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How Tourism Has Progressed Through the Ages

In Life, Travel by Continental StaffLeave a Comment

In the present day, tourism is a massive international industry; in 2018 it accounted for 10.4% of global GDP, according to the WTTC! But this wasn’t always the case. From the ancient Olympics to the Caribbean cruise, in this post we offer you a brief look at tourism through the ages!

What is Tourism?

Before we can really begin, we first must clarify exactly just what tourism is. The Encyclopædia Britannia defines tourism as “the act and process of spending time away from home in pursuit of recreation, relaxation, and pleasure, while making use of the commercial provision of services.”  

This definition does allow for a somewhat broad interpretation. However, it is important to note that tourism relies on the pre-existence of infrastructure to support tourists. In other words, there is a stark difference between tourism and exploration: a tourist is not blazing a new trail, but rather following an already well-beaten one. 

Compare tourism to travel, and we come across another difference – subtler, but still significant. A tourist travels for a fairly specific purpose: to seek pleasure. On the other hand, a traveller might travel for many different reasons, including business, education, to visit relatives, and so on. 

Ancient Beginnings

People have been travelling since the Dawn of Man. But travel in the pursuit of pleasure is a far more recent phenomenon. The exact origins can be contested; but in the Western tradition, organized travel had already gotten its start in the age of ancient Greece: with such motivators as religion, culture (the Seven Wonders of the World were popular destinations at this time) and sport – the original Olympics drew huge crowds!

On the Pilgrim’s Road 

In the East, the greatest driver for tourism early on was religion. As far back as 2,000 years ago pilgrimage had already begun to some early Buddhist sites; although some differentiation should be made between small groups of ascetic travellers and larger groups with more organized arrangements – and the latter likely developed later on.   

In the Islamic and Christian traditions, pilgrimage became a huge driver of tourism in the Middle Ages: and continues today much as it did then! Although designating pilgrims as tourists is somewhat problematic. Considering the danger that is sometimes involved – the Islamic hajj through the desert to Mecca saw a great number of deaths even into the 21st century – the whole pleasure-seeking aspect can be called into question. 

To Their Health

Another form of tourism with early roots would fall under the category of ‘rest and relaxation’ today. Thermal spas or hot springs, while sometimes gaining a following on religious or spiritual grounds, became the sites for a form of medical tourism. Those suffering ill-health made their own form of pilgrimage in the hopes of improving their condition. 

This form of tourism, like its religious counterpart, does not seem to have been confined to any particular geographic area. From even before the 6th century, Japan’s oldest hot springs, or onsen, had begun to host visitors. 

Tourism’s Renaissance

While religious and medical tourism maintained the longest continuous run, cultural tourism died with the onset of the Dark Ages and didn’t really revive until the 16th century. Fitting, as the rebirth of cultural tourism coincided with the Renaissance and the Age of Exploration. While it was very much a domain of the rich and would remain so for another 500 years or so, cultural tourism in Europe would grow at a rapid pace.

Popularly referred to as the “Grand Tour”, aristocrats, and later wealthy individuals of the industrialized middle class, paid homage to famous sites in France, Italy and the German states. 


The rise of the middle class in the 18th century, coupled with the ever improving state of development and infrastructure, saw tourism grow less and less exclusive. By the onset of the 19th century it was common practice among members of the middle class. 

But the democratization of tourism didn’t truly begin until the mid-19th century. The increased dissemination of railway networks and steamships made travel more comfortable, quicker, and affordable than ever before – making it a more realistic endeavour for an ever increasing number of people. The Alps, the Norwegian fjords, even the Caribbean, all became popular destinations during this period – with the development of the pleasure cruise prior to the First World War.

The Post-War World

After the Second World War, tourism received another huge boon. Tourism was widely becoming viewed as a diplomatic tool – and quite the powerful one during the polarizing conflict of ideologies that was the Cold War. As such, governments around the world began to invest more in infrastructure for tourists.  

While proxy wars plagued much of the globe during the latter half of the 20th century, tourism raged in the more stable locales. Indeed, while the Iron Curtain may have prevented the flow of technologies between East and West, it by no means prohibited Western tourists from visiting Eastern Europe; an activity that was actively encouraged by the Communist regimes as a form of cultural diplomacy. Eastern tourists often travelled the other way as well. 

With the progressive expansion of air travel throughout the later 20th century, tourism came more and more to resemble the form we are familiar with today. 

What Lies Ahead?

The advent of low-cost airlines such as Ryanair and easyJet in the 1990s opened more and more destinations up for people of an even more diverse range of means. This process has continued along much the same lines up to today. But with more people able to travel further afield than ever before, it has become more crucial than ever to consider how we travel and what we travel for. 

There is undoubtedly much good in tourism: it provides us with insights into how others live, inspires us, and benefits local economies. But with the enormous carbon footprint involved in flying, not to mention the controversy surrounding services like Airbnb and their effect on local property markets, being conscientious about how and where we travel is more important than ever! 

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