A Breathless Survey of the History of Terrestrial Tourism, and its Relation to Space Tourism

A busy day at the National Air and Space Museum.

A busy day at the National Air and Space Museum.

Tourism in some form has been a part of human existence since the beginning of human existence. In 1994, the United Nations Statistical Committee approved a definition of tourism put forward by its World Tourism Organization (WTO): “The activities of persons traveling to and staying in places outside their usual environment for not more than one consecutive year for leisure, business and other purposes.” A seemingly straightforward definition, it encompasses complex operations to make it possible to tour with relative ease, safety, and freedom. The complexities expand when considering traveling into space.

The first recorded instances of tourism emerged in the ancient Roman Republic, where wealth, leisure time, and a transportation and accommodations infrastructure all supported a tourism industry for the elite. Such places as Baiae, near present-day Naples in Italy, became popular coastal resorts for the rich. A mild climate, warm sulphur springs, and spectacular local scenery combined to lure wealthy Romans from the city and into villas in the Baiae region during the summer.

Several Roman emperors built villas, and Cleopatra was reported to have been there when Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 BCE. As Roman art and architecture historian Fikret K. Yegul wrote: “Baiae possessed everything to make an ideal playland for the enjoyment of the public, the wealthy as well as those who aspired to be wealthy: nearly year-round sunshine, fine beaches, a multitude of curative hot springs amidst myrtle shaded parks and gardens—a paradise on earth combining the luxuries of nature with those manmade.” Little wonder that Baiae became one of the earliest tourist destinations in recorded history, but such cities as Bath, in southwestern England, served a similar function for Romans on the northern frontier.

At the height of the Roman Empire citizens could travel throughout the Mediterranean, much of northern Europe, and some of Asia and the Middle East on a network of roads, bridges, canals, and seas that linked the realm together militarily, commercially, and culturally. A single currency, language, and body of laws dominated this empire and facilitated the rise of tourism for both the wealthy and the near-wealthy.

Average travel times by sea were about 100 miles per day, and a trip from Rome to Epidamnus in modern Albania, some 600 miles, usually took between four and five days. The relative comfort of this seagoing travel enhanced the potential of tourism, as did the development of accommodations, sites for visitation, and attractions for those with time and money. Even those traveling by land did relative well. Grand tours of the empire were common at least once in the lifetime of every elite patrician, with young men visiting “famous cities and strange or historic sites; he spent a year abroad, in the train of some general or governor.”

The pilgrims of Chaucer.

The pilgrims of Chaucer.

Later, during the medieval era, pilgrimages to religious sites in Europe became common. The Canterbury Tales, for example, were supposedly told by a group of religious pilgrims on their way from Southwark to Canterbury in the 1380s to visit the shrine of Saint Thomas à Becket at Canterbury Cathedral. While Geoffrey Chaucer did not describe the details of the trip, he captured the essence of a group of tourists traveling for fun, sightseeing, education, and spiritual welfare. By the sixteenth century the aristocracy throughout Europe had taken to sending their sons on grand tours of the “continent” as an educational experience. Later, as a rising middle class emerged in northern Europe the practice expanded even as the amount of time and extent of travel, because of limitations on wealth, lessened.

With the beginning of the industrial age—and its concomitant rise in wealth, leisure time, and ease of transportation—tourism became both more sophisticated and accessible to those not at society’s pinnacle. The British led the world in this type of tourism during the eighteenth and much of the nineteenth centuries, and the seaside or mountain holiday emerged as the leisure travel of choice for an emerging middle class. Visits to Weymouth, Dover, and a host of other tourist destinations soon yielded to trips across the channel where coastal resorts with amenities and accommodations catering to British travelers dominated.

Thomas Cook organized the first recorded package tour in 1841 by chartering a train to take a group from Leicester to Loughborough for a temperance rally, various entertainments, and accommodations. This began a tourism business in England that made Cook a fortune and opened exotic places to many who would have never been able to visit them otherwise.

By the 1820s tourism as an industry had already established itself in the United States. Scenic wonders such as Niagara Falls, Mammoth Cave, the Hudson River Valley, and the White Mountains became important places for tourists to see. The expansion of attractions continued westward throughout the nineteenth century, and such places as Yosemite, Yellowstone, the Grand Tetons, the Painted Desert, Monument Valley, and the Grand Canyon, among many others also became tourist destinations of note, some as early as the 1850s. They flourished because of the same ingredients that had fueled European tourism—a rise in wealth, leisure time, and ease of transportation—and gained greater saliency through the application of one of the most important of all American innovations: advertising and consumerism. Americans created for themselves a need to see these places quite apart from the significance of the places themselves.

In time the creation of environmental, human history, and technological and architectural marvels for the enjoyment of tourists led to one of the most ubiquitous of American stereotypes: the seeker of a packaged version of whatever is to be offered while resisting risk. The rise of what are essentially amusement parks with historic, ecological, cultural, or scenic themes effectively erased most of the naturalism previously present in tourism. Quickly, a false authenticity became the norm in American tourism and those seeking it immediately garnered derision.

