The history of the hotel industry | Understanding tourism

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(Last updated on: 25/11/2020)

The history of the hotel industry is a long one. Dating back to ancient times, hotels have played a key role in the growth of the tourism industry. But hoe has the hotel industry changed over the years?

In this article I will provide you with a brief history of the hotel industry. Read on to learn more…

What is a hotel?

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Before looking into the history of the hotel industry, it is important to recognise what a hotel is.

A hotel is defined as an establishment providing accommodation, meals, and other services for travellers and tourists. 

A hotel is somewhere where one can sleep away from their home. This could be for a holiday or for business purposes, or for convenience when travelling for any other reason such as a hospital appointment in a different area. They are short-term lets ranging from one night to a few weeks.

Hotels take all shapes and sizes and there are a variety of different types of hotels found throughout the world. In fact, the nature of hotels has changed and evolved throughout the years- the history of hotels is a long and interesting one!

The first hotels

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Hotels go back to ancient times. Not in the way we know them, but right back to the early days of civilisation.

In those days there were places where you could exchange money or goods for a roof over your head for the night. This was especially important at this time because journeys were taken by foot (or horse and cart, later), so getting places took much longer than it does now.

While this matches the concept of a hotel as we know it, it was often just a room in somebody’s home. Often it was actually an outhouse! At this point, hotels were somewhere to stay out of necessity as part of a journey – rather than somewhere to make a journey to.

However, savvy ancient business men realised that this was something they could expand on.

In the Ancient Roman times, society began to see more of what we would equate to today’s hotels. 

Hospitia, derived from the word hospitality, was used to describe rooms rented in private homes, as explained above. Over time these were commercialised.

The hospitia started to offer food and drink as well as somewhere to sleep, and became somewhere that people would travel to for relaxation and holiday purposes – the upper classes, that is!

One example is the House of Sallust, a popular hotel in Pompeii before the city was destroyed. This is now a popular dark tourism destination.

See the 10 oldest hotels in the world in this short video clip.

The history of hotels: the middle ages

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The history of hotels is a slow one.

During the middles ages inns and staging posts were established as rest spots for travellers, while abbeys and cloisters also offered places for tired travellers to spend the night.

Inns cropped up around Europe and the rest of the world, but travelling during this time wasn’t particularly safe and/or common. Pilgrims, couriers and government workers were most likely to uses these services.

The modern hotel industry

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The hotel industry as we know it started around the fifteenth century.

In France and England, laws were introduced that meant inn keepers and hotel owners must keep a guest register. Around 600 inns were registered in England at this time.

These were precursors to the modern hotel, and very similar to what was offered in Ancient Rome and Ancient Greece. There were just more laws in place now!

These inns provided food and somewhere to sleep as well as stabling and fodder for any horses within the travelling party.

Typically, an inn would consist of an inner court with bedrooms on either side, kitchen and parlour at the front, and stables at the back.

Coaching inns were vital before the introduction of rail travel. In England, these were about 7 miles apart and there were up to 10 in any one town. There was plenty of rivalry between inn owners!

They allowed horses to be switched out so the journey went as smoothly as possible. Still, at this point, few people were travelling for ‘leisure’ purposes except for the very wealthy. It was mostly the mail coaches and business trips.

In order to adapt and try to become the inn of choice in any one town, inn owners started running their lodgings in a more professional manner. This meant proper timetables and fixed food menus. This is where we start to see likenesses to the modern hotel industry!

Hotels in the 18th and 19th centuries

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The history of hotels has not changed massively since the 18th century.

During the middle of the 1700s, hotels simply grew and provided more. As wealthy people were beginning to explore further afield and travel became more of a leisure activity than it ever had been (e.g. the upper classes of ancient Greco-Roman culture), hotels had to become grander and give their guests something else.

One of the first modern hotels to open was in Exeter in 1768. This was followed by the City Hotel in NYC. However, it wasn’t until the early 1800s that people took the idea on board and hotels started to pop up throughout Europe and North America.

Mivart’s Hotel opened in London in 1812 (later becoming Claridges), while Tremont House in Boston, USA opened a few years later in 1829. Tremont House holds the record for many industry firsts. It was the first hotel to have indoor plumbing with toilets and baths, as well as free soap (a tourist favourite) and a proper reception desk area which did more than just take payment. As time went on, more and more hotels opened.

