Thinking about Tourism

Thinking about Tourism

Sorting through a pile of things on my desk this past weekend, I came across a brief report that I had set aside a few months ago, about a statement that Pope Benedict had issued in support of World Tourism Day. “I hope that tourism will increasingly promote dialogue and respect between cultures,” he had declared, “thereby becoming an open door to peace and harmonious cohabitation.”

I had taken special note of this proclamation, because there was a time in my career when I posed as an expert of sorts on the philosophy of tourism. To be sure, the circle of people who acknowledged my insights was rather small. Indeed, I was not aware of having any serious competitors.

My venture into this under-populated field of experts began quite innocently. As a relatively new philosophy faculty member at Calvin College in the early 1970s, I received a small grant from the Michigan Humanities Council for a scholarly project I was working on. In accepting the grant I had to agree to give a few talks, if called upon, on behalf of the Council. The Council was reaching out to the business community, encouraging them to invite academics in the humanities to give presentations about the relevance of their disciplines to practical life. I doubted that any group of business people would want to hear anything from a philosopher, so I readily agreed to the condition.

Much to my surprise—and frankly, to my chagrin!—there came a point when the Council informed me that my services had been requested by the West Michigan Tourism Association, a group that was having their annual membership meeting and wanted a philosopher to speak at their luncheon. I struggled a lot with what I could say to such a group, and I came up with what I thought was a fairly creative talk. Actually, it was pretty much along the lines that the Pope articulated in his recent proclamation, focusing on the ways in which travel can promote dialogue and cultural awareness.

As I wrote up my notes for the speech, I decided to offer Plato as a case in point. He is reported to have done some traveling in his youth as a member of the Athenian military, perhaps getting as far as India. The exposure to other cultures is thought to have stimulated the kind of probing questions that characterize his philosophical dialogues. I offered some thoughts about how travel can help us to see things in new ways, and I made a case for vacationing as family bonding through shared educational experiences.

When I actually met the group, however, I was a bit taken aback. The first person to introduce herself ran a petting zoo in northern Michigan. Others owned motels, gas stations, cafes, trailer parks and the like—mostly in small towns. Hardly the stuff of The Republic and the Meno! But I did find them to be kind folks, and they were quite receptive to what I had to say. One of them even asked me if I did Rotary lunches.

When it was over, I was glad that I had been forced into thinking about the tourism industry. It was an opportunity to reflect on the ways in which what we often describe in the abstract as “business” can actually be a form of service that promotes human flourishing. I realized the importance of exploring the ways in which very specific forms of business activity can be experienced as callings that serve the common good.

But my time with the tourism folks also revealed the more vulnerable dimensions of business activity. In the questions they posed to me, they made it clear that they were hurting people. This was the time of a major oil crisis, and tourism was down. The folks at the luncheon were worried about their livelihoods, the well-being of their families, and the economic health of their local communities. In the end, I wish I had given a more pastoral talk, addressing the underlying issues of dealing with the very basic hopes and fears that attend all of our lives.

I think it would be a good thing for the Pope to keep at this subject of tourism, as a case in point for some larger issues. Lord knows, we need more dialogue and cross-cultural sensitivities these days, along with a lot more “peace and harmonious cohabitation.” And we certainly need more messages about business activity as an opportunity to serve people in ways that please the Creator.

But we also need spiritual leaders to address those more basic issues that the folks at the West Michigan Tourism Association were experiencing. This too is a time when economic worries loom large—worries that are expressive of some of the deepest hopes and fears of the human condition.

The Pope might do well to speak to these matters by reminding us of the marvelous opening words of that great Vatican II document, Gaudiam et Spes: “The joy and hope, the grief and anguish of the people of our times, especially of those who are poor or afflicted in any way, are the joy and hope, the grief and anguish of the followers of Christ as well. Nothing that is genuinely human fails to find an echo in our hearts.” In retrospect, I wish I had explained those thoughts to the members of the West Michigan Tourism Association. They contain a powerful message for all of us in a time when economic worries loom large.


