Front and back, fit and fat: A Discourse Analysis of Health, Nature and Tourism in Alaska

Authors: Sara Newman*, University of Colorado - Denver
Topics: Tourism Geography, Human-Environment Geography, Medical and Health Geography
Keywords: National Parks; authenticity; nature; health; engagement; cruise ship tourism; public health
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/11/2018
Start / End Time: 8:00 AM / 9:40 AM
Room: Rampart, Sheraton, 5th Floor
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Attracting over one million visitors per year, Alaska is commonly characterized as cold, remote, rugged and, above all, natural. Alaska’s landscape itself is often described as “authentic” nature. The social construction of these “natural” places influences the ways in which people expect to experience them when visiting. In parallel fashion, interacting with nature is widely viewed as healthy, although also a socially constructed concept, and so too superimposes preconceived notions onto engagement with nature. With the explicit goal of “creating healthy outdoor recreation” opportunities and as places where many people seek to experience nature, U.S. National Parks function as a focal point where complex interpretations of the health-nature nexus play out. Yet tensions persist as to what constitutes an “authentic nature experience” and therefore a “healthy nature experience”. This ethnographic case study of Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park (KLGO) examines how these discourses affect the perceived health of two primary visitor populations, cruise ship tourists (through “inauthentic” front-country nature) and people attempting the 33-mile backcountry trail (through “authentic” back-country nature). Authenticity is the lens through which participants constructed ideas of “healthy” and “pure” engagement with nature. This is intimately linked to representations of cruise ship tourists (lazy, unhealthy, passively engaged) and backpackers (fit, healthy, actively engaged). Exploring the complexity of health-nature relationships inherently seeks to expand the definition of who can participate and receive health benefits from the natural environment beyond the gendered, racialized, able-bodied, ideal of an outdoor enthusiast.

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