed with the other ones, or the Guida storico-artistica-letteraria di Rimini, Riccione, Cattolica, Verucchio, Gradara e S. Marino (published by L. De Mauri in 1923), specifically dedicated to the literary aspects of the Adriatic region.

In the years between the two wars, a third phase also began to appear: "voluntarism”, which sees in the relationship between society and the environment an almost total preponderance of the former over the latter. The extraordinary development of science and technology that characterised the Western world during the 20th century, giving the illusion of being able to eliminate all limits to human action, constituted the fertile ground on which this new conception took root, which lasted until the 1960s and 1970s.

It is the phase of the significant development of mass tourism, with the reckless proliferation of buildings from the seashore to the high mountains, the construction of tourist facilities and structures everywhere, the diffusion of family cars, and the realisation of new and increasingly capillary communication routes. Literary tourism went through a crisis, reducing itself to being residual compared to popular seaside or ski tourism. What remains of it participates in the same tendency to disrespect the environment, and rash choices will soon be regretted, forever ruining landscapes that had inspired great literary works (Squire, 1996).

The first great successes that smiled upon humanity, or at least a part, were sadly followed, especially with the exasperation of the voluntaristic conception, by even severe episodes that led to profound eventual thoughts. In the fourth phase, therefore, “technocentrism” is replaced by “ecocentrism”, which invokes a relationship of respect for nature on the part of human beings. The twenty years that go from the Stockholm Declaration on the human environment (1972) to the Rio de Janeiro United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (1992), through the Brundtland Report (1987), see the birth and definition of the concept of “sustainable development”. Sustainable development is defined as development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Its three main dimensions are:

  • environmental sustainability: It requires the use of environmental resources with respect to the constraints given by the regeneration and absorption capacity of ecological systems;
  • economic sustainability: The economic calculation of an action it requires integrating the two traditional parameters of capital and labour with the natural capital;
  • social sustainability: It requires a qualitative improvement in living conditions, i.e., more services (health, education, social) and work, respect and enhancement of cultural pluralism and local traditions, support for popular participation, substantial changes in consumers' lifestyles.

Tourism studies are also affected by the affirmation of the new sustainability paradigm, renewing themselves and adapting to the new conquests of scientific thought. Thus, the concept of sustainable tourism – also based on the three fundamental environmental, economic and social dimensions – was born, and, at the Conference of Lanzarote of 1995, was summarised as follows:

“Tourism development shall be based on sustainability criteria, which means that it must be ecologically bearable in the long term, as well as economically viable, and ethically and socially equitable for local communities” (Charter of Lanzarote, 1995, art. 1).

As far as literary tourism is concerned, this is when it becomes clear that it can constitute a sustainable tourism practice in urban and rural contexts (Asadi et al., 2022; Arcos-Pumarola et al., 2018). The example of the literary parks in Italy is emblematic since they conjugate the best level of tourist promotion with environmental protection of a site with cultural interests (Persi & Dai Prà, 2001).

Even if the concept of sustainability is nowadays commonly accepted as a reference paradigm, it is certainly not without limits, and the main ones will be briefly exposed here below.

Domenico Ruocco (1999) indicates a first one in the concept of environment adopted by the Declaration of Rio, since – even without a clearly stated definition – it gives the term a too naturalistic meaning, thus excluding the cultural component of the environment.

Scepticism for sustainability is also expressed by Marcella Schmidt di Friedberg (2001), regarding the diachronic dimension – between present and future – which underlies the concept of sustainable development. According to her, sustainability acquires the value of a conservative ideology, closely linked to the globalisation process and aimed at justifying what exists from a social and political point of view.

Among the latest criticisms of the concept of sustainability, the paradigm of “happy degrowth” (Latouche, 2006; Pallante & Pertosa, 2017), recently also declined as “happy frugality” (Latouche & Harpagès, 2017), has had particular success. Contrasting with the concept of development, it questions the mechanism of economic growth as a well-being factor.

The crisis of the concept of sustainable development has also dragged with it the concept of “sustainable tourism”, whose formulation alone is downgraded as an oxymoron: tourism (as modernly understood) and sustainability are two irreconcilable concepts. Sustainable tourism could only be that of small numbers or, as Brauer (2000) provocatively argues, that of those who stay home! Despite these limits of the concept of sustainability, nonetheless, today, there is practically no program or plan or project that is not inspired by the sustainability paradigm, as if to confirm that, even if it were a utopia, it would still be a “necessary utopia” (Manzi, 2001).

As far as literary tourism is concerned, the indicated criticisms are very interesting but not appropriate. The concept of environment restricted to its natural aspects, as indicated by Ruocco, cannot be pertinent for literary tourism since the cultural aspects of the landscape are crucial for it. Moreover, when dealing with literary tourism, it is vital to remember that it often generates, as other forms of tourism, innovation and development in a progressive way instead of crystallising retrograde situations, as feared by Schmidt di Friedberg.

Finally, literary tourism demonstrates that economic growth is not necessarily in conflict with the increase in well-being, as indicated by the supporters of the happy degrowth theory, and that tourist fluxes, adequately regulated, are compatible with sustainability (Saarinen & dell’Agnese, 2016).

How to cite this dictionary entry: Bagnoli, L. (2023). Environment, society, and literary tourism. In R. Baleiro, G. Capecchi & J. Arcos-Pumarola (Orgs.). E-Dictionary of Literary Tourism. University for Foreigners of Perugia.

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