  1. Dr. Mouw,

    I just started reading your blog in the last couple of weeks. Thanks for your thoughts on tourism and the economy. Perhaps out of my own youth and naivety (and a current examination of socialist writers), some of the economic worries that we face seem so unwarranted. Again, I have years to go before worrying about retirement and a zealous belief that the church can learn to care for one another and ultimately, share all things in common.

    That being said, I have never seen tourism as a part of the cultural exchange and conversation that we pursue here at Fuller. So, thank you for that challenge to step back and see that. I plan on going overseas next summer and look forward to applying theory and finding out the stories and lifestyles of men and women in other places.

    Comment by James — January 22, 2008 @ 12:42 pm

  2. Good connection between tourism and respect of others. The American counterpart to Plato, Mark Twain said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” (Innocents Abroad).

    Comment by Chris — January 22, 2008 @ 2:36 pm

  3. Thank you for your meditative reflections on tourism. May I add my own reflections? As an FTS alum, Class of ‘51, I proceeded to Scotland for my Ph.D., added two years in Basel for further study, and since those golden days my wife and I have travelled to more than 85 countries. This experience fulfills my design for transcending one’s own circumstance. To travel and live in other lands and cultures lifts one about his place. And additionally to study history lifts one above his time. This might be a modest prescription for escaping the restrictions of parochialism.

    Comment by David H. Wallace — January 23, 2008 @ 10:12 am

  4. Thanks very much for this meditation. I was particularly encouraged by your citation of the Vatican II document and its exhortation: “The joy and hope, the grief and anguish of the people of our times, especially of those who are poor or afflicted in any way, are the joy and hope, the grief and anguish of the followers of Christ as well. Nothing that is genuinely human fails to find an echo in our hearts.”

    With this in mind, I would propose that tourism/travel can (and typically does) completely avoid exposure to these types of issues. Most often, the 50-story luxury hotels in various “far away” places are strategically located near to prime beach front and very far away from local inhabitants, who frequently are living in abject poverty.

    I do believe that tourism can rightly and simply serve as a valid means of refreshing our souls through recreation and enjoying the beauty of God’s creation. Moreover, I think that such recreation can serve as an act of worship. I would also propose, however, that we as Christians will advance God’s Kingdom by allocating at least some of our “tourism time” to visiting those many, many places around the globe where the “poor and afflicted” actually live. For example, while most Americans think nothing of it when they drink a glass of water with the simple turn of a faucet, 1.1 billion people in the world do not have access to safe water, and globally, a child dies every 15 seconds from water-related disease. In my own life, much of my travel has been in connection with seeking to help such persons obtain safe water, sanitation, and hygiene. As a board member of, I have found this type of travel to be incredibly rewarding. Indeed, I have learned much about “dialogue and respect between cultures” in this way. Thank you for reminding us that even something as mundane as tourism can be another way for us to offer ourselves as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God (Romans 12:1).

    Comment by Jeff Bjorck — January 24, 2008 @ 7:17 pm

  5. Beloved Dr.Mouw,

    Thank you for your elegance and honesty about the human condition. You share we are experiencing troubled times. AP printed, yesterday, that more and more people are turning to the church for help.

    Yes, travel does create a bridge between peoples and cultures. Also, knowing other languages helps create bonding with people. When I am able to fully speak a person’s native language or at least several words, they feel honored and respected. Communication is from the soul at that point. Over the years I chose to learn the word “thank you” in many languages.

    Dr. Mouw, as you know, we at Fuller represent many cultures, languages and denominations creating a microcosm of the earth’s people. What could be more international than our culture at Fuller?

    God bless.

    Sunny Murchison
    SOT M.Div Program – Recovery Ministry

    Comment by B.A. “Sunny” Murchison — January 25, 2008 @ 10:52 am

  6. Vintage Mouw. Seeing God in the oddest of places–even tourism. That’s good. Real good.

    Comment by Brandon Blake — January 29, 2008 @ 2:32 pm