March of Progress

Martin Luther King said that “the line of progress is never straight.” When it comes to the history of tourism, the line swerved past 99% of the world’s population before it finally delivered the vacation as we know it today.

Vacation seems like such a staple of leisure that we take it for granted. But the fact that today you hear the word tourist and think of any old clueless, fanny-packed everyman dawdling about your city is nothing less than a remarkable triumph of human progress.

Not the fanny pack, necessarily. But throughout the vast majority of history, tourists were the elite of the elite. Almost no one could afford a vacation. Instead of backpacks or a rental car, the ancient tourists had jewels and retainers. What we see now is, in grand terms, the culmination of years of technical and social advancements. A country that produces tourists across the economic strata is a healthier country by definition.

We’ll explain. But that today we might see the word tourist as a pejorative for yet another member of the sightseeing masses is a relatively new reality, and that reality — for all its complications — is something to celebrate.

“The Remorse of Nero” (1878) depicts the emperor after he sent assassins to murder his mother. His first attempt was at his vacation escape in Baiae.

The Ancient Tourists

If you were an ancient Roman, you might have taken advantage of the miles and miles of roads built throughout your empire to go travel around it for two to five years, flitting from mainland Greece to Rhodes to Turkey to Egypt. You could do this because you were free and you didn’t have to work. Translation: you were incredibly rich. Congratulations to you.

You might have used those riches to visit the “den of licentiousness and vice” that was the city of Baiae by the Bay of Naples. Tourism in Baiae meant a few things. Orgies. Feasts. And indoor pools where fish grew fat for feasts and emperors floated meals across the water to their lounging guests. Not a scene for the ordinary.

Over in Japan, the famous ryokans — among the oldest hotels in the world — likely only served travelers with the status of emperors, nobility, and samurai, at least until the early 1600s. In perhaps one of the earlier examples of regular people indulging in travel for fun, Japan’s peasants found that if they asked their feudal lords to allow them to undertake a religious pilgrimage, they could combine it with a leisurely trip to Kyoto and Nara. A far cry from today’s mass tourism.

Around that same time in Europe, young men of the nobility begun to mimic the Romans before them, taking the “grand tour” of Europe that’s seen by some as inspiring the modern age of tourism. That is, “where the aim is to enjoy traveling and for no other purpose.” It wasn’t long before (slightly) less affluent Europeans discovered the practice and, by the early 19th century, steam boats had made cruises along the Rhine affordable for the top ten percent of the population. The proliferation of railroads only fed the travel bug further.

A 1904 pictorial map of Yellowstone National Park.

The American Tourists

Just as in Europe, every infrastructure upgrade in the United States seemed to spur along more tourists. Still, the way the word “vacation” entered the lexicon in the mid-1800s gives us a clue as to who was probably traveling most in the 19th century. According to the the Smithsonian, families like the Vanderbilts, Rockefellers, and Carnegies “took to declaring that they would ‘vacate’ their city homes for their lakeside summer retreats,” leading Americans to adopt the word “vacation” over the British “holiday.”

Trains and steamboats had nudged America along the path towards mass tourism. The automobile stepped on the gas. Suddenly, you could take a day trip. You could camp out of your car. Not only that, parts of the nation opened up that had been mostly unreachable by rail or boat. According to Thomas Weiss, author of an extensive study on early American tourists, the car helped national parks explode in popularity. When spots like Yellowstone began allowing cars in 1915, visits to National Parks went up nearly tenfold.

As our guide Weiss writes, “clearly by 1930 the subset of well-known tourist destinations was attracting more than 5 percent of the population, and it seems certain that the middle-income classes were indeed tourists.”

But if infrastructure improved tourism in the 19th century, it put it on a rocket after World War II, when Americans experienced growth and prosperity unlike anything in the nation’s history. Forget cars, soon Americans could travel by plane. In 1948, Pan Am gave the world the more affordable “tourist-class” ticket. The only catch: you had sit uncomfortably close to your neighbor.

Sound familiar?

By the turn of the next century, the average American took two round-trip flights a year.

Pan Am
A Pan Am plane, 1964.

