Tourism Research Paper

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The first tourists traveled ancient lands to festivals and sites of religious or ancestral significance, their movements facilitated by the building of roads and ships. Upper-class men began to tour the world for education and scientific study in the late fifteenth century. Modern tourism, or leisure travel, developed along with more accessible and efficient means of transportation, such as railroads, steamships, automobiles, and airplanes.

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Tourism is a relatively new field of study within the discipline of history. Its connection with trends in social, cultural, and economic history, however, means it is a valuable research area. Tourism is generally defined as travel outside a person’s usual environment, primarily for leisure, but the term can also be applied for other purposes. Though the term “tourism” was first coined in the early nineteenth century, the activity has much deeper historical roots. Technology has facilitated changes in travel over the centuries, and, from ancient times, leisure, trade, pilgrimage, and empire have seen people travel across regions and cultures forging connections and contacts. A chronological look at the history of tourism shows its transformation over the centuries from travel only occurring out of necessity, through its association with leisure as a privilege of the upper classes, to an industry of own in the twenty-first century.


Most sources point to the Sumerians (Babylonians) and their development of trade around 4000 BCE as the birth of travel (Goeldner and Ritchie 2009). Initially merchants traded locally and then, after the development of ship technology, traded further afield, across the Mediterranean Sea and Indian Ocean (Casson 1994). Trade remained the major motivation for travel over the centuries with the vast trading networks of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Even though this may not come under the banner of what we think of tourism today, travel through trade often saw movement across vast distances and cultures. The Silk Roads are a prime example here, as traders traveled from Europe to China over a number of different routes. From the fourth century BCE, the Silk Roads saw travel link Asia and the Mediterranean through trade, military movements, and religion. Travel was difficult and dangerous, however, and was only conducted when necessary. Trade, military, and administrative purposes were the main motivations for travel in the ancient and medieval periods, although religious festivals, pilgrimage, and other leisure travel were also evident and more of a reflection of modern tourism.


From the time of the ancient Egyptians, pilgrimages and festivals have taken travelers across borders. Tourism, as in travel for pleasure, is evident in Egypt from 1500 BCE onward (Casson 1994). The pyramids were a site of pilgrimage for Egyptians, and, even though this travel was still relatively local, it demonstrated the importance of pilgrimage as an instance of early tourism. Travel for pilgrimage in also evident in many Asian countries, particularly in China, where a culture for travel can be seen from an early period (1350–1050 BCE) when people journeyed to the mountains and rivers to visit their ancestral gods and spirits (Sofield and Li 1998). Travel, however, was still a disjointed experience and a difficult undertaking on treks over long distances.

The building of roads during the Roman Empire facilitated a new medium for travel. A network of about 80,500 kilometers (50,000 miles) of roads had been built by the first century BCE spreading across the empire. Roman roads allowed travel across northern Europe in Britain and Germany to southern Europe into Egypt. As a result, travel for leisure across Europe gained popularity among Romans, and the new road technology meant greater distances could be covered at a greater speed. Romans traveled to sites and monuments across the empire to sightsee at popular destinations, including the pyramids and the sites of Greece. But this trend did not last, and after the collapse of the Roman Empire and the division of Europe, roads were no longer maintained and travel once again became difficult and dangerous.

Despite this, pilgrimages continued across Europe during the medieval period with travelers crossing regions to visit shrines, churches, relics, and other sites of religious significance. Consequently, as the main sources of hospitality along the road, churches and monasteries allowed travelers to overcome the dangers of travel. There are many surviving accounts of pilgrims’ journeys and guide books with information and instruction for travelers. Pilgrimages often took travelers across borders and put them in contact with cultures they would not normally have encountered. This sometimes caused conflict, and the domination of religious travel eventually faded, giving way to travel as a search for knowledge and culture.

The Grand Tour

In Europe, from the early modern period, travel and tourism were seen as part of expanding and acquiring knowledge. From the late fifteenth century, the sons of the upper classes were sent to tour abroad as a means of completing their education. As tutors took their young male charges to cultural sites, the process evolved as an induction into gentlemanly society. The Grand Tour, as this practice would become known in the late seventeenth century, caught on. Over the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, thousands of Britons, Germans, French, and Russians traveled around the continent, principally to France, Italy, Switzerland, and Germany. Wealthy Britons especially, inspired by the aesthetic principles of the picturesque and Edmund Burke’s Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), moved between the mountainous regions and the major places of cultural importance as ascribed by the many guidebooks published in the period. (The English term “tourist” was first coined in the late eighteenth century to describe them.) Tourists often brought back souvenirs during this period, and collections of geological, archaeological, and other items picked up on tour were common in homes of the wealthy all across Europe. (The term wunderkammer (“cabinet of curiosities”) was used to describe such collections.) The Grand Tour elicited a deliberate “seeking out” of culture in an effort to broaden the mind.

