History of American Tourism

Through tourism, Marguerite Shaffer writes in See America First, Americans seek intense personal experience, an escape to where self can be temporarily re-imagined with opportunities for spiritual, mental and physical invigoration.[1] Americans take the road seeking freedom, independence and simply because it is there. America’s fascination with road trips has spawned numerous books, from Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957) to William Least Heat-Moon’s Blue Highways (1982). Hal Rothman, in Devils Bargains, explains that the automobile represented independence and freedom, a means to escape and a means to reinvention.[2] In Imagining Indians in the Southwest, Dilworth states that most tourists’ main reason for traveling around the turn of the century was for nostalgia’s sake. Shaffer, Rothman, and Dilworth, along with Barringer and Hannigan explain tourists’ motivations, but also point out that tourism exudes a lack of authenticity, constructs itself on propaganda and seems a panacea, when in reality it is far from one.


Tourism of the past and present has served as a way to define oneself. As time went on experience instead of material goods became the way of establishing status. Tourism provided that experience for many Americans. According to Rothman, through tourism, people acquire intangibles, making it the successor to industrial capitalism because material goods no longer fulfilled or created status.[3] During the period of 1880 to 1940, promoters touted tourism as a patriotic duty in which Americans reaffirmed their American-ness by following the footsteps of history first-hand.[4] Tourism was a form of commercial patriotism in the early 20th century. During World War I, promoters advertised domestic tourism as a way to support the American economy.[5] Shaffer’s stated thesis is that the production of tourist landscape and consumption of the tourist experience was central in developing national culture.[6] According to Shaffer, tourism reshaped and redefined the built and natural environment and influenced the way people defined and identified themselves as Americans.[7]

Dilworth points out that many tourists’ motivation at the turn of the 20th century was to seek “Columbian” moments in which they could discover something.[8] Dilworth calls tourism during this period “imperialist nostalgia,” a sense of longing for what one is complicit in altering or destroying.[9] As the 1963 Leopold report suggested, Americans see national parks, then and now, as “vignettes of primitive America.” The same can be said of Native Americans after the turn of the century, as Dilworth describes in her chapter about the Fred Harvey Company. The company showcased Indians in a controlled environment, such as the Native American building in Albuquerque. Tourists were always the centerpieces in Fred Harvey operations, while Indians represented a “commodity to be consumed visually.”[10] During that same time, national park promoters touted the reserves, in essence, as a scenic commodity — a place where visitors could allegedly see America as it looked before white settlement. Barringer explains time and time again that the NPS and its concessionaires presented their product to fit the perceptions of the natural setting prominent at the time. The parks and their concessions did whatever necessary to attract visitors, answering more to capitalistic demands than preservation mandates. Dilworth argues that the representations made by the Fred Harvey Company embodied imperialism and nostalgia by erasing and preserving at the same time.[11] National parks employed much the same method. According to Dilworth, tourism helped to turn nature and culture into a “commodified landscape of scenic goods.”[12]

Railroads spared no effort in selling Western national parks to Eastern tourists seeking a nostalgic connection to nature and the frontier past. Dilworth explains how railroad executives, such as the Great Northern Railroad’s Louis Hill, who heavily promoted travel to Montana’s Glacier National Park, pitched parks as refuges from the ills of modern society, such as immigration and labor unrest. Stephen Mather, the first director of the NPS, said national parks helped “break down sectional prejudice by bringing tourists from all sections of the country together.”[13] Secretary of the Interior Franklin K. Lane called national parks “the public laboratories of nature study for the nation.”[14] These early national park promoters were biased towards their product and clearly did not realize that national park tourism depended on the same urban industrial infrastructure that visitors were trying to escape.[15] Ironically, Robert Sterling Yard, early NPS head of education and staunch park promoter, celebrated the national parks’ educational value, calling them dramatic landscapes raised above the crass commercialism and cheap amusements of common tourist attractions.[16] Yard’s assessment proved completely false.

As Barringer explains thoroughly in his volume, capitalism is at the heart of national park tourism, shaping them into idyllic forms of nature. Early Yellowstone concessionaires created an idyllic form of nature that would appeal to tourists, even to the point of falsely raising expectations.[17] Such imperialistic forces rendered national parks, and other tourist destinations, inauthentic. The “vignettes of primitive America” the Leopold report described are nonsense. In order for national parks to be authentically primitive, they cannot include roads, trails, lodges or commercial establishments. All five volumes resoundingly agree that one of the distinguishing factors of tourism is its lack of authenticity.

