Tracing the development of tourism from the 17th century to the present-day.


Carmen Périz Rodríguez (opens in new window)(Hispana / Spanish Ministry of Culture and Sports)

People have always had a need to travel, be it to explore and discover new lands or for our own enjoyment. Tourism covers precisely the latter.

We can trace the origin of the modern concept of tourism back to the 17th century, when young nobles from western and northern European countries made what was called the Grand Tour: a trip around Europe (usually covering France, Germany, Italy and Greece) with the main purpose of soaking up history, art and cultural heritage. It was considered a perfect way to be educated.

By the 18th century, this custom was widespread among wealthier classes and it spread to other parts of the world, such as America. Similarly, religious pilgrimages that were already popular during the Middle Ages continued during this period.

The Industrial Revolution, which began in the second half of the 18th century, produced a major economic, social and technological transformation that would spread to the rest of the world. As a result of these changes, there was an exodus from rural regions to growing big cities, which needed labour for the new industry.

Therefore, new social classes appeared. Developments in transport were also key. The improvements in freight and passenger transport contributed to the birth of leisure, new forms of entertainment and travel. People travelled mainly by train, taking advantage of the fact that railway networks connected the destinations in Europe and other parts of the world.

The 19th century saw the creation of the first travel agencies. One of the pioneers was Thomas Cook & Son, which was the first to offer excursions and holidays for groups, which included transport, accommodation and food tickets, thus making costs cheaper. This would be the origin of what we now know as package holidays.

In the first half of the 20th century, the tourism industry continued to grow thanks to the mass production of buses and cars. Coastal tourism began to gain importance and, after World War II, the Mediterranean coast quickly grew in popularity. Also, improvements in air transport (charter flights) as well as progress in labour legislation and a growth in social welfare led to a boom in tourism.

EXPLORE MORE: Gallery of summer holidays in the past

The tourism sector suffered a recession during the 1970s, mainly due to the energy crisis, leading to lower costs and prices. That’s when mass tourism emerged. Travelling went from being something only for an exclusive group to become a leisure activity within the reach of many.

In the following decades, there was a progressive internationalisation of hotel companies, travel agencies and airlines. New products and new leisure activities were also offered, revolving around sports and health, among others.

Today, the tourism sector has become one of the great economic engines in many countries, forming part of the international political agenda. In recent years, with low-cost flights and the existence of alternative accommodations, managed by online companies, it is much easier for tourists to afford to travel and they can design their itinerary and experiences to their liking.

Tourism not only impacts the local economy, but it is also starting to affect the social structures, culture and lifestyle of the destinations visited. Therefore, the challenge now is to provide solutions by developing a tourism awareness that is respectful with the environment and the local way of living of its inhabitants.

EXPLORE MORE: The hazards of tourism in our online exhibition Heritage at Risk.

By Carmen Périz Rodríguez, Hispana / Spanish Ministry of Culture and Sports

This blog post is a part of the Europeana Common Culture project, which explores varied aspects of our shared cultural heritage across Europe.

Feature image: ‘Family Holiday’, John Heywood, 1979, Victoria and Albert Museum, CC BY