Few things, it seems, have the capacity to make people as nervous as tourism does. Here in Britain, in the nineties, many cultural critics began pointing out that the country was in danger of making a mockery of its own history, in a vain effort to maintain a steady flow of tourist dollars. It seemed sometimes that as the declining post-imperial nation had increasingly less to offer the modern world, its most interesting tourist draw was something called “heritage”–queens and castles, lords and ladies, lawyers wearing silly wigs–but there was the risk that the country would turn into a giant heritage theme-park. Was this a country, many critics asked, or a royal safari park? Was all Stratford a stage? Along with London, Oxford and Bath, Stratford-upon-Avon had come to form a quadrivium of inauthentic “heritage destinations” without which no visit was complete, but which was thoroughly unrepresentative of modern Britain. Would the United Kingdom soon go the way of the Magic Kingdom? Walt Disney’s History World?
Most of us have a knee-jerk revulsion from the mock authenticity of “tourism,” which conjures up images of Kodak moments, National Lampoons and once-splendid monuments reduced to mass-marketed clichés. However, most of us, when pressed, would also admit that while tourism is hardly a new phenomenon, and that people have been traveling for centuries, whether as pilgrims, Grand Tourists or “jet-setters,” the real tackiness only seemed to arrive with the introduction of package tours and mass travel. This, unfortunately, is about the extent of our historical understanding of tourism.
And little wonder, since, for a subject that causes such anxieties about national identity, authenticity and experience, tourism has not always benefited from the most skilled of biographers. Traditionally, the study of travel and tourism has fallen under one of three general rubrics. First, there were the bad old days of whiggish history–tweedy men with double-barreled names who would pronounce from their leather armchairs on things as diverse as the “rise” of the British Empire or the “influence” of the Italian Renaissance, and the role that travelers played in their grand colonial narratives. Then there were the sociologists, like Thorstein Veblen and Dean MacCannell, who were more interested in the structures of travel, quantifying and categorizing their way to a Durkheimian synthesis of Western tourism. Finally, and most recently, there have been literary and cultural critics focused on things like Orientalism, the “tourist gaze,” exoticizing the other, etc.–Stephen Greenblatt’s work on early exploration of the Americas, for instance, or Mary Louise Pratt’s excellent Travel Writing and Transculturation.
Each approach has certainly had its merits, but each type of scholar has made tourism a handmaiden to a larger project–a way of tackling another, bigger problem, or sometimes even just an illustrative chapter in a book on something else entirely. Tourism has rarely been allowed to stand on its own as an independent rubric, poised and ready to be historicized, problematized and, inevitably, balkanized. However, in recent years, there has been an encouraging trend away from confining tourism to this kind of ancillary status, as historians have begun reclaiming the narrative for themselves, rescuing it from their own past whiggish tendencies as well as from the lit-crit barbarians at the gate. Only recently have historians begun to realize that a “cultural history of tourism” does not have to mean an obsession with subjectivity and discursive modes of representation, and it does not have to mean just the history of travel writing and exoticization. Leisure, surprisingly enough, can form a distinct subject of study in social history. Why, in short, do people take holidays? How did it all begin?