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Vintage postcard showing European tourism destinations. Source: Freesurf/Adobe Stock

Tourism Through the Ages: The Human Desire to Explore

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Although taking a summer vacation is now a standard aspect of modern-day civilization for many, it wasn’t always that way. Tourism was far less common in ancient times than it is today, but that certainly doesn’t mean it didn’t occur at all. Even in ancient times, people had a natural curiosity about the world around them and yearned to explore. 

However, tourism didn’t necessarily look the same then as it does now. So what did tourism look like, and where did ancient peoples like to travel the most? What was the perception of tourists in ancient times versus today? 

What was Ancient Tourism Like?

Tourism as we think of it has not always existed. In fact, travel was not possible for most people in ancient times. Travel was often difficult and full of dangers such as disease, starvation, dehydration, or death by wild animals. Because of this, travel was often seen as too risky unless absolutely necessary, such as for relocation, or religious, political, or medical purposes. 

However, travel did still happen. Armies would travel to take over new lands or conquer new cities. Tradesmen would travel to popular trade spots throughout their countries to sell goods for profits, while others would travel there to buy utilitarian or luxury items for their homes. Others would travel for important religious ceremonies that they were required to attend. Travel of this nature was considered a need within society, rather than a want, so not tourism as such. 

Lydgate and Pilgrims to Canterbury. Early ‘tourism’ was frequently for religious ceremonies and pilgrimages. (Jim Forest / CC BY NC ND 2.0)

Lydgate and Pilgrims to Canterbury. Early ‘tourism’ was frequently for religious ceremonies and pilgrimages. (Jim Forest / CC BY NC ND 2.0)

As time went on, technology advanced. With the expansion of roads and the development of more efficient travel using boats, chariots, and carriages, travel for leisure, or tourism, became an intriguing possibility. However, many individuals struggled with the same tourism questions we do today: if they could even afford to travel, and if they could, where they would go. 

Early tourists tended to avoid cities with political or civil unrest as it could be dangerous in the event of an uprising. It’s unsurprising these would be eliminated as tourism destinations. They would also avoid cities their own regions had hostility towards, as that was also considered risky business. They would instead choose regions that were not known to be dangerous, just to see what was out there. 

Although technological advancements made travel easier than walking or horseback, it was still perilous and time-consuming. Travelers would often bring small weapons for protection, along with any money they planned to spend. Travel would take from a few days to a few weeks (or even a few months!), depending on how far they planned to venture out. This also meant having to take preserved food with them to last the journey, or knowing where to stop along the way to find food when hungry. There were few to no establish tourism ‘rest stops’ in ancient times.

The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World (artbalitskiy / Adobe Stock)

The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World (artbalitskiy / Adobe Stock)

Tourism Destinations of the Ancient World

There were many tourism destinations available in ancient times, but some were more popular than others. Particularly, ancient tourists enjoyed tourism spots that served multiple purposes. This started as early as the times of the ancient Egyptians, who often traveled for government activities but would stay in foreign areas longer than necessary to enjoy the local shops, restaurants, games, and other forms of entertainment. 

This desire to stay abroad for entertainment continued with the Roman Empire. The Romans developed a system of roads that covered approximately 50,000 miles, in order to make travel easier. At the time, traveling 30 miles would take about a day, and they used that information to establish an inn system. Through this system, an inn would be placed approximately every 30 miles, so that you always knew you had a place to rest in the evenings as you traveled out. 

With more tourism establishments like inns along the roads, travel felt safer as well. There would be more people present in case of an emergency, and a lower chance of running out of food or water. The risk of natural predators would be lower as well, since travel would no longer take place through endless plains or overgrown wilderness. The Roman system became so well-established that people from surrounding areas would visit Rome, just to see the roads, inns, and other established infrastructure. 

Language and currency were an important part of tourism at this time as well. If your destination used a different currency or spoke a different language, you would likely be a bit reserved about spending much time there (if any time at all!). As a result, common tourism areas did business in several common languages, so they could be more inclusive of visitors and receive more tourism.

Tourism in the Middle Ages: Risky Business

After the fall of the Roman Empire, tourism was not the same. In fact, tourism hardly happened at all anymore because there was too much risk involved. Nations were at war with one another, and traveling to a new place meant inevitable danger for the traveler and their family. Lots of the efficient transportation infrastructure were now destroyed, and languages were more separated than ever. 

Travel returned to being a necessity rather than a vacation. Religious and political motives were the primary causes of any travel, as nations attempted to overtake one another. Trade routes had to be re-established, although many were still unwilling to risk the trek. It wasn’t until Marco Polo took the risk and began to write about his solo tourism in the 13th century that people began taking interest in exploration again. 

