Urban Tourism in the U.S. since 1800
- J. Mark SoutherJ. Mark SoutherDepartment of History, Cleveland State University
Prior to the railroad age, American cities generally lacked reputations as tourist travel destinations. As railroads created fast, reliable, and comfortable transportation in the 19th century, urban tourism emerged in many cities. Luxury hotels, tour companies, and guidebooks were facilitating and shaping tourists’ experience of cities by the turn of the 20th century. Many cities hosted regional or international expositions that served as significant tourist attractions from the 1870s to 1910s. Thereafter, cities competed more keenly to attract conventions. Tourism promotion, once handled chiefly by railroad companies, became increasingly professionalized with the formation of convention and visitor bureaus. The rise of the automobile spurred the emergence of motels and theme parks on the suburban periphery, but renewed interest in historic urban core areas spurred historic preservation activism and adaptive reuse of old structures for dining, shopping, and entertainment. Although a few cities, especially Las Vegas, had relied heavily on tourism almost from their inception, by the last few decades of the 20th century few cities could afford to ignore tourism development. New waterfront parks, aquariums, stadiums, and other tourist and leisure attractions facilitated the symbolic transformation of cities from places of production to sites of consumption. Long aimed at the a mass market, especially affluent and middle-class whites, tourism promotion embraced market segmentation in the closing years of the 20th century, and a number of attractions and tours appealed to African Americans or LGBTQ communities. If social commentators often complained that cities were developing “tourist bubbles” that concentrated the advantages of tourism in too-small areas and in too few hands, recent trends point to a greater willingness to disperse tourist activity more widely in cities. By the 21st century, urban tourism was indispensable to many cities even as it continued to contribute to uneven development.