The New Deal and Travel

Transportation is necessary — but having the money and time to use it is as big a part of the story as anything. Perhaps then the story of today’s American tourists really starts back in the early 1900s, when a New England mill became the “first American factory to institute the five-day week,” according to the Atlantic.

You can thank their Jewish workers for the innovation, since management gave them a two-day weekend so they could keep the Jewish sabbath as well as the Christian one. It caught on. Eventually, President Roosevelt put it into law with the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. For the first time, Americans had a federally mandated minimum wage, an eight-hour workday, and forty-hour workweek.

Another of Roosevelt’s New Deal policies, the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1938, would have actually given families the ability to travel on a new and comprehensive system of roads during those weekends off. Although on the eve of World War II the country could not undertake such a massive infrastructure project, Eisenhower picked up where FDR left off and committed the country to a new transportation network to the tune of $25 billion.

As the national highway system came into its own, so did Holiday Inn.

“Hotels in cities were lavish and expensive, while motels in rural areas fluctuated wildly in quality,” writes Time Magazine. “The Holiday Inn, which offered consistently clean rooms and a pool for the kids, became an instant hit, with more than 100 of them popping up before 1960.”

“Holiday Inn offered these travelers on the Interstate a brand that they could trust, a certain quality level they could expect to be consistently implemented,” said one professor.

Affordable, ubiquitous, and in concert with the interstate, the Holiday Inn contributed to a new reality. As another professor put it, this was the “democratization of travel.”

Holiday Inn
The Holiday Inn benefited from Eisenhower’s initiative to build a comprehensive system of highways across the country.

Where Government Stopped

Since it’s by definition a leisure pursuit, it’s natural that tourism increased as a result of laws protecting workers from laboring every hour of every day. But in America, the government hasn’t always been the force for change. Not even Roosevelt’s workweek law was simply in service of workers’ rights. Instead, economists of the day believed shorter hours could help alleviate unemployment in the midst of the Great Depression.

A cynical historian might say other types of happenstance benefited tourists, too. Apparently, Henry Ford decided to adopt the five-day workweek in 1926 not necessarily as any favor to his workers, but because they’d have more time to spend money on cars. “People who have leisure must have clothes,” he reportedly mused. “They eat a greater variety of food. They require more transportation in vehicles.” He had used the same logic when he doubled his workers’ wages to five dollars a day 12 years earlier.

The fact that the private sector has given Americans more of the right to vacation than the public one means that our grasp on it is more tenuous than we might like. You can see the pattern beginning in 1940, when paid vacation time was mostly achieved as a gift from management to workers. As one professor, Joseph Altonji, wrote in his study on vacation laws, 20th-century management granted vacations out of no legal obligation, but “as a way to increase productivity, reduce turnover, and attract and keep workers.” As unions grew in the mid-’30s, paid vacation became more prevalent, but for American unions it was never a top priority. More often, their “primary concerns” were “recognition and higher wages, not increased paid vacation time.”

It’s a choice that still reverberates today.

A pro-labor political cartoon, published in the Seattle Union Record in 1913.

Vote Tourism

While paid vacation became a normal expectation of employment after the war, Americans never pushed for it the way Europeans did. Trade unions across the pond made deals that “resulted in paid vacation legislation in many European countries,” according to Altonji, but American unions never did.

The results of that are predictable. According to CNBC, the amount of vacation granted the average American today does not even reach the minimum requirements in 19 of the world’s richest countries. As one economist said: “Relying on businesses to voluntarily provide paid leave just hasn’t worked.”

Depending on what amounts to charity from the private sector is probably not the soundest strategy for self-care. Some companies go above and beyond, of course, but it’s those that are content to stay in the basement that a government must build a solid ground floor to protect against — whether the issue is vacation time, fair wages, family leave, or healthcare. These things are too important to be left to the benevolence of business owners.

As one professor pointed out, neatly summarizing all that we’ve written so far, “We forget that for literally hundreds of years, travel was only for really wealthy people. It was only landed aristocracy that could really go from place to place. As the wealth is more broadly shared through all sectors, regular folks have the option to travel.”

That sounds like progress to us.