America's Favorite Travel Destinations, Decade by Decade
It was during the Roman Empire that the concept of vacationing first took shape, as people left behind the capital city of Rome to visit the Tuscan countryside for no other reason than the pursuit of pleasure.
By the 13th century, Marco Polo made a name for himself after discovering the Orient, meeting the great Kublai Khan and sharing his stories in the book, "The Travels of Marco Polo." Polo's tome intrigued people around the world, inspiring exploration beyond their own borders. Still, until the advent of steam liners, trains, cars and airplanes, travel was a difficult and expensive endeavor.
Americans began to vacation once the means made it easier to leave their states, as well as the country. Here, we take a look at the places that have most captivated American travelers from the early 1900s through today.
By the 1900s, the wilds of Africa had become places of exploration for the wealthy, especially those who wanted to experience big-game hunting in the African bush.
In 1909, President Theodore Roosevelt joined an African safari that was the first to ever be recorded on film, for the Smithsonian Institute. His account of the experience was the basis for the best-selling book, "African Game Trails," enticing other American hunters to follow suit.
Safaris were mostly enjoyed in Kenya and Nairobi during these early expeditions.
Kenya still hosts many of today's safaris, along with Botswana and South Africa. However, the shots being taken at animals on these safaris are with cameras and smartphones.
Americans, along with the French, Brits and Germans, are among the foreigners most likely to safari. Vacationers set off into today's wilds in hopes of catching a glimpse of Africa's Big Five: elephants, rhinos, lions, zebras and cheetahs.
These days, safaris play an important role in the ecotourism movement, launched in the late 20th century as a way to promote responsible travel to nature areas, with an emphasis on education and conservation of the land and local culture.
1910s: Trans-Atlantic Cruises
While cruising began in the mid-1800s, it didn't become a widespread pursuit until the early 1900s. Crossing the Atlantic between America and Europe, passengers journeyed on ships that increasingly became bigger, faster and fancier.
Cruise ships during this time were primarily built in Germany, France, the U.K. and the U.S., such as RMS Lusitania, RMS Mauretania and RMS Olympic.
Cruising slowed briefly when the RMS Titanic sank in the North Atlantic on its maiden voyage in 1912, followed by the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915 by a German submarine. But it regained steam in the '30s and '40s.
Trans-Atlantic Cruises Today
Cruise ships continue to grow ever-larger, and the biggest in the world truly astound. Weighing more than 79,000 tons, the RMS Queen Mary 2 (QM2) was the world's largest ocean liner until Royal Caribbean's Symphony of the Seas launched in 2018.
Aboard QM2 are five swimming pools, 15 restaurants, a theater and the first planetarium at sea; the even-more-massive Symphony of the Seas features 22 restaurants, two climbing walls and a zipline.
1920s: Atlantic City, New Jersey
It wasn't until Henry Ford created the world's first assembly line in 1913 that cars became more affordable and readily available for people to purchase.
Once people had cars, they could travel without a train or ship ticket. And where did they go with this newfound freedom? The beach, of course!
The Jersey Shore's Atlantic City opened the nation's first boardwalk along the beach in 1870. Initially made to help keep sand from blowing into hotel lobbies, people loved walking along the boardwalk. Soon, games and amusements were added as the walkway lengthened.
AC, as it is called by frequent guests, hit its Golden Era in the 1920s, just as Prohibition swept across the country. AC's casinos and nightclubs featured backrooms and other secret places where the booze continued to flow, and New York's biggest gangsters hit the beach to enjoy it all (and turn a profit).
Atlantic City Today
After a heavy decline in tourism and economics in the '60s and '70s, developers and city officials have been trying to recapture AC's heyday, building new casinos and nightclub-filled resorts. There's been a slow and steady pace of growth in recent years, with a few peaks and valleys along the way.
Nothing near the hotspot it once was, AC wants to lure travelers to glitzy casinos and high-rise hotels, but families who prefer to stay out of the casinos and hit the amusement rides on the boardwalk seem to be taking over the beaches instead.
1930s: The Orient Express
In the mid-1600s came the introduction of the "Grand Tour," a multi-year journey taken by the elite to Paris, Florence, Venice and other European cultural hubs.
This became much easier to do with the launch of the steam train in the early 1800s, allowing people of lesser means to travel faster between cities and countries. (In America, the first steam-operated railway was established in Baltimore around this time.)
Cue the entry of the Orient Express in the late 1800s, which began its journey between Paris and Istanbul with a luxurious rail service across Europe.
