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The evolution of travel

Marc von Lüpke-Schwarz / gswAugust 4, 2013

Millions of Germans head off on vacation each year. But tourism as a mass phenomena emerged only just a few decades ago, although there were some early precursors. Travel was once largely the domain of the rich.

An Italian beach crowded with sun-bathers (c) picture-alliance/dpa
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

When the summer holiday season strikes in Germany, traffic backs up for miles, and the lines at airport counters grow even longer than usual. Even for 300 euros ($390), bargain-hunters can head off to faraway lands - such as a week-long stay on Gran Canaria island, flight and hotel included.

But in Germany, as in a number of other wealthy countries, affordable travel has only been around for a few decades. And in earlier eras, only the rich or aristocracy took in the world as tourists. The majority of the population could hardly imagine ever undertaking anything remotely similar.

The invention of tourism

"The majority of researchers believe that tourism is an 18th century invention," explains Hasso Spode, who heads a historical archive on tourism at the Free University of Berlin. But is there a difference between a traveler and a tourist?

"Tourism is travel without a real purpose," said the tourism researcher, adding that in earlier centuries, travelers were always on a mission. "The pilgrims, for example, wanted to find salvation; the conquistadors wanted to conquer." What changed in the 18th century, in Spode's view, is that people began to travel for fun.

A painting shows a horse-drawn carriage and a number of people crowded around it Source: Wikipedia
Traveling by coach often meant a long and cumbersome journeyImage: gemeinfrei

At that time, going on vacation was a burdensome and, above all else, an expensive undertaking. People traveled by carriage and suffered greatly on poor roads, often made impassable by bad weather. Lodging and provisioning horses were a constant concern. At the time, Germany consisted of a number of smaller states, and customs duties had to be paid again and again at the borders.

One of the country's first major tourist magnets emerged in 1793 at the coast of the Baltic Sea in what is today Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. That is where the seaside resort Heiligendamm opened its doors, attracting nearly everyone of distinction. They were met with no shortage of distractions, including gambling, horse races, dizzying fests and prostitutes. Many of the well-heeled guests never even made it into the water, and, as writer Ludwig Börne complained in 1825, "The princes and princesses here bother you like snails; you simply cannot avoid them."

Thomas Cook starts a revolution

"Tourism was initially limited to a very few people. Around one percent of the population could travel in 1800," said Hasso Spode of the make-up of German tourism at the time. That number soon changed, though.

The inventive Englishman Thomas Cook began capitalizing on a market niche in 1841: package tourism. He got some help from an invention that revolutionized transport: the railroad. Using railways, Cook sent hoards of tourists off on adventures. The tour operator could book entire trains and hotels, meaning he could make his offers at unbeatable prices.

"Cook was not, in fact, the inventor of package tourism, but he was its most successful organizer," Spode explains. But Thomas Cook did not stop there, adding tour guides that took care of all of the details, so that tourists could devote themselves to relaxation.

A poster or handbill advertising the fact that a Cook's ticket will take you anywhere on the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway, or round the world. (Mary Evans Picture Library)
This Cook advertisement appeared in 1904Image: picture-alliance/Mary Evans Picture Library

Cook's approach soon led to copycats in Germany, where train travel also helped spur on the concept of holiday-making. After all, trains could generally chug on regardless of the street conditions and weather, and passengers could peer out the window in comfort as scenes of nature rolled by.

Travel in the Nazi era

Nevertheless, many travel destinations remained the province of the upper classes until well into the 20th century. For laborers, vacationing was impossible, due to financial constraints. However, after the Nazis seized power in 1933, they tried to act as travel agents to drum up enthusiasm for the dictatorship among the working class.

"In 1933, the Nazis established the recreational organization 'Kraft durch Freude' (KdF, Power through Joy), which suddenly became the largest trip operator in the world," Hasso Spode said. The KdF attempted to draw in potential travelers with a  special offer: going on cruises, which were otherwise seen as the domain of the well-to-do.

A ship belonging to the Nazi travel group KdF is at port (c) picture-alliance/akg-images
In port is the ship Wilhelm Gustloff, part of the Nazi travel organization KdFImage: picture-alliance/akg-images

"They built classless cruise ships in which they were able to send around 700,000 people out to sea," said Spode. The KdF's propaganda showed Germans relaxing luxuriously on deck chairs and enjoying having nothing to do. Once the war started, however, the KdF tours came to a halt. Private trip operators continued their activities, much to the chagrin of the National Socialists, who would have preferred to use the tourist trains for the war.

"There you see how deep the populace's wish for travel experiences was. The Nazis couldn't allow themselves to do anything drastic against it for fear of making themselves unpopular," notes Spode.

By 1943, however, German tourism had all but stopped, due to the course the war had taken.

'Cleaning Lady Island'

After the war, Germany's economy rapidly picked up steam in the 1950s and Germans found themselves with both the money and desire to travel again.

"Slowly, the Germans began to have the courage to take their Beetles or Vespas beyond the Alps," said Hasso Spode of post-war tourism. Automobiles made it possible for people to plan and execute their trips in a much more individual way.

Soon thereafter, a further development made tourism even more accessible. In the 1970s, huge passenger planes began transporting people of various income groups well beyond their home countries. Popular destinations among Germans were soon given names ridiculing their new clientele. The Spanish island of Mallorca, for instance, was dubbed "Putzfraueninsel" (Cleaning Lady Island), while favored sunning spots around the Mediterranean were called "teutonic grills."

Rising incomes and low travel costs made it possible: international travel for everyone.

The best weeks of the year

There are exceptions, of course, when it comes to a passion for international travel.

Crowds along the shore of a beach in Mallorca Photo: Uli Deck dpa/lhe
Mallorca is known as a hot spot for German sun-seekersImage: picture-alliance/dpa

"Germany remains the most important destination country for Germans," said Jürgen Schmude, a tourism researcher and geographer at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich.

Things are changing, as well, in terms of how Germans travel. After the German travel budget sank by international comparison in 2012, the country had to pass on its unofficial title of the world's biggest travelers to the Chinese. But that certainly doesn't mean vacationing is dying out among Germans.

"There is a trend toward more trips per year, which are then shorter, but taken more often. Earlier, there was the more classic approach of vacationing in the summer," Schmude says.

These days, it's hardly just in the hottest weeks of summer that German airports and highways fill up with people eager to get away from home for a while.