Man with Suitcase - CC0 by Mantas Hesthaven

A Brief History of Tourism

The tourism business is at least 2,000 years old. It began when wealthy citizens of ancient Rome, deciding they would rather spend their summers away from the city, took trips to the countryside and the coast.

A tourist industry soon sprang up to cater for the Romans’ travel and accommodation needs, and for a while it thrived. But Roman tourism ended with its empire, and for hundreds of years the turbulent economic, social and military situation in Europe made frequent, safe travel out of the question.

During the medieval era, however, tourism again appeared thanks to a growing interest in pilgrimages. The organisers arranged the tourism basics of itineraries and places to eat and sleep. And from records such as Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, it’s evident that many pilgrims were keen to relax and enjoy themselves as well as visit a holy shrine. In fact it’s from the Old English word hāligdæg (holy day) that “holiday” derives.

But it was two other factors hundreds of years later that encouraged the start of more widespread and regular tourism: health and culture. Those who could afford to do so began to visit the spa and seaside towns of eighteenth century Europe to benefit from the spring waters and fresh air. Others, most notably the English, took educational holidays to countries such as Italy with the intention of studying paintings, sculptures and architecture, and visiting historical sites.

Straightforward leisure tourism took hold when industrialisation across Europe gave rise to an affluent middle class with an increasing amount of free time. Entrepreneurs started to build tourist hotels with an infrastructure of roads, carriages and ferries. Tourism began to take shape as an international industry.

The industry was popular and steadily successful from the early nineteenth century. But for the most part, it was expensive and limited to a small number of locations. Then everything suddenly changed. In the 1960s, a growing number of people had disposable incomes, and with this extra money came a desire for a different lifestyle. At the same time, reasonably-priced commercial aircraft were able to carry passengers to and from any airport in the world.

Mass tourism had arrived, and with it there came an extraordinary growth in facilities. Fishing villages on the southern coast of Spain, for instance, became resorts that were household names. Elsewhere, business people capitalised on the demand for tourist attractions and constructed leisure and theme parks.

The driving force behind these rapid developments was cash. In 2006, the international tourism receipts for the three most popular destinations – France, Spain and the United States – totalled $179.7 billion. The number of visitors who contributed this sum was 188.7 million.

With figures such as these, many countries around the globe work hard to encourage travellers to visit them. The result in recent years is the boom in long haul flights to destinations that can supply tourists with sun almost every week of the year.

Unfortunately, it’s this scramble to grab a share of the tourist industry that is sometimes damaging environments unable to sustain large numbers of visitors. There are also concerns about the pollution generated by the ever-rising volume of tourist flights, cruise ships and road traffic. And on top of these problems are increasing fuel costs; the demise of established resorts that have over-expanded; fluctuating exchange rates for currencies; and the credit crunch.

The tourism industry will no doubt adapt to new demands and circumstances. But despite some optimistic predictions from tourism agencies for its continued growth, this business may well find that its most successful era, for the time being anyway, is past.

Test your knowledge of the tourism industry.