By the 1930s, the Orient Express and its 3,000-mile route had become an captivating way to travel. Famed mystery writer Agatha Christie capitalized on the allure of the cross-continent train and stories of espionage and murder, writing her classic "Murder on the Orient Express" in 1934. The success of the book sent travelers in droves along the route, eager to experience it themselves — at the today-price of 1,750 Euros for a ticket.
Orient Express Today
In an attempt to recapture the glory days of the Orient Express, a new train was launched in 2018 called the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express. Completing the retro experience? Agatha Christie's grandson was in attendance at its launch.
Like the original Orient Express, opulent and well-appointed cabins and fine dining cars with crystal glassware for cocktails at the bar will put you into the lap of luxury as you travel between Paris and Istanbul — at the ripe starting price of about $18,700 per person.
1940s: Las Vegas, Nevada
In 1931, Nevada legalized gambling at the same time the rest of the country began tightening restrictions on drinking, gambling and anything else "immoral." As Americans frequented speakeasies to enjoy a drink, they also made their way to the desert to take part in quickie divorces and, of course, to gamble.
Gangster Bugsy Siegel saw the potential of Las Vegas, investing heavily in the creation of The Flamingo, dubbed "the West's greatest resort hotel." When it opened in 1946, the Flamingo was Las Vegas' first luxury property, located 4 miles from Downtown's gambling district in what became known as "The Strip."
No one thought the concept would work, but Siegel turned his dream into a reality for a then-astronomical $6 million. It worked. Bugsy, though, only had six months to enjoy his success before he was brutally gunned down in Hollywood.
Las Vegas Today
The Las Vegas Strip is now home to multiple luxury resort hotels, including The Venetian, the Bellagio, MGM Grand and Caesars Palace. The one-mile walk accommodates 45 casinos, the largest of which is the 160,000+ square foot Mandalay Bay, which features more than 1,700 slot machines.
A 2014 review by the University of Las Vegas found that 23 casinos in Vegas brought in more than $72 million in 2013 — an average of $630,000 per day, per casino!
1950s: Havana, Cuba
Before a young Fidel Castro entered the scene in Cuba, Havana was a hotspot for American travelers. Like Las Vegas, Americans could drink and gamble on the Caribbean island, and by the mid-1950s, Havana had earned the nickname "Latin Las Vegas."
One in eight of Havana's visitors came from America, with tourism growing 8 percent per year. Anyone who was anyone was here: Ernest Hemingway, Frank Sinatra...even Winston Churchill!
When the Cuban revolution took place in 1959, casinos and bars were closed. Relations between the United States and Cuba grew to a tense moment in 1961 during the Bay of Pigs Invasion, and travel to the country was banned.
In 2015, the ban forbidding travel to Cuba was lifted in America, albeit with heavy restrictions. To visit the country, U.S. citizens must fall into one of 12 categories, many of which involve educational, medical or missionary work.
Cruise ships were the first to jump on this easement, creating Caribbean itineraries with stops in Cuba for passengers. In order to meet the requirements, the port stop must include educational, cultural and humanitarian efforts.
What people discovered when entering Havana was a city seemingly lost in time. Cars from the 1940s and 1950s still drive past colorful Art Deco buildings that have survived from the city's 20th-century peak. Credit cards are not widely used, and travelers need a hefty wad of cash to pay for everything, including hotel rooms.
But don't book that cruise any time soon! Earlier this year, the U.S. government banned cruises to Cuba, affecting nearly 800,000 bookings for 2019.
Just across the sea from Cuba, without rebellions or revolutions, was the island of Jamaica, which quickly became the replacement isle of choice for American travelers into the 1960s.
Gaining its independence from Great Britain in 1962, Jamaica advertised itself as a "dream world." Visitors enthusiastically boarded planes in search of fruity concoctions and palm tree-lined beaches.
This is where musicians and creative people alike sought refuge, including 007's creator, Ian Fleming, who first wrote his tale of James Bond from his 15-acre Jamaican estate, Goldeneye.
Jamaica has remained a beloved travel destination for Americans, receiving a record 4.3 million tourists in 2017.
Vacationing in Jamaica generally involves relaxation on the golden beaches or adventuring in the rainforests; ATVing, river-rafting and climbing Dunns River Falls in Ocho Rios are particularly popular.
You can even stay at Goldeneye, which has been transformed into a luxury resort.
1970s: The Hippie Trail
In the mid-1960s through the '70s, the U.S. was swept up in the counterculture movement promoting peace and love.
Following in the footsteps of Jack Kerouac, who penned "On the Road," Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson — and even popular musicians like the Beatles, whose trip to Nepal transformed the band and their music — hit the open road in search of similar experiences.
