The fascinating history of tourism

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(Last updated on: 27/05/2022)

The history of tourism is a long one. Whilst we may not always have had high speed trains, aircraft and luxurious cruise ships, people have long had the desire to be tourists.

History of Tourism | Travel and Tou...
History of Tourism | Travel and Tourism From The Ancient Years To Postmodern Times And Beyond

The history of tourism can largely be attributed to technological developments in transport. The more roads that are built, the more places people can drive. The more airports that open, the more places that people can fly to.

The history of tourism is also closely related to the global economic, social and political outlook. Someone with lots of money is more likely to travel somewhere for a holiday than someone who does not have much money, for example. Likewise, many tourists are not likely to travel to a destination that is suffering from political instability.

There are many ways that the tourism industry and grown and developed over the years. In this article I will explain some of the elements of the history of tourism.

The history of tourism: Ancient times

When did tourism really begin? We can’t pinpoint it and, for obvious reasons, we can only really guess about tourism in ancient times. There are no selfies and no travel brochures to look back on, but we do know that people DID travel in ancient times. Historians have found records that provide an insight into the reasons that people travelled, and how this evolved into tourism.

We know that cultures and nations moved their armed forces around in order to conquer other areas, and to control trade routes and various resources. This created foundations for future travel. As the Egyptian, Roman and Eastern Mediterranean Empires emerged, necessary travel turned into tourism. The Phoenicians, for example, travelled not only to develop trade routes but also because of curiosity. They had a desire to discover what lay beyond that area of the Mediterranean. 

And other peoples likely did the same. The Mayas in modern day Mexico, and members of the Shang Dynasty in modern day China, travelled to see what was beyond their own borders. They also wanted to spread their civilisations, of course. Historians have been able to find evidence of ancient travels – artefacts from other places turning up in excavations, that couldn’t be there unless the ancient people had their own form of tourism.

Learn more about the history of tourism in my new YouTube video!

The history of tourism: The Empire Era

It is hard to know when simple travel turned into what we would define as tourism. As mentioned, the Empire Era (beginning with the Egyptians, including the Greeks and stretching unit the eventual form the Roman Empire) was influential in the development of travel and tourism. As time went on, people travelled more. They travelled for various reasons: commercial, educational, governmental and religious purposes. With consolidated governments in different central locations established as early as the Egyptian Kingdoms (4850-715 BC), travel was a necessity.

And because travel was a necessity, so too were basic necessities. Lodging and food needed to be provided to those visiting from other areas, which likely gave way to a realisation that you could travel to another place just because. This is especially true of the Greeks (900-200 BC). They wanted to find fun in new locations – they promoted the use of a common language, and their money became a form of common currency.

Places that were important in terms of government activities turned into what we might call tourist attractions. With shops, places to eat and drink, sports to watch, gaming and even theatre, there was plenty to do if you travelled to a different area. This only evolved further with the ancient Romans. During their empire (500 BC – 300 AD), good roads were developed and water routes improved. Inns were opened, around 30 miles apart from each other – a relatively easy days journey in between, so you always had a place to rest at night. Horses could even be hired here.

Roman roads expanded into a 50,000-mile system. With their currency now almost universally accepted, and common languages such as Greek and Latin being used, travel constantly became easier and less stressful. Then came the common legal system. This allowed for people to feel safer and more protected as they traveled – whether that be for pleasure, business or adventure. Cities throughout the Roman empire (such as Pompeii) became destinations for the middle and upper classes to explore during their downtime.

This can teach us something about the way we travel today. Tourism booms when people have more free time (such as during school holidays) and currencies are easily exchangeable. There are common languages, and the existence of law allows for a feeling of personal safety. If any of these factors were to be removed, people would be less inclined to travel. This was seen during the Middle Ages, when tourism was in decline.

history of tourism

The history of tourism: The Middle Ages and the Renaissance Era

Throughout the Middle Ages (5-14th centuries AD) travel – and by extension tourism – was pretty much nonexistent. It became dangerous after the fall of the Roman Empire. While there had been a commonality among nations, there were now autonomous areas thanks to a feudal system. Transport was fragmented; so was language and currency. This made travelling to somewhere different much more difficult than it had been.