By the Renaissance, trade began to take hold once more, and so merchants were willing to travel further than before. Additional trade and tourism businesses opened, and commercialism steadily increased, especially in Europe. People that would visit these trading posts to purchase new and luxury goods would wonder what the rest of the world was like, especially the sources of their favorite goods. This then ushered in the Grand Tour Era. 

Exotic new products entering Renaissance markets fed a desire for tourism, Jan van Kessel the Elder 1650-1660 (Public Domain)

Exotic new products entering Renaissance markets fed a desire for tourism, Jan van Kessel the Elder 1650-1660 (Public Domain)

The Grand Tour Era: Tourism for the Rich and Famous

The Grand Tour Era, as can be assumed by its name, was a major point in history for tourism. Between 1613 and 1785, the Grand Tour Era established tourism as a norm throughout many societies. However, it wasn’t always easy. Traveling at this time was mostly reserved for the upper classes, as travel and lodging had increased in price due to high demand. Rooms that could be provided for an average family were instead reserved for those able to pay the most.

Tourism was also held in high regard at this time because it was often used as a form of education. The children of the wealthy would travel abroad to gain an understanding of the world around them, making them more knowledgeable and well-rounded. Someone who’d had the opportunity to engage in tourism was seen as having a higher status than most, since they were perceived as more educated. 

The most popular tourism regions at this time included Germany, Italy, France, and Switzerland. Europeans would often travel to these countries by carriage because it was more comfortable. Their carriage would be driven by an experienced chauffeur familiar with the routes, to make travel as efficient as possible. Tourists would frequently bring someone with them that would care for them, whether a servant or a more experienced traveler. 

British Gentlemen in Rome, circa 1750 (Public Domain)

British Gentlemen in Rome, circa 1750 (Public Domain)

Ushering in a New Era: The Industrial Revolution to Modern Times

Towards the end of the 18th century, tourism faced new challenges. The Industrial Revolution had changed tourism forever. Since people had more stable employment, they couldn’t take off for long periods of time to travel. Workers were stuck in their factories and businesses all week, unable to leave without jeopardizing the entire organization. Teamwork was essential and left no flexibility for vacationing. 

However, the Industrial Revolution also helped people to travel more easily too. With new technology, travel became more efficient. Plus, for many workers, higher salaries contributed to their ability to go on a nice vacation. Additionally, business trips were increasing, to open more businesses and factories. 

After several decades tied down to work and missing out on tourism experiences, workers began tiring of their overworked schedules. With more money came greater desire to expand one’s worldview. Planes, cars, and boats could be used to travel more quickly and comfortably than before. Office jobs also became more popular for their greater flexibility, and paychecks began to be used to see the world. 

A 1922 Thomas Cook ad for a three-week trip on the Nile for £70 ($80) (Public Domain)

A 1922 Thomas Cook ad for a three-week trip on the Nile for £70 ($80) (Public Domain)

At this point, tourism became an essential part of a fulfilling life. Countries such as France became hot spots for tourism because they had advanced technology and roads compared to other regions. Thomas Cook, an English businessman, inspired those without tourism experience to take a leap and go on an adventure. Later, paid work leave established for many in the 20th century ensured that more families could take the time to travel. It was the biggest increase in tourism since the Grand Tour Era.

Throughout the 20th century, hotels and motels became more common businesses worldwide, further fueling the tourism industry. Later, the development of credit cards helped lower-income families afford vacations more easily. Credit cards also helped universalize currency, so traveling between countries and buying necessities became more efficient. In the 21st century, traveling has become more accessible than ever. 

1957 postcard showing tourism airline interior (Joe Haupt / CC BY SA 2.0)

1957 postcard showing tourism airline interior (Joe Haupt / CC BY SA 2.0)

Tourism Today: Roadside Attractions, Cruises, #VanLife, and more

Tourism in ancient times could be difficult, but those early tourists certainly made the most of it. Today, travel and tourism are certainly much simpler than they were back then. There is more available information about different countries that can be considered before taking a trip, and most frequent travelers are looking for more than just new scenery. Tourism agencies now seek to put together packages for those looking for adventure, romance, or knowledge. 

The biggest difference between ancient and modern tourism is purpose. While ancient people traveled as a way to learn about the world around them, modern tourists seek to gather and savor experiences. Experiencing new places and cultures is more fulfilling than simply learning about the place online. If nothing else, travel nowadays is certainly much more efficient and luxurious than ever before. After all, aren’t you glad you don’t have to take a chariot everywhere?

Top image: Vintage postcard showing European tourism destinations. Source: Freesurf/Adobe Stock

By Lex Leigh


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Lex Leigh's picture


Lex Leigh is a former educator with several years of writing experience under her belt. She earned her BS in Microbiology with a minor in Psychology. Soon after this, she earned her MS in Education and worked as a secondary... Read More

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