The “Soul” Tourist: Is There Such a Thing?

When you vacation or visit places far from home, are you the kind of tourist that gets the kitschiest fanny pack money can buy and takes as many selfies as possible, or do you embed yourself in the experience and get to know the people? Do you think that it’s possible for tourists to have epiphanies—spiritual moments even—as tourists? This is a question that researchers have asked, noting that tourism can be large part of any state or country’s economy, and Daniel H. Olsen, one of our Geography professors, recently added to that discussion with a review of that research in a tourism journal.


Researchers Stephen Wearing, Matthew McDonald, and Jo Ankor authored a study in which they explored how tourists can let the country go through them, rather than just going through the country. “These ‘moments of sudden and significant insight…[can] lead to…profound, positive, and enduring transformation through a reconfiguration of an individual’s most deeply held beliefs about self and the world’,” they say, summarizing some of the extant research on the subject. In other words, one can return from their journey with their self-identity fundamentally changed.

Since tourism is one of the fastest-growing economic sectors in the world, according to the United Nations’ World Tourism Organization, and more than one-third of adults sampled worldwide say that they would like to take a humanitarian vacation, the creation of these kinds of experiences by host entities and the awareness of them by members of the public is important. Thus, Dr. Olsen elaborates on Wearing’s study by suggesting that the soul is a tourist identity, that a person who shifts from the visual stimulus of the “tourist gaze” to focus on “embodied experiences” is more likely to engage their soul in their tourist experience. While both researchers agree and acknowledge that religion can play a role in a tourist’s spiritual experience, Dr. Olsen asserts that interacting with body and spirit (the soul) will produce an even deeper experience than just an epiphany. It will help tourists embody their experience, rather than just look at an event or person. This kind of experience allows the tourist to see the deeper meaning and even understand the place and its people.

To have that kind of meaningful tourist experience, Wearing suggests that tourists:

  1. Be open to the differences in the people. This is enhanced when the trip entails unpredicted travel.
  2. Personal encounters with the locals. Face-to-face interactions with the people you’re visiting helps you to learn about their differences, and appreciate them.

Just as a missionary or a volunteer would think, tourists who want to have a deeper connection with the people they encounter are looking for more in their vacation that a cool fridge magnet.  Wearing suggests that, “Tourists are not passive consumers of either destinations or their interpretations, but are actively engaged in a multisensory, embodied experience whereby they have the opportunity to create new elements of self-identity” (p. 165).

Do you agree? Have you had a vacation that was more than a visit? What made it so?



Daniel H. Olsen (2016): Other journeys of creation: non-representational theory, co-creation, failure, and the soul, Tourism Recreation Research, DOI: 10.1080/02508281.2016.1261782

Wearing, S., McDonald, M., & Ankor, J. (2016). Journeys of creation: Experienceing the unknown, the other and authenticity as an epiphany of the self. Tourism Recreation Research, 41(2), 157–167

Jarvis, N. A. (1997). Taking a break: Preliminary investigations into the psychology of epiphanies as discontinuous change experiences (Doctoral Thesis). University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Photos compliments of Wiki Commons and BYU Photo

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