Are We There Yet? Historians and the History of Tourism


Mr. Culver is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History, Utah State University. He was selected as one of HNN's Top Young Historians in June.

Now that June is passing into July, many historians, at least those who teach, are enjoying one of the most rewarding aspects of an academic career – summer.  Of course, summer does not mean three months of lying on the beach.  On the contrary, our summers are often spent revising book manuscripts, writing conference papers or course lectures, or making research trips to archives.     

For academics, summer is often less a time of relaxation and more for catching up with work.  This is part of a longstanding tradition.  Americans were long suspicious of leisure – it was for the wealthy and effete, not the hardworking and respectable.  A brief respite from work to recover one’s health was acceptable; leisure as a way of life was not.  Recreational travel was meant to be constructive, educational, or redemptive, such as nineteenth-century Chautauquas or visits to national parks.  Mere hedonistic fun was a danger to morals and a healthy work ethic.

While many Americans discarded their fear of leisure during the twentieth century, and even embraced it as a way of life – for an example of this, see retirees – academics continued to view tourism with suspicion.  For what might seem like a “fun” topic, the scholarly literature proved remarkably bleak.  This dates all the way back to Thorstein Veblen, and his 1899 TheTheory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions.  Veblen’s formulations of “conspicuous consumption” and “conspicuous leisure” offered a simple explanation for tourist behavior: recreational travel was merely a marker of class status.  One traveled in order to be seen traveling, and leisure was the “chief mark of gentility.” 1  Generations later in the 1980s, postmodernist analysis proved no less dour.  In California, where many aspects of tourist leisure had long been incorporated into resident recreation – surfing and beach culture, for example – Jean Baudrillard found only unease.  He deemed California a “soft, resort-style civilization” – and the inevitable setting for a future “easy-does-it apocalypse.” 2

In the 1990s, academic historians began examining tourism in detail, and the field proliferated rapidly.  This was especially evident among historians of the American West and Southwest.  It was in these regions that tourism was first used in the nineteenth century on a large, regional scale to foment development.  The single greatest success was Los Angeles, which sold clear air, a balmy climate, and outdoor recreation, and ballooned from a small town to one of the nation’s largest cities.  Even today, tourism remains a central component of the West’s economy. 

Western historians, however, found much to critique as well.  The most prolific historian of tourism in the West was the late Hal Rothman.  The title of his monograph Devil’s Bargains: Tourism in the Twentieth-Century American West (1998) conveyed the Faustian proposition he believed tourism posed to residents of the rural West.  Tourism would expand their economy, but in exchange they would be forced to surrender community, authenticity, political autonomy, the environment, good wages, and affordable housing.        

Now if you are worried I am about to break into a song about how the tourists and the cowboys should be friends, let me reassure you.  I do not want to minimize its sometimes deeply troubling aspects.  In the Southwest of the 1880s and 1890s, as one example, boorish tourists began forcing their way into the homes of Pueblo Indians in New Mexico, and took photographs of sacred dances and religious rituals.  Tourists can be an invasive and unappealing lot.  One Pueblo Indian aptly described a tourist as “someone not afraid to stare.”3

Tourist leisure also depends on the labor of others, and that relationship can be an exploitative one.  Before Katrina, New Orleans, one of the most visited cities in the nation, was also one of its poorest.  In Aspen and Jackson Hole, middle class employees commute long distances because no affordable housing remains nearby, and ski resorts now rely heavily on undocumented workers.  Low-wage immigrants clean rooms in hotels across the nation.  American tourists relax in Cancun and private resorts in the Caribbean, while local people languish in poverty.    

With these examples in mind, can we perhaps come to a more complex understanding of tourism?  As one illustration, many tourist destinations and recreational areas were historically segregated by race and class.  Yet those excluded fought for access, and created their own spaces of leisure.  In Southern California, the NAACP organized a “swim-in” to protest beach segregation, and middle class African Americans created their own resort, Val Verde, known as the “Black Palm Springs.”  Rather than simply suffer exclusion, they claimed tourist leisure and recreation as an experience of racial solidarity.

Some historians fret that that tourism changes places – that as soon as the rich New Yorkers and Californians arrive, the expulsion from Eden has begun.  Lamenting change and indulging in nostalgia seems a strange preoccupation for historians.  After all, the basis of our discipline is the examination of change over time.  Change, not permanence, is at the heart of historical experience. 

Tourism is a remarkable window into a changing society.  An excellent example is Palm Springs.  What began as a small settlement for tuberculosis sufferers became an exclusive retreat for the wintering eastern elite, and then a playground for Hollywood.  In the 1970s and 1980s it transformed again, this time into a staid retiree community.  Yet one more transformation lay ahead, the most unexpected of them all.  The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, whose reservation underlay much of the resort town, spent much of the twentieth century facing the loss of tribal lands and low-paying labor.  Then, through the alchemy of Indian casinos, they were transformed into the wealthiest and most politically powerful group in the community.  At the same time, Palm Springs emerged as a hugely popular tourist destination and place of residence for gays and lesbians.  One can scarcely imagine what the resort’s early founders would think of what change over time has wrought in their tourist town.

Palm Springs may be an exception, yet it is proof of something important.  Tourism and recreation are complex historical phenomena, and resist easy simplification.  If we are willing to take fun seriously, tourism can tell us much about our society, and our collective historical experience.


1 Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions (New York: MacMillan Company, 1899), 55.

2 Jean Baudrillard, America, trans. Chris Turner (London: Verso, 1988), 31; 38.

3 Phoebe Kropp, CaliforniaVieja: Culture and Memory in a Modern American Place (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), 151.

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Andrew D. Todd - 6/26/2007

You could extend this analysis to deal with suburbia as well. For example, see Irving Howe's discussion of the "Borscht Belt," the Jewish resort hotels in the Catskills, in _World of Our Fathers_; See also Leo Rosten's comments, distributed here and there in _The Joys of Yiddish_. At a later date, there is also the phenomena of Fire Island. Something similar could be done with amusement parks as far back as the eighteen century in Europe. Look at some of Hogarth's engravings to get a contemporary sense of what one of these places was like. In this country, Nathaniel Hawthorne's _The Blithedale Romance_ would be an interesting text.

George Robert Gaston - 6/26/2007

It seems that again, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. I find it interesting that some of the tacky hotels along Florida’s gulf coast are now being touted as prime examples of mid-century architecture. I suppose that if something is old enough it regains some value to somebody. I can almost envision tours of late century time shares. What the heck, they can sell a military barracks from the middle ages as a castle tour.

Beware however; the locals are doing the lawn mower dance, trying to conjure up a beach cleaning hurricane.