And when people did travel, it wasn’t for leisure. With the Roman Catholic Church gaining power, there were nine crusades in attempt to retake the Holy Land between 1096 and 1291 AD. But they all failed, and left people with a desire to see the world outside of their own locality. People were keen to experience different civilisations.

Merchants – like Marco Polo – started to travel far and wide after the failed crusades. Polo’s travels in particular (1295-1295 AD) were reported on, and people started to become more interested in travelling again.

So travel was reborn. During the Renaissance (14-16th centuries AD) more merchants travelled further afield. This was in part due to the church and royalty controlling larger geographic areas than they previously had done. Trade routes also started to reopen. Commercial activity grew, and people continued to venture out of their own towns and territories. 

The first real tourist, according to historians, was Cyriacus of Ancona. He journeyed around the Mediterranean, eager to learn about Greek and Roman history. His desire to learn about what had come before – and to see what remained – encouraged others to think about how travel could benefit education. And so, the Grand Tour Era emerged…

The history of tourism: The Grand Tour Era

The Grand Tour era is an important part of the history of tourism. The era of the Grand Tour (1613-1785) was when tourism as we know it really came into play. Starting with the most wealthy in society, people travelled to learn. It was fashionable, and soon became a status symbol in its own way. Those who were ‘coming of age’ would travel throughout Europe to see art, architecture, science and more in countries other than their own. Generally the most visited places were France, Switzerland, Germany and Italy. Each ‘Grand Tour’ would last a couple of years. People would travel by carriage, and be accompanied by someone older to take care of them.

This changed slightly with the introduction of the industrial revolution in around 1750. Economic and social structures were changed forever. The revolution meant that lengthy journeys such as a Grand Tour trip were no longer particularly viable for many people. Factory life and business management, and indeed modern industrialism as a whole, led to people becoming more tied down.

Transport changed too – it became more efficient as economies grew and technology advanced. Markets stretched across borders and individuals had higher incomes; travel was now for business and leisure, but with less free time trips were shorted. The tourism industry had to develop rapidly to ensure they could meet the newfound needs of potential customers.

History of tourism

The history of tourism: The Mobility Era

As time moved on, the economy (and personal wealth) continued to grow. Increased leisure time and more accessible travel meant that tourism boomed. Because less people were tied down to all-consuming jobs such as farm work and more had moved on to working in offices, jobs and factories, there was more free time available. The Mobility Era (1800-1944) was defined by an increase in travel to new locations both near and far.

With new roads, passenger trains, stagecoaches and sailing ships becoming more common, tourism continued to grow. France and Great Britain had fantastic road and railroad systems which made the idea of travel even more available to people.

Then along came Thomas Cook, who can definitely be credited with bringing travel and tourism to the general public- Thomas Cook is one of the most famous names in the history of tourism! He was the first to introduce a tour package – travel and accommodation, with food often included too. In 1841 he arranged for a tour of around 570 people to travel from Loughborough to Leicester. For a shilling the journey included food and entertainment. There was instant demand for more of the same, and so the full-time business of arranging and providing travel services was born!

The Mobility Era continued to make changes. Cars and air travel were introduced next; with Henry Ford’s mass production for the Model T (1914), individuals had more freedom to travel. And thanks to Orville and Wilbur Wright’s successful test of the aeroplane in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, commercial air travel was also introduced. This meant the time it took to travel long distance was much shorter, and thus people were more mobile.

The history of tourism: The Modern Era

Another important time in the history of tourism is the mobility era. The ability to move around and see new places was a start. Mass tourism continued to develop in the first half of the 20th century. George Westinghouse introduced the idea of paid leave from work, with a firm belief that allowing staff paid time off would be beneficial to productivity levels overall. This gave the working and middle classes in certain countries the time and money to fulfil their travel dreams – so the demand for tourism grew.

And as World War II came to an end in the 1940s, those who had been forced to travel during the war where keen to replicate this experience in a more positive way. They were now eager to travel for fun! They also wanted to share this with their loved ones, whether that be through travelling together or sharing stories that made these people want to travel too. With gas/petrol no longer rationed, economies growing and cars once again being mass-produced, people travelled around in their cars – this was especially true in America, where the motel business really took off. This is similar, in a way, to the inns during the Empire Era.

