Travelers and Travel

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Travelers and Travel

Cost and risk inhibited both business travel and tourism for much of human history. Few merchants, even the famously intrepid Venetians of Marco Polo's time, were willing to face the twin risks of a sea voyage and the Silk Road for access to the riches of the East. Until the advent of cheap, reliable air travel in the twentieth century, waterborne transportation was the fastest, least expensive, and the safest means of long-distance travel. Overland voyaging was far too inefficient to promote travel and trade on a large scale. Water transport, especially ocean travel, carried its own risks. Well into the nineteenth century Euro-American readers devoured lurid tales of wrecks and ships lost at sea. In fact, by the middle of the eighteenth century open-sea travel had become exceptionally safe and regular. Nevertheless, the dangers of an ocean voyage inhibited many people from engaging in long-distance travel, much as fear of flying in the face of the impressive safety records of commercial airlines keeps many people on the ground today.

As a result, business travel and tourism developed slowly in the early modern period. The former broke through barriers of time and cost first, as seafaring Europeans mastered the winds and currents to develop an active pan-European trade in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The Portuguese were the first to master the Atlantic; their skills enabled them to establish close trading links with West Africa during the fifteenth century. These trading relations, which other European nations soon established, required making personal connections between African suppliers and European traders—in short, business travel. Because of the hostile disease environment, trade relations were facilitated by the descendants of European traders and African women, who enjoyed the benefits of local residence as well as access to European languages, family ties, and credit.

The same technological developments that promoted world trade made necessary and facilitated commercial travel. Advances in sail were followed by the development of canals, steamboats, and railroads that, to people accustomed to the difficulty even of short-distance travel, seemed nearly to annihilate time and distance. These advances also eased business travel, which remained essential to promoting trade in a world without electronic communications. Face-to-face relations were necessary to understand markets, meet consumer demands, and extend (and acquire) credit. Though these developments were particularly important to the growth of international business travel, they also facilitated domestic movement. This was the case in the antebellum United States, where the development of canals and steamships made possible the growth of internal markets.

In the modern era, technological developments (e.g., long-distance communication and computer resources) undermined some of the older rationales for commercial travel, but many other business requirements—the need to assess local conditions, the establishment of personal sales relationships, business expansion—remain. Some advances actually have encouraged the growth of business travel. Transatlantic commercial flights appeared in 1930s, and the introduction of large jet planes, culminating with the debut of Boeing's 747 in 1969, allowed for rapid, mass long-distance travel. Other innovations, such as hotel and motel construction, rental cars, and especially credit cards, have made business travel more essential than ever to world trade.

Tourism's significance to world trade lagged behind commercial travel until the twentieth century. Prior to the nineteenth century, tourism was the prerogative of the privileged. The quintessential example was the "grand tour" of continental Europe enjoyed by British men in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; the cost of accommodations, transportation, and the accoutrements of high society made this solely an aristocratic endeavor. The development of a middle class with discretionary income eroded the social foundations of the grand tour in the mid-eighteenth century; near-constant warfare in Europe in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic eras further inhibited tourism. In part, that hole was filled by an increase in domestic travel, which boomed in Britain and the United States. Although the Napoleonic wars inhabited European tourism, they promoted its expansion by forcing travelers to seek alternative destinations, such as the Carribean islands. Demand for travel produced a rush to the European continent after peace was established in 1816. Cultural developments also encouraged the growth of travel. Romanticism, with its emphasis on local peculiarities, encouraged people to visit other countries. The "Sublime," a related movement, insisted that humankind's moral development was stunted by excessive civilization. Thus, travelers increasingly visited the Alps and other "wild" places to experience nature first-hand.

The development of transoceanic steamships, together with general peace in Europe following the Napoleonic Wars, transformed tourism. Introduced in the 1840s, ocean steamers were not an obvious improvement on sailing vessels—they were slow, prone to mechanical breakdowns, noisy, and dirty. Shippers soon addressed these problems, however, and added new improvements that sailing craft could not match. Steamships could be built far larger than sailing vessels, allowing for many more berths of various qualities (or "classes"), supplementary rooms such as saloons and lounges, and multiple decks. These ships grew in size and opulence, evolving into true ocean liners in 1900. These massive ships featured luxuries such as ballrooms, private restrooms, multiple bars and lounges, and recreation services. Steam travel was also cheap, and this led to an explosion of transatlantic travel among people of middling means. Entrepreneurs leapt at the chance to tap into this new constituency. Eclipsing the older genre of epistolary travel accounts, guidebooks contained practical information such as exchange rates, locations of hotels, embassies, and important attractions. In the summer of 1855 Englishman Thomas Cook organized his first package tour to the Continent, and over the next thirty years he and his sons expanded the business to include tours around the world. Cook's company offered package tours that appealed to and were aimed at ordinary people who sought the prestige of travel but had neither the means nor the cultural confidence to embark by themselves.

Governments and entrepreneurs set out to exploit this lucrative market. A half-century of trade shows and economic exhibitions, mostly in Europe, culminated in 1851 with the Great Exhibition in London's Crystal Palace. It registered more than 6 million visitors. On its heels came the Centennial Exhibition at Philadelphia in 1876 (more than 8 million admitted) and Chicago's Columbian Exhibition of 1893 (21.5 million paid admissions). These fairs foreshadowed the rise of twentieth-century cruise lines and resorts such as Club Med (founded in 1850) and theme parks such as Disneyland (founded in 1955). Tourism skyrocketed after 1950, when international tourist arrivals to the United States totaled just 25.3 million people and receipts totaled $2.1 billion. Since then tourism (measured by arrivals) has increased at an annual rate of 6.8 percent; in 2002 the World Tourism Organization counted 702.6 million international arrivals and $474.2 billion worth of international tourism receipts. Europe and the United States were the top destinations in both 1950 and 2002, though their market share (95% in 1950, 76% in 2002) has declined somewhat. In 2002 tourism represented over 7 percent of the value of worldwide goods and services, behind exports of chemicals, auto parts, and fuel.

SEE ALSO Cargoes, Passenger; Cunard, Samuel; Hakluyt, Richard, the Younger; Information and Communications;Networks, Supply, Distribution, and Customer.


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Daniel Kilbride