The Fred Harvey Company, as Dilworth describes it, is a prime example of the inauthentic side of tourism. The company claimed visitors were seeing American Indians in their natural environment, when in reality each venue was a “scripted space” that placed Indians where they could entertain tourists. Hannigan heavily highlights tourism’s inauthentic nature throughout his volume. He argues that places he calls Urban Entertainment Developments (UEDs) greatly lack authenticity. For example, Sea World, one well-known UED, is not accurate but a “carefully crafted version of the marine world which is meant both to humanize dolphins and other sea creatures and to make concern for them a badge of bourgeois status.[18] Rothman agrees that tourist towns and resorts are scripted spaces trying to lure visitors through an attractive theme or image.[19]

Commercialism compromises national parks’ authenticity. As Rothman explains, Carlsbad Caverns National Monument was not tuned to the reverential notions of the meaning of nature, but to convenience and methods of attracting more tourists.[20] For example, a tour of the Carlsbad before 1944 included the darkening of the caves largest room and the playing of the tune “Rock of Ages.” ceremony was a popular part Carlsbad until 1944. Until 1969, Yosemite visitors saw the Firefall, embers from a large campfire, plummet off of Glacier Point, which was a gimmick to attract tourists.

Non-governmental natural attractions’ commercialism is more blatant than national parks. Desoto Caverns in Alabama showcases a large cave with some of the largest stalactites and stalagmites in the world. On the same vain as the Rock of Ages ceremony, the cave also includes a laser light, sound and water show. As if the cave itself is not a sufficient draw, the park’s owners placed tawdry attractions near the cave entrance, including the “Lost Trail Maze,” “Wacky Water Golf,” and “Pedal Go-Karts.” A bona fide cave would not be attractive to a run-of-the-mill tourist because it would not include lights, handrails or paved trails. On the other hand, such a cavern would be a spelunker’s dream. Tennessee’s Lost Sea, reportedly the largest underground lake on earth, features “authentic” 19th century cabins, which house a trading post, country store and ice cream shop. In actuality those cabins are reconstructions. In order for such structures to be truly genuine, they must not have been relocated or refurbished in any way.

According to Dilworth, tourism constructs authenticity in such a way that it is never attainable; the very presence of the observer spells the end of the authenticity of the observed.[21] Commercialism, as illustrated by the natural attractions’ examples, further diminishes authenticity. Hannigan explains that the premise of authentic can only be observed in working-class job settings, such as steel mills, housing, such as tenements or cultural activities, such as bingo, bowling and bars, whereas the rest is an example of “false consciousness.”[22] Both natural attractions and UEDs have become scripted spaces. Hannigan explains that these “McDonaldized” developments exude efficiency, calculability, predictability and control.[23] These “McDonaldized” locations, such as Disneyland, strive for the routine and predictability.[24]

Just as the volumes agree on tourism’s lack of authenticity, they also concur that propaganda is at the heart of the industry. Shaffer explains through a national publicity campaign, early 20th century promoters touted national parks as “quintessentially American landscapes that objectified the American character and embodied the essence of the nation.”[25] Commenting on a boy scout trip, John Patton, president of the Far Western Traveler’s Association said “We want them to see America because it will help them grow up to be better Americans.”[26] Later on, Shaffer suggests that car travel was “an extension of America’s heroic past,” arguing that through the process of touring, tourist could become better Americans.[27]

Throughout his volume Barringer illustrates the key role advertisements and presentations, either by the concessionaires or the NPS, had in shaping public opinion. These efforts tried to mold the perceptions of their audiences into thinking the products presented were ideal. Through its “interpretation” – campfire programs and ranger-led activities – the NPS hoped to increase public support and thus appropriations.[28]

According to Rothman, every town in the West sought to show its attributes were special.[29] For example, Winslow, Arizona boasts of its distinct “Standin’ on the Corner,” park, a downtown landmark that pays homage to a famous line in the Eagles’ first hit song, “Take it Easy.” Towns try to boast about anything that might set them apart. Thousands of tourism websites brag about their destination communities, saying the location has a “rich history,” a “small-town feel,” or that the place “has it all.” The websites, however, fail to mention all of what. Without evidential backing, their claims are hollow.