Many factors contributed to the exponential growth of the travel industry. Hotels and motels took to the franchising model of business expansion, and jet travel was properly introduced in the 1950s, becoming popular throughout the 1960s. Another fifties introduction helped: the credit card. Originally the Diners Club card, this provided travellers with the means to buy things wherever they were in the world without the hassle of currency exchange and carrying cash. To this day, credit cards are the preferred way to spend money when travelling.

So people had time, they had money – travel was safe and accessible. Tourism has simply continued to grow ever since. We now have mass tourism, and the people who engage in it can be split into two groups. These are ‘organisation mass tourists’ who make use of package deals and pre-prepared itineraries, and ‘individual mass tourists’. The second group travel independently but do use mass tourism services (airlines, hotel companies etc) which have been promoted in the media.

The history of tourism: The post-modern era

Travel is still ever-changing, though. People no longer necessarily travel just for the sake of travel – they want an immersive experience, adventure and the chance to give back to the local community. Tourism, and the travel companies with the industry, have to keep up with the different demands. 

Throughout the 21st century, Internet access has become more common and new borders have opened. There is always increased wealth and mobility of citizens. As different countries become attractive to tourists, their economy grows – which, in turn, makes the destination more attractive. This is why tourism is SO important!

There are always peaks and troughs when it comes to tourism. Terrorism, health scares and political/economic instability often discourage travel. There are now increased security procedures at airports, borders and attractions which can be off-putting for some people. But, for the most part, people love to travel.

In the post-modern tourism era, consumers are more savvy, more fussy and more aware. Nowadays, people care more about environmental conservation, community impact, economic leakage and other such issues and are far more considerate when they plan and undertake their travels.

Also, people now search for experiences that are authentic and are looking to experience a range of different types of tourism. Organisations working within the sector can now offer far more smart tourism experiences, such as virtual tourism– which was widely used during the Coronavirus outbreak of 2020.

Similarly, consumers are more Internet savvy in the post-modern era, meaning that they are leaning towards independent research and dynamic packaging as opposed to using the traditional package tourism methods that were so popular for so many years. In fact, as a result of this change in buying behaviour, many tour operators and travel agents have gone out of business, including the famous Thomas Cook.

You can learn exactly why Thomas Cook failed to survive, despite being such a prominent part of the history of tourism in the video below.

Learn all about the collapse of Thomas Cook in this informative news clip.

History of tourism- further reading

As you can see, the history of tourism is long and fruitful. While the industry has had its ups and downs, largely due to outside factors such as economic recession, war or a virus outbreak, it has continued to play an ever-important role in our lives. If you enjoyed this article on the history of tourism, I recommend that you take a look at these articles too-

  1. Aline Dobbie

    I am going to read carefully this whole long article and maybe some others that are relevant and promoted through it. Certainly we all in travel and tourism need to reflect on the current global crisis and how this will impact on future tourism. I specialise on India and also Greece, but live in Scotland where currently understandably the tourist industry is in desperation.

    • Dr Hayley Stainton

      Thanks Aline. Indeed, the tourism industry worldwide is experiencing desperate times. Let’s hope that things return to some form of normal soon.

  2. Sunday Anthony Tukura

    Very interesting and rich piece. How can I get a hard copy in Nigeria?

    • Dr Hayley Stainton

      I’m glad you liked it. There are no hard copies, just this website!

      • Rashid

        I’m glad to have nice pieces of information as a students in tourism and hospitality at the university for development studies Ghana I must say I’m grateful

  3. Fidan

    Thank you so much. This article was really helpful in my presentation.

  4. Natalia Ivashkina

    Dear Maam,

    Thank you very much for a very comprehensive article on the history of tourism. My report is about “Travel in the Middle Ages” and “Tourism since World War II.” I will surely reference your great article in my report.

    Natalia Ivashkina

  5. Javan Ogutu

    this is resourceful

  6. Tamah

    Very helpful indeed , thank you

  7. Biwah Agosavi

    I am so great full with the detailed information on the development of tourism industry..
    Will continue to keep in touch with you for more on the tourism industry.



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