While the Grand Tour and Orient Express took the wealthy from Paris to Istanbul, the Hippie Trail was traversed by hitchhikers and VW camper vans to places in Iran, Afghanistan, Nepal, India and Thailand.
The Hippie Trail Today
While politics in Iran and Afghanistan cut the Hippie Trail short in the late 1970s, travelers seeking more authentic experiences in off-the-beaten-path destinations continue to head to places on the trail today.
Nepal experienced a 20-percent leap in tourism between 2017 and 2018, while Thailand welcomed a record 38.27 million tourists last year.
Today's generation has extended the hippie trail even farther, entering countries that were once prohibited due to wars, including Cambodia and Vietnam. In fact, Vietnam's visitor count jumped from 2.7 million in 2017 to 15.5 million in 2018!
1980s: New York City
Modern-day New York City is known for its sophistication, glitz and sky-high prices. But a few decades ago, it wasn't this way.
In the '80s, punk rock, rap and underground music in places like CBGB and the Velvet Underground inspired artists and wannabes to visit in droves. Meanwhile, the last remains of disco-era hotspots like Studio 54 were still the rage.
Broadway and Central Park were places you avoided after dark, and people liked it this way. You were living on the edge when you visited New York in the '80s, and a desire to walk on the wild side led to a tourism boom.
New York Today
In an effort to clean up New York, tourism declined in the 1990s as the city shut down businesses and began renovation work. By the mid-'90s, Times Square began making sweeping changes.
Today, Times Square has pedestrian streets and the district has transformed so much that it witnessed an increase of more than 22 million people within the first five years of the 2000s.
Once-vacant neighborhoods like Tribeca, Hudson Yards and Hell's Kitchen are now filled with restaurants and residences, taking the city to new heights (literally) with the debut of attractions like The High Line and the Vessel.
The changes have propelled a new boom. Last year, New York City also hit a new record for tourists: more than 65 million!
For more than 40 years, Russia — along with places including Georgia, Belarus and Ukraine — were held together as the communist-led Soviet Union. In 1989, a revolution spurred in Russia led to the collapse of the Soviet Union, which officially dissolved by the end of 1991 to bring down the Iron Curtain. And Americans very much wanted to see what was behind that curtain, heading to Moscow in the 1990s when they were finally free to do so.
It was a time of change for Russians, who could now experience McDonald's for the first time (more than 5,000 people attended the grand opening of the first location in 1990). Hotels were expensive, and the Black Market loved taking your denim jeans to resell to a local who wanted fashion and culture from the West.
American tourism is dropping in Russia once again, due to fraught relations between the countries. However, between 2010 and 2017, overall foreign travel to Moscow increased to 21 million tourists.
In 2018, Russia hosted the World Cup, bringing in another 2.3 million visitors just for the games.
Thirty years ago, most Americans didn't know where Dubai was, although the city in the United Arab Emirates struck oil in the 1960s and was rapidly increasing its wealth.
Thanks to its sheikhs and emirs, who wanted the entire world to know Dubai, billions of dollars were invested in the city's tourism scene.
In 1994, the Burj Al Arab Jumeirah luxury hotel opened in Dubai as one of the tallest buildings in the world. Its design was meant to resemble the sail of a ship on the sea. Suddenly, everyone was talking about the five-star resort and the little nation with a whole lotta money.
By the early 2000s, the city's investments were paying off, as tourists from the U.S. and around the world started making treks to see what all the fuss was about.
Continuing its theme of providing world-class architecture, Dubai's Burj Khalifa opened at the start of the new decade, becoming the world's tallest building.
Dubai is also home to the Dubai Mall, the world's largest shopping mall (over 1 million square miles!); the JW Marriott Marquis Hotel, the world's tallest hotel; and the world's largest water screen projection, for the Dubai fountains that put the Bellagio's to shame.
In 2018, Dubai was visited by nearly 16 million people.
Under the Chinese Communist Party and the People's Republic with the reign of Chairman Mao Zedong between 1949 and 1976, travel to China was extremely difficult. Only carefully selected visitors were allowed within the country, deterring Americans from visiting, even when China began investing in tourism in the late '70s to mid-'80s.
In more recent years, though, travel to the country has steadily grown. By 1985, 1.4 million people were visiting the Asian nation. And when the country hosted the Olympics in Beijing in 2008, tourism started to boom.
The real tourism explosion in China began within the last decade. When the U.S. and Chinese slightly eased restrictions for visas within the past few years, it paved the way for millions more to enter. In 2018, nearly 24 million people visited from overseas — a 12 percent increase in tourism.
Experts predict that China will be the most-visited country in the world by 2030.