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Article Breakdown: The Role of Trails in the Creation of Tourist Space (MacLeod, 2017)

Summary and Application By: Kelsey Johansen

Article Summary

Trails, tracks and routes are valuable applied tourism products. But what is their role in the construction of tourism spaces? In her article, MacLeod (2017), a researcher from the United Kingdom, explores the potential for trails to promote a more engaged, multi-vocal and sensory experience of place as "flexible, interpretive tools that allow a multiplicity of stories to be told and [that] encourage visitors towards a more engaged interaction within the spaces through which they tour"(p. 423).

In this Article Breakdown, I explore the key findings of MacLeod's (2017) journal article on The role of trails in the creation of tourist space published in the Journal of Heritage Tourism and talk about how her findings can be applied to trail organizations in Canada. If you're interested in reading the original, full, academic article, you can access it here.

Trails As Tourism Products

The popularity of trails has increased exponentially within the last three decades, with explosive growth in their numbers, popularity and use during the COVID-19 pandemic. Trails "are found in urban, rural, coastal and even underwater settings and provide a themed journey" (MacLeod, 2017, p. 423). Trails can vary in length, degree of difficulty, and mode of transportation (hiking, cycling, paddling, skiing, dog sledding, equestrian, dirt bike, ATV, OHV, etc.).

Whether linear, loop, long-distance, rail-trail, dirt, gravel, water, urban, rural, or wilderness in nature, trails "are of interest as applied tourism products as they are useful tools for destination managers, providing opportunities for interpretation, assisting with visitor management and creating a strong destination image" (MacLeod, 2017, p. 423). Successful 'destination trails' put the visitor experience at the centre of their trail experience design by employing interpretative and transformational storytelling and work with trail towns along the route to create a connected and meaningful continuity within the 'off-trail' dining and hospitality / accommodation experience(s) provided to diverse trail users.

In her article, MacLeod (2017) acknowledges that "the themed trail or route is, of course, not a new concept and many of today’s popular trails are based on ancient pilgrim or trade routes and hiking pathways" (p. 423). She goes on to discuss how new trails are being developed specifically to "satisfy the growing need to create diversified place products and to address the demand for more individualised tourism experiences" (MacLeod, 2017, p. 424). As such there has been a proliferation of: food, craft beer, and wine trails, heritage interpretation trails, historical trails, creative and / or art trails, water trails, and trails that provide multi-purpose experiences (e.g. combining adventure activities like cycling with vineyard tours).

Trails as Tourism Spaces

So how do trails become tourism spaces, and what are the practical implications of how academics theorize tourism spaces for trail managers? Well, according to MacLeod (2017), we first need to understand what we mean by tourism spaces.

Space in this sense refers not only to the physical landscapes of tourism but also to ‘the imaginary and symbolic spaces which frame the travel experience’... tourist spaces are therefore increasingly seen as both physically, culturally, and symbolically constructed (MacLeod, 2017, p. 424).

In this sense, "the production of tourist space involves both the physical setting and the socio-cultural context that creates it and is equally a metaphorical and a material form of construction" (MacLeod, 2017, p. 424). For example, successful historic, archaeological, and cultural trails do this by helping visitors to metaphorically travel back in time, and make meaningful connections to historical place, events, and people.

As linear visitor attractions, trails organise the environments that they inhabit and create new tourist spaces using selected themes and stories. The trail’s task is therefore to create a sequence of sites to be visited and in doing so it creates a sense of order and a structured, chronological narrative. This means of producing space creates a unifying frame through which the diversity of place can be viewed. The trail as narrative is a useful means of conceptualising these tourism products – like a literary text, the trail presents events and sites in chronological order to make sense of the place and tell a coherent story. A destination is therefore consumed through the unifying topography of the trail, the visitor following real and virtual markers which direct the gaze and manage the experience.

This is turn makes for a very cohesive, easily bounded, and easy to understand tourism experience.When creating tourism trails, it is important to create a product that tells a story; one that has a beginning, middle, and end, as well as signposting (literally and figuratively) that explains how the trail users can navigate, interpret, and make meaning of, the experiences along the way. This can be achieve by understanding two concepts, which MacLeod (2017) introduces in her article, namely theming and gazing.

