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MIHE Blog News, views and insights from Macmillan International Higher Education

Tourism And The World History Survey

by Eric G. E. Zuelow 23rd June 2020

Eric G. E. Zuelow, author of A History of Modern Tourism, explores the evolution of tourism.

One doesn’t forget the anxiety that comes with a first teaching gig. For most in the States, the reality quickly sets in that much of the job involves teaching world history surveys. I suspect most are overwhelmed by a sense of being ill-equipped to do the subject justice. It isn’t simply the time span or the geographic space involved, it is that your training probably did not prepare you for something so vast.

My first courses didn’t feel coherent. They were more like a greatest-hits record than a well-conceived album: a famous civilization here, a notable battle there, a fun tidbit about some ruler or other. The textbook I selected brought little, there were no broad concepts, only a few stories poorly told and stripped of context. Eventually it occurred to me that I ought to choose a common subject or theme that would tie content together. The right selection would offer an opportunity to tell engaging stories and provide a means to model some of the narrative strategies used by historians to create a coherent sense of the past on a truly grand scale. In her book, What is Global History? (Polity, 2008), Pamela Kyle Crossley identifies these as divergence, convergence, contagion, and systems.

As it turns out, my own field of research, the history of tourism, offers a near perfect topic for such a course. It is a global story, intersecting with major events, and it reflects the narrative strategies I just mentioned. The story of tourism is the story of modernity. It emerged from the wreckage of the Black Death, a means for addressing emerging forms of diplomacy. It developed alongside and ultimately spread new ways of thinking, whether in terms of scientific rationality or aesthetics. New transportation technologies facilitated tourism, but at the same time leisure travel allowed people an opportunity to experience these technologies first hand, developing a deep fascination with them. A lot of this started in Europe which was emerging as a global power, but it was not limited to one place for long. Tourism created global connections along a vector of expanding empire. Once it spread worldwide, tourism proved malleable, easily adapted and utilized to new political purpose, often through its symbiotic connection to the rise of nationalism.
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Image credit: Photo by Unknown. Avaliable on WallpaperFlare via CC0
Students are usually vaguely aware of major historical stories: the prevalence of global empires during the nineteenth century, the painful reality of the American Civil War, and the role of ideology in World War II are just three examples. They seldom know that tourism was used to sell the glories of empire and also to push back against it, to piece the United States together again through the creation of “national” shrines including parks and memorial sites, or that communist, fascist, and democratic states all used tourism as a way to gather support for their regimes.
Framing a world history course around tourism also makes it possible to illustrate historical narrative strategies. Divergence and convergence are both prevalent. In the first instance, one force shaping tourism history is a desire to differentiate one’s product or oneself from others. Tourists gain prestige through experiencing difference and tourism developers work tirelessly to highlight that distinctiveness. At the same time, finding difference means defining “self” versus “other.” As a result, national and regional identities are negotiated, traditions invented, and histories reshaped.

At the same time, tourism is very much an example of convergence, it brings people together. While highlighting distinctiveness, tourism also creates uniformity. One tourism economy or destination may start to look like others. The infrastructure is the same. Labor practices are similar, underscoring class difference. Mediators, tourist guidebooks, for example, used to interpret place, history, and culture do not differ very much, at least in form. One seaside town often looks like another. Virtually all of us imagine that we need a vacation. There is a consensus that leisure travel is vital to our well-being, that it is essential for all those engaged in modern forms of work.
Tourism is very much a global system that fuels interaction and change. Following its evolution means examining economic, political, social, and cultural transformations across time and place.

It means tracing the connections that define us and which prompt ongoing developments. Students relate to tourism history because they have all been tourists. Their experiences blend into class material, highlighting similarities and differences, changes and continuities. When I reshaped my world history courses based-on the theme of tourism the classes were transformed. They lost their “greatest hits” feeling and developed into something cohesive. I felt like I was genuinely illustrating just how interconnected the human story is and that it can be instructive to take a step back and to think globally. I felt more in control of the material. Somehow, it all became a little less intimidating and a lot more fun.
Featured image credit: Photo by Unknown. Avaliable on Pxhere via CC0.