Tourism promoted as a means of generating patriotism also proved hollow because consumption is at the very core of the industry. Rothman explains that one of tourism’s drawbacks is its reputation as a panacea. Tourism often functions as a replacement for declining industries and causes a diminishing sense of pride in work.[30] Furthermore, lost factory job wages far outpaced income earned from tourism.  Rothman argues that when communities succeed in attracting so many people, those people’s presence destroys the cultural and environmental amenities that made the place special.[31] Tourism causes a diminishing sense of pride in work; locals find that selling themselves is much harder than selling a product.[32] Hannigan argues that so-called UEDs are isolated from surrounding neighborhoods physically, economically and culturally.[33] Many UEDs promote themselves as a method of revitalizing economically waning neighborhoods, but in reality have little or no redeeming effect. Case in point is Atlantic City, where Hannigan states a “glittering strip of casino-hotels along the Boardwalk stand in stark juxtaposition to a declining local community.”[34] In Schaffer’s last chapter, she frames tourism primarily in terms of consumption in order to stress how it consistently drew Americans away from civic consciousness.[35] In short, tourism teaches Americans how to be consumers, not builders.

Though tourism helped shape American ethos and can allegedly generate patriotism, as Shaffer contends, it also fosters a consumptive culture, lacks authenticity and is centered in propaganda. Popular tourist sites, not only in the United States but also around the world, have become hotbeds for hucksters. For instance, visitors to the Roman Coliseum, one of the premiere tourist attractions in Europe, will see an architectural marvel. Unfortunately, they will also see street vendors coming at them on all sides trying to sell them shoddy souvenirs. As if that is not annoying enough, they will also view men sporting imitation Roman soldier costumes hoping to get their picture taken with each guest. As the tourists will notice, most of these hawkers are not even native Italians and the majority of them are not making a good living selling their wares.

Motivated by wanting “to get away from it all,” tourists, in actuality, are not getting away from anything they already see at home. Capitalistic forces are as pronounced at tourist attractions as they are anywhere else. Tourists may find the nostalgia they seek at their destinations, but they most likely will not find anything completely genuine. As Hannigan suggests, tourists will have to tour a factory, visit a slum, go to a bar or go bowling if they seek real authenticity. If they want to truly escape capitalism, they will have to take an excursion into the backcountry.

  • Barringer, Mark D. Selling Yellowstone: Capitalism and the Construction of Nature.
  • Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2002. 238 pp.
  • Dilworth, Leah. Imagining Indians in the Southwest: Persistent Visions of a Primitive
  • Past. Washington D.C. Smithsonian Institution Press, 1996. 274 pp.
  • Hannigan, John. Fantasy City: Pleasure and Profit in the Postmodern Metropolis.
  • London: Routledge, 1998. 239 pp.
  • Rothman, Hal K. Devil’s Bargains: Tourism in the Twentieth Century American West.
  • Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998. 434 pp.
  • Shaffer, Marguerite S. See America First: Tourism and National Identity, 1880-1940.
  • Washington D.C. Smithsonian Institution Press, 2001. 429 pp.
  • [1] Shaffer, 3
  • [2] Rothman, 166-67
  • [3] Rothman, 19
  • [4] Shaffer, 4
  • [5] Ibid, 101
  • [6] Ibid, 6
  • [7] Ibid
  • [8] Dilworth, 105
  • [9] Ibid, 79
  • [10] Schaffer, 109
  • [11] Ibid, 104
  • [12] Dilworth, 272
  • [13] Ibid, 119
  • [14] Ibid, 104
  • [15] Chiang, Connie. Book Review of See America First. Environmental History. Vol. 8, Issue 4
  • [16] Shaffer, 106
  • [17] Barringer, 7
  • [18] Hannigan, 8
  • [19] Rothman, 12, 17
  • [20] Rothman, 160
  • [21] Dilworth, 121
  • [22] Ibid
  • [23] Hannigan, 81
  • [24] Ibid, 82-83
  • [25] Shaffer, 114-115
  • [26] Shaffer, 116
  • [27] Ibid, 142
  • [28] Barringer, 133
  • [29] Rothman, 145
  • [30] Rothman, 26
  • [31] Ibid, 27
  • [32] Ibid
  • [33] Hannigan, 4
  • [34] Ibid
  • [35] Schulten, Susan. Book Review of See America First. American Historical Review. April 2002. 561-562.

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