Institutional Framework of U.S. Tourism Development | USA

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By: Dean MacCannell

The framework for the development of tourism in the United States is inseparable from the creation and deployment of a democratic U.S. pluralistic culture across the continent. Think about Woodie Guthrie’s “’This Land is My Land,’ this land is your land, from the redwood forests to the New York island.”

As the wealthiest country during the period of post-modern tourist expansion (1976-present) we have no tourist sector that was designed and built specifically to attract wealthy foreign visitors. All of U.S. tourism was first built for internal use. Foreign visitors today come to see U.S. culture and the U.S. landscape pretty much as it was initially created as a mirror for ourselves.

It is important to bear in mind that we were founded by Puritans. Gambling was prohibited in Plymouth Colony, as were theatrical productions. The Sunday after Abraham Lincoln was assassinated most of the sermons preached in the United States emphasized that he was killed by an actor and he would still be alive if he hadn’t given in to sinful temptation and gone to the theater.

So the idea of travelling for pleasure was complicated. We weren’t supposed to do anything for pleasure. But if you were going to experience pleasure you’d better be somewhere far away from home where you wouldn’t be seen.

Proto-typical tourist culture in the United States is based not on tourists’ travel, but on bringing the attractions to the tourists. In the 19th century, travelling (“touring”) musical and theatrical productions, burlesque, vaudeville, circuses and fairs, brought entertainment to frontier towns. These were all private, entrepreneurial productions and famously operating outside of local of and national regulation. The meme of “running away with the circus” was a stereotype of youth breaking free from small town roots and restrictions. “Patent” medicine containing cocaine and morphine was available from “snake oil salesmen” who travelled by wagon from town to town proffering entertainment from scantily clad female assistants along with their high pressure sales pitches.

Some of these early touring shows became huge financial successes both nationally and internationally and created the first entertainment super-stars. P.T. Barnum’s travelling circus (“This way to the EGRESS. Only 25 cents to see the EGRESS.” “There’s a sucker born every minute.”) Just as the American frontier was disappearing, Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show featured Annie Oakley’s and Frank Butler’s sharp shooting prowess, ‘Wild Bill’ Hickock playing himself, and Calamity Jane telling fanciful stories of the American frontier. Cody staged re-enactments of Custer’s Last Stand with ‘authentic’ Indian combatants before thousands of paying visitors in the U.S. and for Europeans including European royalty.

These shows synergistically laid the framework for future cousins like Rock Concerts and not incidentally laid the foundation of desire of Europeans and East Coast Americans to see and experience the “wild west” for themselves.

Cody’s Wild West Show began touring in 1872, the same year that the Yellowstone Act was signed into law setting up the U.S. system of National Parks and Monuments which I believe is the only public program at the national level that can be connected to tourism development.

Diverse ethnic sub-cultures in the United States began to attract and influence thinking and desire beyond their localized expression via these early travelling entertainments. Black American jazz from New Orleans travelled north by Mississippi paddle-wheel Steamers, floating theaters actually, bringing the “Blues” first to St. Louis and eventually to Chicago and beyond. Jewish American song writers penned some now universal standards like “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” for movies and Broadway shows that travelled the entire continent.

The movement of culture mirrors the movement of tourists in the U.S. When the mob still owned the Casinos in Las Vegas it was also the primary Western venue for New York Broadway shows.

“Follow the Yellow Brick Road”

As soon as the automobile was invented, and before there were roads for anything except horse carts, people dreamed of driving from coast-to-coast and the first such trips were undertaken (heavily publicized) in the early years of the 20th century. There is a substantial “Romance of the Road” type of tourism in the United States that probably reached its zenith with the publication of Jack Kerouak’s On the Road in the late 1950s.

The tourists began travelling to the attractions rather than vice versa, and the culture began to acknowledge tourism rather than vice versa. A romance and eventually a significant culture industry grew up around “Route 66.” Opened in 1926 and called “The Main Street of America” and “The Mother Road,” 66 connected Chicago to the Pacific Ocean beach in Santa Monica. Route 66 inspired songs (“I get my Kicks on Route 66”) and a popular television show. Now it was possible for everyone to travel “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”

Route 66 was superseded by the interstate highway system in the 1950s. Today it is no longer a way to get to the attractions of Chicago, Los Angeles, or the Pacific Ocean. Its last remaining, noncontiguous segments have become tourist attractions in their own right. (“This way to the junction where you can drive on five miles of Historic Route 66.”)