Theming refers to a "deliberate commodification of space for specifically leisure/tourism-oriented consumption" (MacLeod, 2017, p. 425). One of the best examples of this is the Theme Park "which provides a highly controlled environment where the visitor experience, interpretation, attractions and hospitality are incorporated" (MacLeod, 2017, p. 425). In the concept of trails, themed landscapes are spaces that are deliberatly created around specific cultural and / or heritage themes.

Gazing is another theme explored by MacLeod (2017), and refers to when "tourists experience place through a variety of senses and engagements – thus they are not simply an audience but are actively performing within, and therefore creating, their own tourism experience" (p. 426).

Put together, the concepts of theming and gazing help academics and practitioners to explore and thus understand how tourists’experience space by emphasizing their active engagement with space as an 'embodied practice' - namely how tourists' use their bodily movement, in this case the act of hiking, and five senses (sight, smell, taste, touch, and sound) to experience tourist spaces, in this case a trail, leading to what MacLeod (2017) calls an 'embodied, experiential, engagement with place' (p. 427).

Application to Canadian Trails

MacLeod (2017) argues that knowing this allows trail designers and builders to deliberatly create a more embodied trail experience at the design stage, by:

  • Linking sites along a trail together to tell a cohesive story;

  • Ensuring that the story has a beginning, middle, and end;

  • Employing interpretation (signage) and design features (terrain, art installations, etc.) to engage the five senses; and,

  • Extending the trail experience beyond the trail to foster a cohesive Trail Town experience that use informal and formal interactive attractions such as events, markets, artists’ studios, pubs, and street vendor, etc. to extend the experience into community, fostering meaningful connections, and support local businesses and economic development.

Using this approach, trail designers and builders can help a trail become "more than the sum of its constituent parts – encourag[ing] visitors to make connections between sites, landscapes and other features of the journey, [which] interplays with the meditative, embodied practice of walking to encourage active participation" (MacLeod, 2017, p. 427).

According to MacLeod (2017), "food and wine trails are particularly well-placed to offer opportunities for this type of embodied experience" (p. 427). However, other trails employ different approaches. Let's take a look at one of my favourite Southern Ontario Trails, and the story that it tells as a Canadian example of storytelling, placemaking, theming and gazing in trail design.

Example: The GeoTime Trail (Waterloo, Ontario)

The GeoTime Trail opened in the City of Waterloo in 2007, coinciding with the 150th anniversary of the City, the University of Waterloo's 50th anniversary and marked the 150th kilometre of trail laid in the city.

GeoTimeTrail Trailhead Signage

The GeoTime Trail traces the City of Waterloo's geological past through interpretive signs along the route with each metre of the 4.5 kilometre trail marking one-million years of geological history, with every centimetre represents 10,000 years and every millimetre represents 100 years. Each of the Archean and Proterozoic eons as well as the Paleozoic, Mesozoic and Cenozoic eras are coloured differently on the map below, allowing hikers to feel as though they are walking through time.

Map of the GeoTime Trail © City of Waterloo

Through the use of interpretative signage (numbered 1 through 18 on the map below), the trail teaches users about the geological periods, including: where they start and end; when different biological organisms appeared on Earth; and when major catastrophic events took place. It also features a sundial where you can learn how to tell the time.

Cenozoic Era Interpretative Sign on the GeoTime Trail

The GeoTime Trail was the first of its kind in Canada, and was outlined in the Canadian contributions to the UNESCO-sponsored international Year of Planet Earth in 2008.

If you are interested in visiting the GeoTime Trail, it begins at Columbia Street West in Waterloo, west of Erbsville Road. It then runs right on Salzburg Drive, left on Munich Crossing, right on Munich Circle to the 872 Munich Circle.

Where To Go from Here

If you're looking for more information about trail tourism, check out our earlier blog posts 'Trail Towns and The Trail Economy: Exploring the Benefits' by Jane McCulloch, 'Recreation Ready or Tourism Ready: What Carrying Capacity Has To Do With It' by Kelsey Johansen, or 'Transformative Placemaking, Regenerative Tourism, and Trails' by Kelsey Johansen.

Get In Touch

If you have questions about how to leverage this information within your own trail organization, including how to apply any of the study's recommendations to your trail or how to design trail tourism spaces that integrate with trail towns, please reach out to us at:


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