In our modern world, global travel has become so easy that it’s easy to forget that mass tourism is a relatively new occurrence. At least it is for the masses. But why do we travel? And when did travel become ‘a thing’? Have we always been travelling, or is it really just a modern invention?

Today, tourism is a huge industry, supporting millions, perhaps billions of people around the world. From airlines and taxi drivers, to restaurants, hotels and bloggers, tourism plays an integral part in our modern global economy. And this economy has been growing at a staggering rate throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. In 1980 there were just over 280 million tourism arrivals around the globe. By 2018, there were an estimated 1.4 billion tourist arrivals, with the money spent on travel accounting for around 10.4% of global GDP.

But it wasn’t always like this.

Travel in the Ancient World

For most of human history, travel had been undertaken either as part of exploration or trade. Or, sometimes, both together. Military conquests or the spreading of a religious word have spurred people to reach out across the region to either subjugate or enlighten the neighbours – and on occasion to dominate distant lands.

However, travel for pleasure has always been there in the background, albeit usually for the more fortunate monied classes. In ancient Greece, there are examples of people travelling to watch the original Olympic Games, or to question the Oracle at Delphi. There were also other games less famous than the Olympics which would attract visitors from far and wide. At the time, there was an extensive network of inns across Greece designed for travellers to stay the night, although they were basic by today’s standards with no bathrooms, toilets or catering facilities.

Well-to-do Egyptians too would explore ancient marvels (some of which were ancient even in 1000BCE). The Pyramids and the Acropolis were draws for tourists even in pre-modern times, and those who could afford to visit ancient sites would take time out with their slaves and entourages to go and explore. Visitors came from Greece and Rome to marvel at the scale of the pyramids of Giza, which were the world’s largest man made structures for thousands of years.

But it was perhaps the Romans who first took holidays or vacations in a way that might seem familiar to us today. The nobility of ancient Rome would escape the stifling heat of the city in summer and head to either the cooler hills, or the seaside. Sicily, Capri and the north of Italy were all favourite haunts, although some would even travel as far as Egypt or Greece for these excursions.

In fact the Romans also pioneered the spa holiday, often travelling to find thermal baths for health benefits. Around these spas would spring up additional services including restaurants, gambling dens and even prostitution. Roman travel was made relatively easy by their great network of roads and shipping routes across the territory. However, with the collapse of the Roman Empire, tourism in the Mediterranean took a break for a while.

Ancient Tourism in Asia

The ancient Silk Route is still well known today as a network of paths and shipping lanes leading from China to the Western lands. Although it was clearly a trade network, travellers would have traversed the steppes of central Asia perhaps for enlightenment or other benefits.

Srinagar in Kashmir, northern India holds an interesting example of the possibilities of the age. The city hosts a tomb said to be that of a pilgrim from the Middle East who arrived around 2000 years ago. It is said that the tomb houses the body of Jesus Christ, who survived the crucifixion and fled to India to live a life of quiet contemplation. Although the tomb is officially the resting place of a Muslim preacher called Youza Asaph, the speculation around the Jesus story is still quite strong.

Although this might be controversial for some, even if it isn’t the body of Christ, the fact of the matter is that people did make such a huge journey even in antiquity. This could have been to spread their own gospel, or to study Buddhism (the dominant religion at the time).

China too has a history of classical travellers, such as Hsuan Tsang, born around 607CE. Although it was illegal to travel outside of China around this time, between 627-643, Tsang travelled along the Silk Route, to Samarkand and Tashkent (both in modern Uzbekistan), and eventually visited Benares in India on a Buddhist pilgrimage. He even recorded his travels in a book, Great Tang Records on the Western Regions.

Zheng He is another famous example of a Chinese traveller, although he was more a diplomat acting at the behest of the Emperor of the time. Born in Yunan to a Muslim family, He led expeditions as far afield as the Arabian Peninsula, the Horn of Africa and Sri Lanka. Zheng He bought back many exotic treasures to the emperors including spices, wild animals and minerals and was even rumoured to have reached the American continent and Australia.

His ships were also famous, mainly for being huge. Although time may have blurred the truth, rumours of the time suggest that his flagship was many times bigger than any other wooden ship of the time.

