Oliver Lynch

Oliver Lynch

Content writer, language nerd and aspiring screenwriter. Usually found wandering old European towns or trying to snowboard.

A Very Brief History of Travel

Nowadays it’s something we take for granted, but is travel and tourism a modern invention? When and why did people start to travel?

People have always travelled. That’s how come there are people *everywhere*! I mean, there are people who live in the most inhospitable places, so their ancestors obviously decided they liked this place and called it home.

But travel for fun? Or tourism? When did we, as a species, start travelling for the sake of it? And why do people actually go travelling?

Ancient travel

Some of the first records of travel for fun and pleasure come from Greece. The ancient Greeks would make trips to see sporting spectacles such as the Olympic Games, or to visit the Oracle at Delphi.

Some would even make a trip to Egypt to see the Great Pyramids of Giza. These ancient tombs were the largest man made structures on the planet for millennia, and were quite a draw even in the days of antiquity.

In fact, it has been noted that there was a network of inns and roads, made to accommodate travellers across Greece. There were no five star options though, with most lodgings pretty basic. So, no toilet or room service for the ancient Greeks.

The Romans up the ante

Those Romans were an indulgent lot and they certainly knew how to enjoy themselves. As part of that, the Roman gentry would escape the sweltering heat of Rome in the summer to enjoy their country villas, or seaside lodgings.

And with the Mediterranean on the doorstep, it was easy for some of the more well off to head to places like Egypt, the Greek Islands or Spain to enjoy classical sites, pilgrimages and probably a spot of debauchery.

The problem back then of course was you were likely to be robbed by bandits or raided by pirates, so it wasn’t a trip that was taken lightly.

However, with the extended family and slaves in attendance, the Romans definitely lived the high life. In fact, an infrastructure sprung up in many popular Roman hangouts including spas, gambling dens, eateries and even prostitution.

Ancient Asian Tourism

Travel for fun wasn’t limited to Europe. There is evidence that Japanese spas have been serving customers since at least the 6th century. Today, you can still visit an Onsen in Japan, which is part of an ancient Buddhist ritual of cleansing.

Travellers would have made a special trip across the country to climb up to these spas.

Over in China, there was a whole world of travelling history that is still little understood in the west. Although many are aware of the Silk Road, the old trade routes between East and West, there would definitely have been some who would make their travels along these routes for fun.

One of these was Xuanzang, or Hsuan Tsang. Around 627CE, Tsang began a pilgrimage that took him along the Silk Route to Samarkand and Tashkent, in today’s Uzbekistan. He then ended up following his Buddhist pilgrimage to Benares and Bodh Gaya in India as well as exploring parts of what are now Nepal and Bangladesh.

Although Tsang documented his travels in his tome, Great Tang Records on the Western Regions, there must have been others who would have completed similar trips.

Image by Peter Anta from Pixabay 

Pilgrimages and conquests

Most travel, throughout most of history, would have been focused on the act of carrying out a pilgrimage. For Muslims, the trip to Mecca has been occurring since at least the 6th century.

And with Muslims as far afield as China, India, the horn of Africa and Europe, the Hajj would have been one of the most popular acts of travel and tourism for millennia.

Image by GLady from Pixabay 

Besides making journeys to temples and religious sites, another key reason to travel for many would have been a sense of duty. This could have been to spread the word of a religion, but it could also have been to subjugate, pillage and do other less benevolent acts. The Crusades, between 1095-1492, were a time when many in Europe would don armour and head to the Holy Land to do their bit to reclaim what they saw as rightfully theirs. Much to the surprise of the locals.

In fact, the periods between the rise of the Roman Empire and Modern European colonialism were ripe for travel. Often in the name of bringing ‘civilisation‘ to distant lands.

The Mongols, the Mughals, the Umayad Caliphate, various Chinese empires, the Ottomans and a succession of European colonialists would change the demographics across the world for centuries.

But, is this travel? Well, within these empires would be a network of traders, preachers, chancers, hangers on, slaves and nobility. Many would have had the chance to explore beyond their home regions, even as part of their work within the empire. They might not have spend many days by the pool, or sightseeing, but they would have enjoyed exploring new cultures, sharing their own experiences and telling the folks back home what they saw.

And isn’t that travel?

The Grand Tour

Travel and tourism as we recognise it today can be traced back to the nobility of Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. Well to do Brits like Lord Byron would head off to visit the classical cities of Europe, and no doubt indulge in plenty of fine wine and local women.

Having skipped through places like Rome, Paris, Vienna, Constantinople and Seville, the nobility would head home and write up their memoirs. Possibly in the form of poetry, songs or works of literature. They were basically early ‘influencers’…

From the Grand Tour, these ‘tourists’ would inspire many others to head out and explore too. Steam travel was making travel easier, and shipping routes, trains and better road infrastructure was starting to open up the world to more people.

Image by Rolanas Valionis from Pixabay 

The birth of the package tour

Being Lord Byron is all well and good, but not everyone could take two years out of their life to swan about in the Mediterranean.

Enter Thomas Cook. A businessman from Leicester in England, Cook had a clever idea of organising a guided tour for lots of ‘tourists’ to visit a distant location.

In 1841, Cook escorted 500 people on a train trip to Loughborough, 11 miles down the road. It went so well, he more trips in the intervening years, including a 1945 trip to Liverpool. Six years later, he was organising tours of Europe and looking to Italy, Egypt and the United States. The package tour was born, and today Thomas Cook is still a household name and established travel brand.

Travel takes off

Before aeroplanes, there was another form of air travel… The airship, or zeppelin.

DELAG, an early German airline, operated a fleet of zeppelins from 1909, offering travel from Germany to the USA and South America. Although they never ran a scheduled service, they did fly in the region of 33,000 passengers over the four years they operated.

A combination of factors including World War 1 and – perhaps more significantly – the arrival of the aeroplane changed air travel.

The world’s first commercial aeroplane service took off in 1914 from St Petersburg, Florida to Tampa, also in Florida. Although it only lasted a few months, the precedent was set. Air travel had arrived, and now you could get to a destination in hours, where previously it would have taken days, or even weeks.

KLM, Avianca, Czech Airlines and Qantas are a few of the oldest surviving airlines from era of the birth of intercontinental air travel. And, although air travel was a glamorous and exclusive pursuit in the early days of the 20th century, it was a matter of time before air travel went mainstream.

Modern travel

From the glitz and glamour of arriving by plane, today, flying is routine. Most of us take several flights a year, and budget is no object. You can jump on a plane for a city break for the price of a tank of petrol for your car. In fact, air travel has become so cheap and convenient that many popular destinations are now complaining about over tourism.

In 1980, there were 278 million tourist arrivals worldwide. By 1990, that had risen to 439 million. Between 2010-2019, the global tourist arrivals, that is people visiting a destination other than their home, rose from 951 million to 1.4 billion.

Today, spending on travel accounts for more than 10% of the global GDP, with millions, possibly billions of people dependent on travel for their livelihood. Travel now is not a luxury, but a commodity. We take a short break when we can, and many of us will try and visit somewhere, even if its just down the road…

The history of travel is still being written, but we have come a very long way in a very short space of time. The appeal of being able to escape from our daily life, to explore a new culture and to feel like you’re part of the human experience means that travel isn’t going to slow down any time soon. In fact, with the growth and saturation of certain destinations, we will likely see niche experiences and unique locations looking for their own share of that tourist dollar…

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