Places and Destinations: Definition, Concepts, Theory

Place and destination explained: theory, concept, definition

Place branding – the name suggests it – is all about places. But what exactly is a place, or a destination? How come people’s perceptions of places can differ so widely and make them behave differently depending in which place they are?

Learn about:

  • Places as localities with social meaning;
  • Difference between nations and places;
  • Characteristics of tourist destinations.

Places as localities with social meaning

Places, in the geographical sense describe anything from towns, cities, regions, to entire countries (Hanna & Rowley, 2008). They constitute a particular locality “imbued with social meaning” (Pocock, 2006, p. 95).

Essentially, place is more than a physical space or “a passive container within which activities occur” (Meethan, 2006, p. 7). Rather, it is “constructed – and continuously reconstructed – through social and political processes that assign meaning […and can trigger powerful] emotional sentiments that influence how people perceive, experience, and value the environment” (Cheng, Kruger, & Daniels, 2003, pp. 87-88).

Whereas landscapes are often the most visible feature of places (Gibson & Davidson, 2004; Relph, 2004, see also Campelo, Aitken, Gnoth, & Thyme, 2009), places should not be reduced to landscapes alone, as a combination of many different aspects contributes to a place’s distinctness, including specific landmarks, historical events, or cultural characteristics (Campelo, Aitken, & Gnoth, 2011, p. 5).

Describing the “real” nature of a place is difficult because “places are, in and of themselves, social constructs that defy ready definition, categorisation, and measurement” (Cheng et al., 2003, p. 90).

According to Corbett (2006, p. 17), the “meanings that individuals associate with a place may have purely instrumental or utilitarian values (what the land ‘is good for’) as well as intangible ones like belonging, beauty, and spirituality.” Themes of belonging and identity are also stressed by Cheng et al. (2003), who notes that places influence people’s view of themselves and what they consider appropriate behavior.

In the place branding context, nations are about politics, whereas places – especially tourist destinations – are about commerce and promotion.

Destinations: deliberately constructed, imagined communities

Unlike nations, discourses of places – especially in a place branding context – tend to have a commercial rather than a political focus, often crafted to promote a certain place for tourists or to support a country’s export market.

The material, or commercial, dimension of discursive representations of places is most visible in tourist destinations: geographical regions explicitly branded and positioned for tourist enjoyment and all sorts of travel activities (Ritchie & Crouch, 2003).

As is the case with places in general, destinations never consist of only one statement or action (Saarinen, 2004), but function as the site and subject of various and sometimes competing discourses (Papen, 2005). They are, according to McGibbon (2006, p. 142), “surrounded by entire symbolic complexes of images originating from diverse sources, including art, photography, literature, film, music, television and other forms of advertising.”

Conceived as a discursively constructed representation of a specific geographical place, a destination “influences and organises both the actions of visitors and the conceptions of the local residents themselves” (Govers & Go, 2009, p. 15).

Referring to Anderson (1983), Meethan, Anderson and Miles (2006) have suggested that destinations constitute “imagined communities” for tourists and hosts.

Moreover, as tourism spaces, destinations are deliberately constructed to fulfill specific tourist expectations (Meethan, 2006). The values associated with specific tourist destinations play a crucial role regarding the degree to which people will consider their travel experiences as satisfying and as meeting their expectations (Meethan, 2006):

By looking at the narratives of place, the stories, histories and myths that are associated with people and place, and by acknowledging the complexities involved in the ways in which people actively engage with their environment, together with the tensions between expectations and realisation, we can arrive at a more nuanced understanding of the production and consumption of tourist spaces.
(Meethan, 2006, p. 7)


Anderson, B. (1983). Imagined communities: Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism. London, UK: Verso Editions.

Campelo, A., Aitken, R., & Gnoth, J. (2011). Visual rhetoric and ethics in marketing of destinations. Journal of Travel Research, 50(1), 3-14. doi: 10.1177/0047287510362777

Campelo, A., Aitken, R., Gnoth, J., & Thyme, M. (2009). Place branding: Representing sense of place. Paper presented at the Australia and New Zealand Marketing Academy (ANZAM) Conference, Monash University, Melbourne, Australia. Link

Cheng, A., Kruger, L., & Daniels, S. (2003). ‘Place’ as an integrating concept in natural resource politics: Propositions for a social science research agenda. Society & Natural Resources: An International Journal, 16(2), 87-104. doi: 10.1080/08941920309199

Corbett, J.B. (2006). Communicating nature: How we create and understand environmental messages. Washington, DC: Island Press.

Gibson, C., & Davidson, D. (2004). Tamworth, Australia’s ‘country music capital’: Place marketing, rurality and resident reactions. Journal of Rural Studies, 20(4), 387-404. doi: 10.1016/j.jrurstud.2004.03.001

Govers, R., & Go, F. (2009). Place branding: Glocal, virtual and physical identities, constructed, imagined and experienced. Basingstoke, United Kingdom Palgrave Macmillan.

Hanna, S., & Rowley, J. (2008). An analysis of terminology in place branding. Place Branding and Public Diplomacy, 4(1), 61-75. doi: 10.1057/palgrave.pb.6000084

McGibbon, J. (2006). Teppich-swingers and skibums: Differential experiences of ski tourism in the Tirolean Alps. In K. Meethan, A. Anderson & S. Miles (Eds.), Tourism consumption and representation: Narratives of place and self (pp. 140-157). Wallingford, UK: CAB International.

Meethan, K. (2006). Introduction: Narratives of place and self. In K. Meethan, A. Anderson & S. Miles (Eds.), Tourism consumption and representation: Narratives of place and self (pp. 1-23). Wallingford, UK: CAB International.

Meethan, K., Anderson, A., & Miles, S. (Eds.). (2006). Tourism, consumption and representation: Narratives of place and self. Wallingford, UK: CAB International.

Papen, U. (2005). Exclusive, ethno and eco: Representations of culture and nature in tourism discourses in Namibia. In A. Jaworski & A. Pritchard (Eds.), Discourse, communication and tourism. Clevedon, United Kingdom: Channel View Publications.

Pocock, C. (2006). Sensing place, consuming space: Changing visitor experiences of the Great Barrier Reef. In K. Meethan, A. Anderson & S. Miles (Eds.), Tourism consumption and representation: Narratives of place and self (pp. 94-112). Wallingford, UK: CAB International.

Relph, E. (2004). Temporality and the rhythms of sustainable landscapes. In T. Mels (Ed.), Reanimating places: A geography of rhythms (pp. 111-121). Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing.

Ritchie, J., & Crouch, G. (2003). The competitive destination: A sustainable tourism perspective. Cambridge, UK: CABI Publishing.

Saarinen, J. (2004). Destinations in change: The transformation process of tourist destinations. Tourist Studies, 4(2), 161-179. doi: 10.1177/1468797604054381

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