Conquests, pilgrimages and persecution

Back in Europe, there was undoubtedly tourism during the middle ages, that is the years between the 5th and 15th century. Much of it would have centered around religious observances, for example pilgrimages to distant temples and the tombs of Saints.

With the conquest of Spain by the Muslims, many would come from as far away as Baghdad or Damascus to enjoy the lifestyle in this lush distant land.

With Muslims so far flung, the pilgrimage to Mecca would have been one of the main reasons for pilgrims to travel huge distances. From Al Andalus (Spain) or Morocco, all the way to Arabia, or even in the case of Zhang He, visiting from China, Mecca was probably one of the biggest destinations for travellers for hundreds of years.

And, with the religious theme being kept, the Crusades inspired a whole generation of European noblemen to head to their own holy land of Jerusalem and Palestine to defend against the invading Muslims. Although the Crusades are illustrated as battles and sieges, in fact there is evidence of some co-existence and even sharing of knowledge.

Moving towards the modern age, with the discovery of America by Europeans in 1492, people began to eye the new world more as a new frontier and the chance for a new beginning. Travel to the Americas was, at first, less about travel and more about escaping persecution, poverty and hardship in Europe.

The 16th, 17th and 18th centuries saw lots of movement, through forced migration such as slavery or displacement as well as colonising Asia, Australia, parts of Africa and the Americas. And with the opening of shipping routes, an increased exposure to foreign cultures through newspapers and books and more awareness of the world around us, a new era was about to begin…

The Birth of Tourism

Tourism as we would recognise it today started around the 17th or 18th century. Well to do Europeans would set off on a Grand Tour of classical cities across the continent, taking in stops in Paris, Vienna, Prague, Florence, Rome, Venice and London, among many others. In this respect, the modern travel trail isn’t quite so modern as it would seem.

Famous poets such as Britain’s Lord Byron spent two years travelling the Mediterranean, enjoying copious amounts of wine and seducing the locals. In-keeping with this style of travel, the Grand Tour tended to be reserved for the nobles and more monied classes. These ‘tourists’ would then return with tall tales of the riches of far off lands and often publish memoirs, poems and other forms of media, a precursor to Instagram posts perhaps?

Arguably, mass tourism as we know it today took shape when Thomas Cook, a British businessman, started organising mass tours from his base in Leicester. At first, his ‘travel agency’ would organise excursions across England. His first, in 1841, was from Leicester in England, to Loughborough, a town just 11 miles away. His next ‘tour’ was to Liverpool, and by 1856 he was organising tours to Scotland, Italy, Egypt and even the United States – surely a milestone in the history of travel and tourism as we know it.

Today, Thomas Cook is still a household brand name in the UK, with the company offering holiday packages across the world.

The Sky is the Limit

Of course, air travel changed everything. From days, or even weeks to reach a destination, suddenly far flung cities were within just a few hours reach.

The first commercial air link, in 1914, was between St Petersburg and Tampa, both in Florida, USA. By 1919, many nations began setting up commercial airlines, some of which are still in operation today. KLM (Royal Dutch Airlines), Czech Airlines, Avianca and Qantas are a few of the founding transcontinental airline companies who are still flying the skies.

Although air travel was slow at first, as anyone who has seen an Indian Jones movie would understand, it was still a lot faster than travelling by boat or train. And, of course, it was expensive. Air travel was the preserve of the rich, and the glamour associated with air travel is still something people come to expect.

Today, of course, budget airlines rule the skies and everyone can fly around the world for what amounts to pocket change. Anyone can fly away for a city break getaway for the weekend, or perhaps to live as a digital nomad in a more exotic city. Ryanair in Europe, AirAsia in Asia and JetBlue of the USA make travel much more accessible for everyone, although perhaps to the detriment of that glamorous image.

Now, the world is struggling with the effects of over-tourism, with protests in popular locations such as Barcelona and Venice. But, the double edged sword means that the tourist dollar is still welcomed, even if those excessive tourists are not. So where next for tourism?

Are people looking for more independent and unique experiences? Or perhaps we’re going to start looking to the stars… One thing is for sure, the history of travel is still being written.