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The long and inequal history of leisure travel

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Humans have always wanted to see what’s on the other side of the mountain. But in the early days – i.e., the Stone, Bronze, and Iron Ages – moving around was always connected to the search for resources such as food and water, or the urge to batter one’s neighbors. That said, leisure travel dates back a lot further than you probably expected.

Ancient Roam

The first people to indulge in what we would consider traveling for pleasure did so over 2 000 years ago in Ancient Rome. A period of prolonged peace and prosperity, coupled with a fantastic road network, set the stage for the first summer vacations. Rich Romans flocked to the coast in their droves, as Tony Perrottet writes in his highly enjoyable book Pagan Holiday: On the Trail of Ancient Roman Tourists:

If Rome was the New York of antiquity, then the Bay of Naples was the Hamptons. Every summer, the Mediterranean heat (with its attendant banes of typhoid and malaria) emptied the imperial capital of its bella gente, and the entire fashionable world allied forth to recreate itself one hundred miles south, by the craggy, sun-drenched shores of Campania. That was where, within sight of the smoking funnel of Mount Vesuvius, surrounded by a hypnotic sea of diamond blue, the Emperors had built their luxury palaces, the millionaires their most sumptuous villas … The Romans loved to swim in these warm, protected shores, far from the sea-monsters and evil sprites that prowled deeper waters, and the sculpted courtyards of their retreats, engraved with the patterns of waves, all had direct pathways leading down to sandy coves.

Photo 1 - Nelia Kurme Unsplash

The “craggy, sun-drenched shores of Campania” are still as much a draw today as they were during the Roman empire. (Photo: Nelia Kurme)

Darkness and light

Travel (and a whole lot of other stuff) was dealt a major blow by the fall of Rome at the end of the 4th century AD. The Dark Ages were, as the name suggests, not much fun and almost all travel was undertaken for one of three reasons: plunder, trade, or religious crusade. The only real exceptions to this rule were kings and queens who embarked on trips known as ‘royal progress’ once or twice a year. As this excellent piece on the History of the Vacation explains:

Although some royal progress was taken purely for leisure, monarchs mainly traveled to other towns for publicity. Without Twitter and People magazine to provide the masses with a quick photo update, the King or Queen rode around each town on horseback, meeting important people and providing the common people with a glimpse of his or her face.

The Renaissance marked a giant leap forward for European civilization, culture, industry, and exploration. But the gains made by the travel industry were much more marginal. The roads had fallen into disrepair, and travel by both sea and land was so dangerous that only folks who could afford private armies got to do much vacationing. (Despite the myriad challenges, the world’s first travel guidebook was written during this era.) On the flipside, there was a massive uptick in exploration: volunteering as crew for someone like Christopher Columbus or Amerigo Vespucci provided a perilous but enthralling outlet for diehard wanderlusters.

The first 'Tourists'

In the 17th century, rich, cultured young men ‘revived the Roman tradition of taking a Grand Tour of Europe’. The first recorded use of the word ‘tourist’ is found in an account of a Scottish adventure that’s contained in the 1772 edition of The Monthly Review or Literary Journal by Several Hands: “Having thus penetrated to the northward extremity of the Britiſh iſland, our Touriſt returned by the ſame road; and meeting with multitude of ſolan geeſe, in vaſt flocks, on their paſſage farther North, he has given us a good print [drawing] of this fowl.”

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One of the first souvenir snapshots ever made: A portrait of the poet Goethe lounging while touring the Roman Campania. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Armed with guidebooks like Joseph Addison’s Remarks on Several Parts of Italy (a book which Samuel Johnson famously accused of having “been written at home”) poets including William Wordsworth, Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe toured the Mediterranean. The romantic musings of these 18th century influencers evoked a newfound wanderlust in those stuck back home in cold, dreary northern Europe. As this fascinating Deutsche Welle piece explains, Goethe’s Italian Journey “laid the foundations for Germany’s enduring love of all things Italian.”

Steaming ahead

While the aristocrats were away touring Europe, the industrial revolution had been transforming society in first England and then continental Europe and the United States. The proliferation of what William Black called “dark, Satanic mills” (factories) spawned an explosion in both population and spending power. In 1825, George and Robert Stephenson sowed the seed of mass tourism when they built Locomotion No. 1, the first public steam train in the world. By the 1840s, public railroads crisscrossed much of Europe and the United States. And in 1841, Thomas Cook founded what is widely considered to be the world’s first public travel agent (earlier travel agencies had served only governments and armies).