"Shall the Buffalo Go? Reminiscences of an Old Buffalo Hunter," in Frank Leslie's Popular Monthly, May 1883.

“Shall the Buffalo Go? Reminiscences of an Old Buffalo Hunter,” in Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly, May 1883.

Patricia Nelson Limerick has observed that at the point that railroads allowed quick, easy, safe transportation into the American West tourism began to rule the region. As early as 1828, writer James Kirk Paulding observed that tourism was “the most exquisite mode of killing time and spending money ever yet devised by lazy ingenuity.” Not much has changed since that time. A satirical saying that circulates yearly—“If it’s tourist season, why can’t we shoot them?”—epitomizes this attitude and it forms an underlying aspect of the culture of virtually all tourist sites.

Of course, there was a strain of tourism that always sought authenticity, risk, and adventure, and this has proven a serious sub-element of tourism in the United States as well as elsewhere. Adventure tourism eschews the packaged aspects of travel in favor of more individualistic and dangerous activities. One notable example of this in the U.S. was Francis Parkman’s trip along the Oregon Trail in the summer of 1846. As a twenty-three-year-old graduate of the Harvard Law School, Parkman hoped to find adventure, improve his health, and observe the native population as a lark on the first third of the Oregon Trail across the Great Plains of Nebraska, Kansas, Wyoming, and Colorado. His account of this tour quickly became one of the classics of American literature, in no small part because of the power of his prose and the sharp edge of his analysis as shown here:

Great changes are at hand in that region. With the stream of emigration to Oregon and California, the buffalo will dwindle away, and the large wandering communities who depend on them for support must be broken and scattered. The Indians will soon be corrupted by the example of the whites, abused by whisky, and overawed by military posts; so that within a few years the traveler may pass in tolerable security through their country. Its danger and its charm will have disappeared together.

His trip across the plains was essentially adventure tourism and was recognized as such by thrill-seekers everywhere.

Even more extreme, but certainly not unusual in both the American West and sub-Saharan Africa, was the expeditions of big game hunters seeking trophies, thrills, and bragging rights. European nobility visited the American West as early as the 1840s to hunt bison and other large game. Accompanied by a local guide and often some other people who acted as servants, these expeditions in America did not have the romantic name Safari that they would gain in Africa in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Nonetheless, that was what they were, and those so engaged recognized it as a blood sport in which they could conceivably lose their lives.

As historian Richard White observed in “It’s Your Misfortune and None of My Own”: A New History of the American West (Oklahoma, 1991), “The opening of the overland trails started an onslaught on the buffalo by migrants, soldiers, and various eastern and European sportsmen. The people killed bison in numbers far beyond what they could ever use. They hunted largely for sport and left the carcasses to rot on the plains.” Not until the twentieth century in the United States did significant efforts take place to regulate hunting during tourist excursions.

Mara Naboisho was the first wildlife conservancy, an "early adopter" of global sustainable tourism criteria for destinations.

Mara Naboisho was the first wildlife conservancy, an “early adopter” of global sustainable tourism criteria for destinations.

Tourism expanded during the twentieth century and now represents more than a half a trillion dollar a year industry worldwide. The vast majority of tourists undertake sedate excursions and enjoy relative comfort and ease. Perhaps the organized tour with a group of several other tourists overseen by a travel agency that makes all arrangements is the best example of these safe and routine tours. The costs of these excursions has declined to the extent that many middle income Americans routinely visit theme parks, vacation at the beach or the mountains, travel to various national parks, and enjoy week-long cruises in the Caribbean and the Pacific. But there are also adventure tourists who challenge destruction to gain adrenalin rushes and bragging rights for climbing Mount Everest, diving to the depths of the oceans, visiting Antarctica, and undertaking a range of what might be considered daredevil activities in exotic locations around the globe. These individuals are frequently wealthy adventure seekers who want to dare the universe and live to tell about it. They also frequently expend considerable time and money preparing for these activities and sometimes they do not survive the encounter. For example, of some 900 people who climbed Mount Everest between 1921 and the end of the twentieth century, more than 150 lost their lives, a one in six mortality rate.

This breathless survey of terrestrial tourism relates to the issue of space tourism in two fundamental ways. First, it is apparent that there have been two distinct types of tourists visiting locations at least since the nineteenth century, and perhaps earlier. Wealthy adventurers, willing to risk significant resources and personal safety, have been much the smaller of the two types, but at present it is the only group of possible tourists seriously interested in space tourism in the foreseeable future.

Several space tourists have flown; each paying an estimated $20 million for the opportunity to ride a Soyuz spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS) for a week-long visit. They also accepted considerable risk for the right to engage in this highly unusual activity.

Is this the future of space tourism?

Is this the future of space tourism?

