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Getting away from it all: holidays past and present

29 Aug 2022 | Written by By Chris Guiton

Photograph of lots of tourists sunbathing on a golden beach, next to a very blue sea


After all the challenges we’ve experienced as a result of the pandemic, it’s easy to see why many people have been looking forward to going on holiday this summer. But this can be easier said than done. Travel experts are warning that the delays and cancellations travellers have been experiencing at British airports could last until the end of 2023. And while the disruption witnessed recently at the Port of Dover and Eurotunnel is unlikely to be repeated at such an extreme level, it’s clear we’re not out of the woods yet.

Whatever the cause of these problems (feel free to take your pick from insufficient staff, poor infrastructure, inadequate planning, Brexit or corporate greed!) it’s clear that we’re not always going to find going on holiday the stress-free experience we’ve come to expect.  

But when did tourism become a thing? How did we come to view regular holidays – whether two-week summer vacations on the beach, city breaks, skiing trips, or specialist cultural tours – as part of the natural cycle of the year?

Gateways to new experiences

We can trace recreational travel back to the classical world, as the ruling elite in Rome sought opportunities for pleasure and relaxation. And we can identify an early form of what we’d understand as modern tourism in the Grand Tours undertaken by young nobles from western and northern European countries between the 16th and 18th centuries. Taking in France, Germany, Italy and Greece, the tours might last months or years. 

They became a symbol of cultural power. As writer Samuel Johnson put it, ‘A man who has not been in Italy, is always conscious of an inferiority, from his not having seen what it is expected a man should see’. But, notwithstanding the elevated intellectual goals, the tours also provided opportunities for a fair bit of drinking, gambling and other forms of debauchery on the side!

Nevertheless, as Ueli Gyr explains in an informative study, these tours were ‘clearly defined by corporate status: the original goal was to broaden one’s education, mark the end of childhood and acquire and hone social graces; however, over time, leisure and pleasure became increasingly important.’ This created a paradigm of travel ‘as an art’ as well as an enjoyable end in itself.

Steaming ahead

The French Revolution in 1789 ended the Grand Tour. But tourism took on a new life in the early nineteenth century as the Industrial Revolution, urbanisation and the dramatic expansion of rail travel transformed life in Britain. A growing middle-class was keen to expand its boundaries and, unsurprisingly, travel agencies emerged to meet this demand. 

One of the pioneers was Thomas Cook & Son, which started offering all-inclusive excursions and group holidays in Britain in 1841. And later moved on to guided holidays abroad.  Including transport, accommodation, and food vouchers, this was a highly innovative, and popular, approach. In essence, Cook had developed the forerunner of the modern package holiday. He even invented the first travel brochure! 

The tourism industry continued to grow in the early 20th century as roads improved and the mass production of buses and cars increased access to travel. But working-class people, if they could go on holiday at all, were largely restricted to day or weekend trips because of the cost of long holidays and the financial implications of taking time off work. 

Holidays for all

This situation changed significantly in 1938 with the passing of The Holidays with Pay Act. It took a 20-year campaign against government and employer intransigence to secure this victory for paid leisure time. And the legislation did not mandate, but only recommended, a week’s annual paid holiday for all full-time workers. But this was a watershed moment. And led, especially after World War Two, to a significant expansion of leisure opportunities, legitimising the consumption of pleasure by ordinary people. 

This increase in time off was accompanied by a major change in the way people experienced their holidays. Billy Butlin had opened his first holiday camp in Skegness in 1936. But holiday camps really took after off after 1945 as people rushed to the seaside to compensate for wartime privations. 

Butlin’s camps provided family entertainment and activities for the equivalent of a week’s wages. And were soon accompanied by Pontins and other companies. Many people have fond memories of the atmosphere. As a holidaymaker recalled of their trip to Butlin’s at Minehead, 

‘What great times we had there. I remember the little chalets we had, with the loos and baths in a separate block! Radio Butlin’s would wake you up in the morning ready to go to the dining hall… The Butlin’s Beaver Club (I was a member) with all your Redcoat aunties and uncles who would take you off to be pirates for the day… And yes, there were knobbly knees and glamorous granny competitions. Happy days!’  

Swapping Canvey Island for the Costa Blanca

Then everything changed. Cheap airfares and low-cost package holidays to Spain (where seaside villages seemed to turn into high-rise holiday resorts overnight) sounded the death knell for British seaside breaks and holiday camps. Mediterranean resorts not only had much better weather, they also offered more exotic food!

Italy, Malta and other countries were added to the list of popular destinations for ‘bucket and spade’ holidays. And, while those countries are still popular, many holidaymakers now travel further afield, anywhere from Morocco to Florida. Or look for holidays with a more educational, cultural or health flavour to them (a yoga and meditation retreat in Zakynthos, anyone?).

A new way of travelling

This exponential growth of tourism has significantly expanded people’s horizons. But it has not been without its price. 

The negative environmental impacts are substantial. Including the depletion of (often scarce) local natural resources, overuse of water and pollution. It can place significant pressure on local land use, erode biodiversity and the environmental resources on which tourism depends, and undermine local communities and their culture. The air travel which underpins much tourism also makes a significant contribution to global heating. 

So, the challenge is to develop greater understanding of these problems and more sustainable, respectful forms of leisure travel. It might not suit everyone, but it’s encouraging to see that there is growing awareness of the role that ecotourism can play in minimising the physical, social and environmental impact of tourism while supporting conservation and building cultural respect.

As the 19th century Indigenous American Chief Seattle famously said, ‘Take only memories, leave only footprints.’

Have any post-pandemic holiday horror stories or travel triumphs? Get in touch via submissions@thejoyclub.com to share them!

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