Photo 3 - Thomas Cook Archive

Although the term “Thuringian Alps” may have gone out of style, this vintage travel poster certainly still resonates with modern audiences. (Photo: Thomas Cook Archives)

Buoyed by the availability of affordable travel options, up-and-coming Americans flocked to the beaches of Florida and California where they built ‘sandmen’, promenaded on purpose-built piers and indulged in refreshing ice creams. (The more things change the more they stay the same.) It was during this time that the word ‘vacation’ was born, as wealthy New Yorkers literally vacated their homes for summer.

During the same period, the National Parks system was established and, thanks to the efforts of John Muir, Ansel Adams, and Teddy Roosevelt, Americans began to prioritize getting back to nature. While the truly remote big hitters like Yosemite were out of reach for most folks, some would argue they still are, by 1915 short vacations were affordable for middle and working-class Americans – spawning the growth of campsites and more affordable hotels.

The invention of the steam engine also transformed sea travel. Most of the great steamships brought poor immigrants to the United States, but some wealthy Americans did travel in the other direction (and a few really intrepid souls ventured south to exotic Costa Rica or far-off Iguazu), to indulge in Grand European Tours of their own. What started out as a 16-day journey in 1838, had been whittled down to six days by about 1900. But as anyone who has watched Titanic will know, international leisure travel in those days was still largely the preserve of the rich and famous.

The sky’s the limit

The Wright brothers’ first flight took place way back in 1903, but their plane was both tiny and incapable of long-distance travel. We would have to wait a full 25 years for the first commercial transatlantic flight when a German Zeppelin landed in the United States. For a while it seemed like Zeppelins would be the future of air travel, but when the hydrogen filled Hindenberg burst into flames while landing at Lakehurst, NJ in 1937, killing 36 people, planes suddenly became a whole lot more popular.

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The ZR-3 USS Los Angeles soars over New York City in 1930 during the short-lived heyday of air travel via zeppelin. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The first commercial airline flight had in fact taken place in 1914, but the 23-minute flip between St Petersburg, Florida, and Tampa was hardly going to change the world. Pan Am, which started off with flights to Cuba in 1927, took things up several notches with the world’s first scheduled transatlantic airplane flight in 1939. But the real gamechanger was their purchase of 20 Boeing 707 jetliners in 1955 and their subsequent order of 25 Boeing 747s in 1966 (at an eyewatering price tag of $525 million).

Mirroring the growth of mass aviation was the fledgling package vacation industry. As Dave Richardson puts it, “the trickle of British people who went on holiday abroad before the Second World War were looking for adventure or to better their minds, not to lie around on beaches.” The very first package holiday took place in 1950, when Vladimir Raitz chartered a Douglas DC-3 to fly tourists from London to a beachfront campsite on the French island of Corsica. In the decades that followed, the idea was supersized by both tour companies and governments alike – Spain’s (fascist dictator) General Franco encouraged the construction of seemingly endless resorts on the Costa Brava, Costa del Sol, and Gran Canaria. And the advent of quick and affordable transatlantic air travel meant that the whole world could enjoy them.

Where to next?

The last few decades have seen some segments of the developed world turn away from mass tourism and toward boutique and/or off the beaten track experiences (kind of like the Grand Tourists of the 18th and 19th centuries who had traveled “for adventure or to better their minds”). However, even in 2021, leisure travel remains out of reach for huge segments of the world’s population. There are still billions of people who only ever travel to seek work or education opportunities, to access medical care or, perhaps, to attend the wedding or funeral of a relative in a nearby community. As Travel Channel host Oneika Raymond puts it in this really worthwhile blog post:

The truth is, those of us who travel extensively are blessed by life circumstances, not just a can-do attitude or “positive mindset”. So when some of us proclaim how easy it is to traverse the world (and then go on to admonish those who don’t do the same because they “aren’t trying hard enough”), we neglect to realize that our wandering is more due to luck than hard work and desire.

While the depths of the oceans and the outer reaches of our solar system have long been touted as the last remaining travel frontiers, it is worth pausing for a moment to reflect on the fact that for a staggering 80% of the global population, simply boarding an airplane would be uncharted territory.


Our B Corp certification is proof that carefully planned travel can be a force for immense good. In fact, we can still take you on a Grand Tour across remote swaths of untouristed regions of our world. Let us help you to connect the golden age of leisure travel with the modern age of social responsibility:

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