In 1960, people around the world made 25 million trips outside their home countries. Last year, that number passed one billion. Tourism has become one of the most powerful, most influential and least-examined forces in the world. It produces $6.5 trillion of the global economy and employs one out of every 12 people on earth. “In gross economic power, it is in the same company as oil, energy, finance and agriculture,” writes Elizabeth Becker in Overbooked, her excellent new investigation into the travel industry.
America gave birth to many of the most important developments in tourism. In our second annual travel issue, we’re showcasing a few of them.
Surely the greatest of these was our national and state park system, established with the founding of Yellowstone in 1872, expanded by Teddy Roosevelt at the beginning of the 20th century and imitated around the globe. Author Tony Perrottet ventures into one of the largest of these parks, the Adirondacks, which was also the first place marketed to city dwellers as a respite from their harried, claustrophobic lives (“Birthplace of the American Vacation”).
Another American innovation was the DC-3, the passenger plane that revolutionized air travel. A shining, mint-condition specimen hangs like a star from the ceiling at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum (“Up and Away”).
I’m not sure if our country invented the idea of small towns as ideal vacation destinations, but I’m pretty sure we perfected it. We’ve searched for the smartest, most interesting and most charming places to visit (“The 20 Best Small Towns in America”). Surprisingly, and somehow appropriately, our number one small town this year is Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, which commemorates the 150th anniversary of its historic battle at the beginning of July.
One more American gift to the world of travel is Paul Theroux, our nation’s foremost travel writer. In this issue, he takes us to Africa, a continent he has been exploring for 50 years now, and finds a novel perspective—on the back of an elephant (“Into the Okavango Delta”).
The greatest trip of the last century, on water at least, may have been Thor Heyerdahl’s 1947 epic adventure aboard a rickety raft over 3,700 nautical miles of Pacific Ocean, from the coast of Peru to French Polynesia. Franz Lidz writes about Heyerdahl’s voyage, the wild migration theory that inspired it and the new Oscar-nominated film that celebrates it (“Kon-Tiki Sails Again”).
Heyerdahl’s accomplishment is no less impressive for the fact that his ideas have been largely discredited. In fact, this magazine examined the debunking of his arguments and discoveries at the time of his death in 2002 (“Kon Artist?” by Richard Conniff). After just a relatively easy journey through the roiling seas of the Internet, you can read it here: smithsonian.com/konartist.
Michael Caruso, Editor in Chief