The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw travel more through the lens of scientific exploration and expedition. The Age of Enlightenment transformed the approach to natural history, and scientists—particularly naturalists and botanists, both professional and amateur—traveled across the world in search of new information and a reordering of existing classifications through new biological systems. People from Britain, France, Germany, and America traveled to Asia and Africa exploring and collecting. Empire played a major role in this practice as Europeans traveled to their nation’s colonies discovering new species of plants and animals, reported on the cultures of indigenous populations, and mapped the territories. Despite the curiosity for discovering new cultures throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth century, travel was used as a means of dominating the landscape and native people, particularly in colonial Africa, Asia, and South America. Travel was still very much a privilege of the upper classes, but this changed during the nineteenth century.

Trains and Steamships

The Industrial Revolution’s impact on technology and work patterns transformed tourism in Britain and northern Europe. In particular, the revolution in transportation technology and the emergence of a tourism industry opened up leisure travel to greater numbers of people and made the process of traveling much more organized.

The railway, in Britain and later in Europe and North America, allowed greater access to a destination at greater speed. Thomas Cook’s organized trip from Leicester to Loughborough in 1841 saw the start of mass rail travel for pleasure trips. During newly allocated holiday time, factory workers from the industrial heartlands of England were able to travel on the specially built railway lines to seaside resorts. These trends were also evident in North America. As the population spread west over the course of the nineteenth century, roads and then railways were constructed to facilitate travel across the country. Sailing ships were replaced by steamships and allowed greater access to the world, not only for trade and scientific exploration but also for leisure. Other developments, such as the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 also facilitated this movement abroad. From the late nineteenth century, travel to America and Australasia was a popular undertaking by the more wealthy members of the European population. In a continuation of the Grand Tour, people moved around the major cities and sites of interest. The technology of the Industrial Revolution, accompanied by the emergence of a tourism industry, opened up the world. The emergence of tour operators and travel agents in Britain and America, particularly Thomas Cook (in the United Kingdom), and the international financial services of American Express (which began issuing the Travelers Cheque in 1891), brought further organization to tourism. In Britain, Thomas Cook provided organized trips to spa towns and seaside resorts and then, in 1855, to Europe and further afield, eventually providing tours to Australia and New Zealand beginning in the 1880s. These developments over the nineteenth century made tourism accessible to broad swathes of society and paved the way for the growth of the tourism industry in the twentieth century.

Automobiles and Airplanes

The relative peace in Europe in the late nineteenth century meant that these trends in tourism continued, and a growth in travel occurred up until World War I. In the years after the war, the motor car emerged as the new technology to dominate tourism. The popularity of the car for leisure travel began in the United States and moved to Europe over the course of the 1920s and 1930s. Once again linked to the fashions of the Grand Tour, motoring holidays saw tourists seeking out picturesque sites and points of interest. The car was much more dominant in the United States than in Europe; the first half of the twentieth century saw the car emerge as the main form of transport and the construction of highways and motels facilitated this desire for travel. The majority of car travel was domestic, challenging the dominance of the train, while the emergence of passenger air travel in the mid-twentieth century saw a dramatic shift away from surface transport for longer trips.

Just as roads, steam power, and cars had previously, airplanes transformed the way people traveled and opened up new regions, cultures, and populations to tourism. Initially used for commercial purposes, airplanes began taking passengers in the 1920s. Air travel for tourism took off after World War II with the development of the jet engine, which increased the speed and range of aircraft, making international travel more accessible. With greater affluence on both sides of the Atlantic from the 1950s onward, the tourism industry responded to demand for overseas travel by introducing cheap package holidays. This heralded the industrialization of the industry and the onset of mass tourism in the second half of the century.

The Twenty-First Century

The twenty-first century has seen fundamental shifts in tourism, caused primarily by the role of the Internet and the use of tourism as a target for terrorism. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, had a big impact on international tourism, heralding a new regime of travel security. Globalization means that while historic trends in tourism will continue, new players are emerging, particularly China, which is set to become the largest generator of international tourism in the world. These trends are set against a background of (i) short-term reductions in demand for tourism caused by the global economic recession of 2008 onwards, (ii) ongoing concerns that the consequences for tourism on the environment are unacceptable, as for example the impact on the flora and fauna of sensitive areas, and (iii) a longer term concern over climate change and whether, in fact with its significant contribution to carbon emissions, tourism should continue at all. Of course, the tourism sector in the twenty first century is attempting to mitigate these impacts through alternative formats such as eco-tourism and sustainable tourism and these trends are set to intensify in the future.

Despite vast differences from the industry it is today, tourism as a process can be traced back to ancient times. Changes in technology, trends, and fashions have facilitated a transformation in the way people travel over the centuries. From the early periods of ancient history, travel, whether through trade, pilgrimage, a search for knowledge or for pleasure, has seen the exchange of ideas, populations, and trends.


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