The roadside tourist attractions along 66 were called “catch pennies” and “tourist traps.” They included snake and alligator farms, opportunities to photograph Indians wearing buckskins and feathers, etc. They were usually created by the owners of gas stations or motels to give their business some “destination advantage.” As I child I was taught to avoid all “tourist traps.”

A step up from the “tourist traps” are a proliferation of private collections and museums found everywhere in the U.S. Examples would be the Museum of the Hotrod in Florida, the Barbie Doll museum in California and the former private homes of notable citizens that have been turned into small shrines for the curious.

Many of these “Roadside Attractions” caught on and became popular and famous. Childrens’ “Playlands” featuring tame and safe simulacra of carnival rides became the template for Disneyland. Walt Disney said so himself.

A distinctive U.S. type of attraction is the “Hall of Fame.” Some of these have become world famous like the Baseball Hall of Fame, or the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But there are scores of lesser-known Halls like the Sports Mascot Hall of Fame or the Adult Video Hall of Fame, and the Cowgirl Rodeo Star Hall of Fame. All the great Halls of Fame and most of the smaller ones are created and supported by regional or national organizations like National League Baseball and have elaborate rules for inclusion.

In order to compete with the automobile, the train had to be made into something more than a transportation device. From the early to the mid 20th century train travel became integrated with luxury hotel construction in the West and train advertising emphasized its sightseeing potential.

From the 19th century forward to today there has been a patchwork of specialized summering places in the U.S. roughly equivalent to European Spas. The Catskill villages and resorts offered New Yorkers a place to cool off for a few weeks. Dude Ranches in the West gave “city slickers” a chance to learn to ride horses and play at being cowboys and girls. Children everywhere went to “summer camp” some of which offered specialized experiences and services, e.g., “Fat Camp.” Franklin Roosevelt built a spa in Georgia for himself and others who suffered from polio. Even though he was president, his Warm Springs resort was entirely his private initiative.

The post-modern versions of this would be the hedonistic temporary “Spring Break” communities that pop up on Florida Beaches, or the mastodon “Burning Man” festival in Nevada.

At the sub-national level tourism development in the United States receives state and local support. States and cities give land, tax breaks, and maintenance support to their parks, museums and zoos. Recently, and not without controversy, localities have offered tax incentives and loans for the construction of sports stadiums.

At the Federal Level, there is a system of hundreds of protected National Parks and Monuments that can be found in every state. These include a vast array of places of scenic, historic, or scientific value; from fossil fields, to mountain ranges, to forests like Muir Woods. On the historic side they include battlefields like Gettysburg, the White House, the Statue of Liberty, etc. These are preserved to a uniform high standard, maintained, and staffed by Federal agencies. They vary in popularity from over 10 million visitors a year (Great Smokey Mountain) to 16 thousand (Isle Royale in Michigan), but all are tourist attractions. Most are free (e.g., the White House, the Liberty Bell) or very nearly free ($20.00 for a five day vehicle permit in Yellowstone). The rationale for open access is that U.S. residents have already paid for them with their tax dollars and that they belong to the people not to some commercial enterprise. Park guides must pass rigorous tests of their relevant historic or natural science knowledge before they can interact with tourists. The national parks and monuments are frequently referred to in the popular press as the “Crown Jewels” of the United States.

It should be noted that U.S. National Parks and Monuments are protected from commercial encroachment. The only public initiatives at the Federal level are explicitly anti-commercial. Disney proposed to take over management of Gettysburg and other Civil War battlefield National Monuments, but was denied by Congress. I have written about the controversies surrounding the commercialization of Yosemite in my article “Nature Inc.”

Accordingly, none of the expense and energy that is poured into maintaining the National Parks and Monuments system is connected to or justified as “tourism development.” It is all for the preservation of “our priceless” nature and heritage and simply for the educational benefit and enjoyment of the people. Even though they may be the ultimate driver of a multi-billion dollar U.S. domestic tourist industry, nothing so crass as profits from tourism is considered in the policies leading to their preservation and protection.

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