Tourist season is underway in the northern hemisphere. Scenic towns are filling with visitors, business owners are crossing fingers in hope of massive earnings, and anxious travelers are Googling what to see, where to stay, and what to eat. According to the UN World Tourism Organization, in 2016 there were 1.2 billion international tourist arrivals. Industry watchers are used to seeing growth; they’ve seen little else since the end of World War II. Projections call for much more.
But there is a cost. The sizzling hot summer of 2017 was notable for many things, one of the more striking being the number of news stories recounting communities pushing back against the very tourists who fuel their economies. The BBC reported Spanish leftists sprawled “tourists go home” on buildings and that locals in Lavertezzo, Switzerland, lamented tourists “turning their idyllic valley into “an open air toilet.” The Scotsman suggested that Edinburgh was “losing its soul” to tourism and The Sun cried “boozy Brits are turning Croatian resorts into holiday hellholes.”
There are many different historical questions packed into these two sides of the same coin. Why are so many people traveling? What attracts them to some sites/sights and not others? How has tourism shaped the environment? Is tourism truly a devil’s bargain? Can leisure travel really shape identities? And of course, there’s a host of queries about politics and policies too.
Tourism history is a comparatively new field of study, but it has gone from strength-to-strength in the past two decades. Historians have reflected on many of the questions above and they’ve uncovered a host of fascinating and often unexpected answers. For example, during the Interwar governments representing nearly every political ideology utilized tourism to various ends. It made better Nazis, promised healthier Soviet workers, and showcased the value of capitalism even in the face of economic turmoil. After the American Civil War, promotion of leisure travel represented a way of forging something approaching a unified national identity. Citizens were told to “see Europe if you must, but see America first.” The national parks, important signifiers of American identity, were a consequence. Much earlier, in the eighteenth century—when many historians believe tourism was born—, the agonizing conflict over whether tourists represent a good thing or a bad has its roots. Wealthy young men, later to be known as teenagers, were meant to travel around Europe learning languages and good taste. They were supposed to gain cultural capital and a sense of themselves as members of the elite. Sometimes, as with historian Edward Gibbon, the results were positive. More often, the nascent tourists drank to excess, spent trunks of money, engaged the services of prostitutes, and generally behaved badly. Instead of much improved young adults, parents got back wildly gesticulating youngsters prone to speaking with their hands and using exaggerated foreign accents. It was embarrassing. A hearty ongoing debate about the merits of tourism resulted.
To explore the history of tourism is to study a topic that is itself fascinating but also to find a fruitful way of examining just about any subject from a new angle, while at the same time uncovering unexpected connections and relationships. You would not necessarily think of tourism as an important foundation of postwar youth culture, but that is exactly what a recent book suggests. That many of us enjoy visiting mountains and beaches seems almost human nature, but it is more accurately seen in connection with early tourism. You need to learn to interpret a landscape and the language is historically contingent.
As it stands, we know quite a bit, but there is far more to learn. For this reason, Cornell University Press is launching a new book series—Histories and Cultures of Tourism—and I am thrilled to be its editor. We’re anxious to publish the very best tourism history scholarship, keen to showcase intelligent storytelling. It will be a very exciting trip.
About the author of this blog post: Eric G. E. Zuelow is chair of the Department of History and Philosophy at the University of New England. He is author of A History of Modern Tourism (Palgrave, 2015) and Making Ireland Irish: Tourism and National Identity since the Irish Civil War (Syracuse University Press, 2009). Zuelow is general editor of the Journal of Tourism History and will be editor of the new Cornell University Press book series Histories and Cultures of Tourism.