Thanks to the industrial revolution, there was regular but structured work so people had more income as well as time off. Travel started to be more accessible and more appealing.

With the invention of trains and cars as well as reduced working hours and other benefits, travel was no longer something only the wealthy could do! Demand lead to a turning point in the history of hotels as they increased in popularity hugely. By the 1900s, there were many hotels around the globe.

The history of hotels: the 20th century

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As the physical aspect of travelling got easier and became more commonplace, the hotel industry boomed.

The second half of the 20th century saw a massive boom in the economy, too. This meant that the population grew, demographics completely changes and many places became more urban. As the desire to travel increased, so did the different types of hotels.

The boom in hotels was a prominent part of the history of tourism. With travel becoming a more popular activity, there had to be plenty of variety. This is why we now see beach resorts and motels, golf resorts and budget hostels around the globe.

The diversity within business meant that different target audiences were catered to! It is also meant prices could vary depending on what particular hotels were offering. Hotel categorisation brought a whole new level to the industry.

And of course, international travel opening up meant that hotels and resorts around the globe had a whole new clientele to cater to: foreign tourists. People were no longer just travelling domestically. They were now visiting other countries to explore, staying for longer time periods and expecting more out of their trip.

So… while the concept of a hotel hasn’t really changed since time began, they have always had to adapt to the next big thing…

The internet and its impact on the hotel industry

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Like with everything, the history of hotels was impacted by the internet. 

The travel industry responded quickly to the rise of the internet, and continues to do so. Internet access means people have more choice. It means it is easier to book things like hotels (as well as flights, transfers and car hire) without having to leave your house. You can compare the prices of hotels, reserve without payment and cancel for free.

The digital age has meant the travel industry has needed to adapt. However, it has also presented new opportunities for hoteliers and other industry professionals. 

With thousands of options at their fingertips on sites like booking.com, avid travellers are able to read reviews and see real-time price updates for hotels in their own area or in far-flung corners of the globe. Tamara Lohan from Mr & Mrs Smith, a boutique hotels website, told the Guardian: “We pivoted from a hotel guidebook to become an online travel agent just as the internet started to become a place people could finally trust with their credit cards. In the whole of that first month online we did 10 bookings – now we do 300 a day.” While she says the business changed its model due to internet and allows online bookings, it still runs 24/7 customer service support via phones “for people who want that human element”. 

The post modern hotel industry

eco lodges in gambia

What is the future of the hotel industry?

In recent years we have seen a significant growth in the sharing economy. The concept is simple- peer to peer transactions are becoming increasingly popular over traditional consumer purchases.

So what does this mean for the history of the hotel industry? Well, recent times have seen a decline in hotel bookings and reductions in prices in some areas. One of the main culprits is Airbnb, but there are other similar platforms too. Airbnb allows people to share their accommodations with other travellers.

In the future, I predict further moves towards platforms such as Airbnb. I also predict, in response to the 2020 COVID outbreak, an increased importance placed on cleanliness at hotels.

With the growth of niche tourism and an increased consumer desire for the new and the different, I also predict that we will see more unique hotels pop up throughout the world, such as ecolodges and themed hotels.

The first hotel in the world: Nisiyama Onsen Kiunkan

A blog post about the history of the hotel industry would not be complete without mentioning Nisiyama Onsen Kiunkan.

According to the Guinness Book of World Records, this is the oldest operational hotel in existence. You can find it Yamanashi, Japan. It opened in AD 707 and has been open ever since, run by the same family for forty-six generations. The hotel was given the title in 2011.

The Nisiyama Onsen Kiunkan is a four-star hotel with 35 rooms decorated in beautifully Japanese-style decor. The rooms have free-flowing baths and stunning views of the Kai Mountains as well as the Hayakawa and Yukawa Valleys. You can book a stay at the Nisiyama Onsen Kiunkan and experience it for yourself!

Further reading

Now that pretty much sums up the history of the hotel industry. Are you interested to learn more about the hotel and tourism industry? I have lots of articles that I’m sure you will LOVE! Here are a few of my favourites:

1 Comment
  1. Abhinav

    Dr. Hayley

    A loud shout out for this article

    Reply

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Hi, am Dr Hayley Stainton

I’ve been travelling, studying and teaching travel and tourism since I was 16. Through Tourism Teacher I share my knowledge on the principles and practice of travel and tourism management from both an academic and practical perspective.

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