Difficulties with Critical Geography

For a number of years a number of Professors in Human Geography (and some related disciplines) based in the German-speaking part of the European continent, with special interests in social theorising in Human Geography meet on a regular basis to critically discuss new and old developments in this field. This very informal and open group consists of Professors from Flensburg, Bayreuth, Hannover, Heidelberg, Berlin, Bonn, Frankfurt, Halle, Fribourg (CH), Bolzano (Italy), Rotterdam (NL), Dresden, Bremen, Leipzig, Oxford (UK), Zurich (CH), Erlangen, Jena, Curitiba (Brasil), Nijmegen (NL), and some other places, and they regularly meet at a beautiful retreat-location at the shore of lake Zurich or at some other places, to freely read and deliberate on these theories. One of those seldom moments of free critical thinking without the daily pressures of academic performance and positioning.

While discussing social theories it was amazing to note that even though the German-speaking scientific community historically and traditionally has always had a very strong contribution to social theorising, while currently, it seems as if new developments in social theorising, irrespective of whether they originate from continental or overseas traditions, are only perceived and adopted in the field of geography if they have been ruminated by the Anglo-Saxon scientific community. This implies, that one only looks at continental thinking through an Anglo-Saxon lens, which very often does not take the contextuality of the origins of these theories into account or only in a rather distorted way.  Many uses of these theories are therefore based on only un-contextualised half-knowledges and cannot do full justice to their original ideas and objectives. For this group of Professors in Human Geography, this initiated the endeavour to revisit the original versions of these theories and to critically re-think them in relation to the problems and situations of today. This informal working group, established in 2018 is now known as the “German Theory”-group.

Although, as a group, we want to stay away from the “publish or perish” dictum, several publications and conference contributions have spontaneously emerged out of this group thinking. The most recent publication is the book by Poltical Geography Prof. Benedikt Korf from the University of Zurich on the “Difficulties with Critical Geography. Studies on a reflexive theory of society” just published in German by Transcript Publishers in Bielefeld, and in full-text available for free as open source at: https://www.transcript-verlag.de/978-3-8376-6230-6/schwierigkeiten-mit-der-kritischen-geographie/. Of course, it is too pretentious to say that it originates out of this group, as this is the personal achievement and opinion of Prof. Benedikt Korf.

This highly recommendable book specifically addresses critical theorising, from a critical perspective, in an attempt to make them really critical again. The back cover summary reads as follows: Scientific criticism increasingly spares itself. It likes to produce rash generalisations and cheap assessments. Refusal to reflect promotes conformism and half-education. These protective positions spare critics the arduous work of self-criticism – intermediate tones, ambivalences and contradictions are faded out. Benedikt Korf analyses the resulting difficulties in a differentiated way. Using the example of critical geography, he illustrates the often hegemonic position of the term ‘critical’ in the social sciences and humanities.

Workshop “Coping with overtourism in Europe”

On November 10-11, 2022 Prof. Gert-Jan Hospers and Sebastian Amrhein organised a successful multi-sited workshop on Overtourism in Europe, taking place both in Kleve at the University of Applied Science, just across the border and at the Radboud University Nijmegen.

During the Covid-19 crisis, the problem of overtourism seemed to have disappeared… What a relief for some places. It also made us aware of the forgotten qualities of these tourist places. At the same time new touristic places, especially those away from the crowded hotspots were (re)discovered. The countryside resorts or individual accommodations were popular for staycations. But currently, overtourism is back again. and maybe in the first instance in even more severe forms as there is a real need for catching up/meeting up and breaking out of our Covid-19 isolation again.

Maybe this is also a crucial window of opportunity to release measures to curb overtourism structurally.  To do so one needs a thorough understanding of what overtourism really is and what causes and effects it has, beyond the superficial and unscrutinised impression that this is a bad thing, even though we all also experience how enriching, recuperative and socially rewarding touristic experiences are. At the same time, for many others, it is also a highly needed source of income. So we need to be careful about oversimplifying and (pre-)judging overtourism.

In the same way, as migration is thought to be the cause of everything evil in our society in the eyes of many right-wing populists, we need to be careful about blaming overtourism for everything evil at the touristic hotspots, as that might distract us from the real causes of some of the problems. For example at some destinations, we notice the precarious working conditions of the workers in the tourist industry, but often migration and employment laws, and not the tourists themselves are the real cause. Sometimes we also observe that certain groups are very expressive about their opposition to tourism, while others who are less vocal are much more ambivalent in their opinion, or are more dependent and cannot allow themselves to be critical, resulting in rather one-sided perspectives. The Covid-19 crisis in tourism therefore can also be rather revealing about the real character of the effects of overtourism or the real reasons for the opposition to overtourism. This kind of critical stance towards the phenomenon of overtourism was also the starting point of this small expert workshop, with the aim to search for the real and core aspects of overtourism, in the hope to find better and more effective ways to cope with it and to make these tourist destinations to better and (socially and ecologically) more sustainable places.

It is therefore certainly useful to first critically deconstruct the way ‘overtourism’ is used in the different debates. What is really meant or unstated implied with the term ‘overtourism’? (Eva Erdmenger). Did we leave out the host community in the way tourism was propagated? (Andreas Kagermeier). What role do digital platforms play in overtourism? (Sina Hardaker).  The local circumstances of overtourism may also differ from place to place (Amsterdam, Prague, and many more of the usual iconic touristic hotspots, but also small places such as Giethoorn or Beuningen) were addressed by several of the speakers (Fabian Weber, Miroslav Roncak,  Gert-Jan Hospers). This also lead to the discussion of different modes of dealing and coping with the return of overtourism after the pandemic (Jürgen Schmude, Lola Kuenen, Robert Fletcher), e.g. by focussing on more quality tourism, which then also coined the question of where the others should go? or by co-designing the tourist attractions together with the local community (Roos Gerritsma). Finally, also those aspects which might only sideways be related to tourism but are often central aspects of the opposition against overtourism, such as the bad labour conditions (Moritz Langer) or the circumstances which make protest more or less vocal (Sebastian Amrhein) mentioned above were discussed, providing a much more nuanced picture of today’s overtourism and the way they constitute the quality of places.