On the other hand the majority of space tourists, and there are millions every year, confine themselves to visiting Earth-bound locations involved in, or celebrating, spaceflight. For instance, the National Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., is the world’s most visited museum, hosting more than eight million tourists each year. An additional two million people annually visit the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, making it one of the largest attractions in a state known for its tourist industry. Each year another two million tourists visit Space World, a space-oriented theme park, in Kitakyushu City, Japan. Other terrestrial locations, including the various Space Camps, account for a further two million visitors annually. Overall, however, space-related activities are a miniscule percentage of the $623 billion terrestrial tourism industry.

Additionally, unless costs, schedules, and the risk of spaceflight can be significantly reduced—more than an order of magnitude—there is very little reason to believe that the market will expand beyond the wealthy thrill-seekers who are essentially descendants of the big game hunters of Africa or the adventurers who climbed Mount Everest. Even then, the costs of undertaking those other activities are significantly smaller than that required for a trip into space. Space tourism advocates understand this essential truth at some level, but few are willing to admit the magnitude of the challenge confronting those who want to overcome the Earth’s gravity well. Indeed, the success of the first millionaire space tourists has steeled their resolve. Space policy analyst Dwayne A. Day does not believe this is the best way to open spaceflight to the general public. He observed in 2001:

Now that Tito has flown, it will not be the Earth-shattering precedent that space enthusiasts hoped for.…[I]s it any easier for the average citizen to raise $20 million in cash and buy a seat on a Soyuz than it is to get a Ph.D. in engineering and join the astronaut corps? No. Far from opening a frontier, Tito’s flight symbolizes just how out of reach space remains for the common person.

The flights of several space tourists to ISS offer an ambivalent precedent for the opening of spaceflight for the average person. Bringing down the cost of access to space could alter this dynamic but it seems unlikely that little will change until then.

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1 Response to A Breathless Survey of the History of Terrestrial Tourism, and its Relation to Space Tourism

  1. Thanks very much for the excellent tour of tourism history. A great reference to cite on the topic.

    The key message relevant to space travel is that most all types of tourism start out expensive and gradually become available to the middle class.

    I’ll note that some estimates of the industry are much larger than your half trillion number. E.g – http://www.statista.com/topics/962/global-tourism/ – gives $7.6T for the global travel and tourism industry, making it one of the largest industries overall. The estimates depend, of course, on what “indirect and induced” activities are included.

    Many countries in the world depend on tourism for a major share of their GDPs. Islands, in particular, have relevance to space settlements and many isles depend on tourism. E.g., tourism is over 60% of the economy of The Bahamas. And it is a wealthy place, so tourism dependence does not mean penury.

    “Space tourism advocates understand this essential truth at some level, but few are willing to admit the magnitude of the challenge confronting those who want to overcome the Earth’s gravity well.”

    It’s certainly true that most space tourism advocates, including myself, thought it would grow much faster but the fundamental dispute between entrepreneurial and mainstream space has not been over time frames but over whether low cost access to space is feasible at all.

    With ULA and Airbus scrambling to design and build new rockets to meet SpaceX’s low launch prices, we see that the mainstream space industry and its supporting cast of aerospace academics and consultants must confront the essential truth that rockets can escape Earth’s gravity well for a lot less cost than they claimed possible.

    Full and fast turnaround reusable vehicles are key to really low costs and no one has pushed for RLVs more than space tourism advocates. A key aspect of the NewSpace approach is that the “magnitude of the challenge” of RLVs is best overcome by incremental, step-by-step development along multiple paths. That can take awhile but it’s the most robust way to make it happen. So, while Virgin Galactic may stumble and XCOR may drop out, Blue Origin moves with “gradually ferocious” determination towards fly-refuel-refly rocket vehicles and SpaceX gets better launch-by-launch at retrofitting reusability to an expendable.

    Regarding Dwayne’s comments, the implication that unless a milestone leads instantly to the endpoint goal it is of no consequence is an odd way to read history. There are many tech developments that are appreciated as profound even though their full ramifications did not play out till many years, even many decades, afterwards. The Wright Flyer, DC-3, etc. didn’t result in the “common person” flying until the entry of discount airlines in the 1980s following deregulation. The Altair 8800 microcomputer did not lead instantly to mass utilization of computers by the common folk. There was about 30 year gap between the first mobile phone and mass market use. The overnight success of smallsats took over 50 years to happen (starting from OSCAR 1). Etc. Etc.

    A milestone can be profound by doing nothing other than changing firmly held beliefs. Tito’s flight refuted what was held by many to be an absolute truth: spaceflight is only for employees (and an occasional corporate guest) of giant government programs – a private individual cannot simply decide to go to space and make it happen. The subsequent queue for flights to the ISS at even higher prices refutes the claim that spaceflight won’t be a sizable market when prices drop.

    Other absolute truths – e.g. lower launch costs and RLVs are not possible, smallsats are not useful, etc – are also being overturned. Overturning such widely held beliefs is key to attracting investors, entrepreneurs, and customers to spaceflight ventures. When future historians of spaceflight look back at this era, I believe the ISS tourist visits will be seen as a significant factor in the change in attitudes towards spaceflight that in turn led to the ventures that made it practical, safe, and widely affordable.


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