THE TOURIST CITY

Edited by Dennis R. Judd and Susan S. Fainstein

Yale Univ. 340 pp. $40, paperback $17.95

One of the more noteworthy and startling developments of the past couple of decades has been the emergence of cities as magnets for international tourism. Once feared (especially by Americans) as dens of iniquity and random violence, cities are now treasured as repositories of the historic, the quaint, the entertaining and the desirable, and they have entered into a fierce competition for the tourist trade.

There's been a lot written and uttered on this subject, but relatively little of an ostensibly more serious character, so "The Tourist City" is of interest even though it is not, in truth, especially interesting. It consists of 16 essays, or papers, by academics, many of whom are sociologists and few of whom betray much comfort with the English language. It's rough sledding, in other words, but if you can get through the prose you'll find some information and ideas worth reflecting upon.

In their introduction the editors write that "on the eve of the twenty-first century, [cities] are becoming spaces for consumption in a global economy where services provide the impetus for expansion"; that "the globalization of mass tourism leads to an odd paradox: whereas the appeal of tourism is the opportunity to see something different, cities that are remade to attract tourists seem more and more alike"; that "quintessentially, the tourist is a consumer away from home" who wants not merely the pleasures of touring but trophies as well, not merely souvenirs but (often) expensive items that one would never purchase in the saner precincts of home.

More often than not, what the city offers to the tourist is not itself but what one essayist, Dennis R. Judd, aptly calls "the tourist bubble," which "is like a theme park," which Susan Fainstein and David Gladstone describe as follows: "Rather than being woven into the existing urban fabric, hotel and convention facilities, sports stadiums, restaurant districts, and downtown shopping malls are cordoned off and designed to cosset the affluent visitor while simultaneously warding off the threatening native."

This "militarization and privatization of urban space" has achieved, in this part of the world, its most successful form in the Harborplace/Camden Yards "theme park" in Baltimore, in which visitors are kept within a tight, sanitary bubble, rarely venturing much farther from it than Little Italy to the east or the art museum district to the north. Except for the USS Constellation anchored in the harbor and the Bromo-Seltzer tower just west of downtown, the visitor sees almost nothing that is distinctly, definitively Baltimorean, and much that could just as well be in Cleveland, Atlanta or any other city that has tried to copy Baltimore's example.

The influence of Walt Disney on these bubbles is pervasive and apparently irresistible. Richard Foglesong's chapter, "Walt Disney World and Orlando," is a useful, unhysterical examination of how Disney got that way and how, once firmly entrenched, it is "both sovereign government and private corporation," cowing local and state officials who are too eager for Disney dollars to define and defend the interests of communities that Disney invades. As is pointed out several times along the way, the ubiquitous presence of Disney's stores in tourist bubbles in other cities is evidence both of Disney's influence and of the standardization of those bubbles.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of these various essays is that almost all help define three kinds of cities that have emerged to serve, and compete for, tourists: "resort cities . . . created expressly for consumption by visitors," e.g., Las Vegas and Cancun; "tourist-historic cities [that] lay claim to a historic and cultural identity that tourists can experience," e.g., Prague and Boston; and "converted cities [that] have built an infrastructure for the purpose of attracting visitors, but . . . insulated from the larger urban milieu," e.g., Baltimore and Cleveland.

Interestingly, although many of the authors have critical or even harsh things to say about these places, especially the artificial, cookie-cutter tourist bubbles, the book's overall tone is hardly as adversarial as one might expect from an academic source. The authors acknowledge that tourism and tourists are frequently derided and mocked, but argue that tourism is now an industry of such immense size and importance that it must be viewed, in economic, cultural and social terms, much as the heavy industry of the past was viewed. In other words, tourism must be taken seriously; if at times the authors of these pieces take seriousness to the point of unreadability, credit should be given where it is due, and this indisputably is a serious book.

Jonathan Yardley, whose e-mail address is yardleyj@twp.com