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History of human travel

Travel Motivation Series (1 of 5)

Since the dawn of history, humans have felt the urge to travel. As our societies have evolved, so too have our reasons for journeying, transitioning from basic survival to more indulgent pursuits. Nowadays, travel is often a deeply personal experience, driven by the thirst for discovery, knowledge, and self-improvement. Within this realm, we find a growing array of niche interests guiding people to specific destinations tailored to their passions. These interests can range widely from broad themes like food, adventure, religion, and culture, to more specialized pursuits – like my friend Scott’s quest for the world’s finest mezcal.

Given the vastness of this topic, I won’t to cover it in a single blog post (because nobody will read it). So it will be broken down into five parts. Each installment will zoom out to explore the theories around travel motivations. My goal is to investigate how psychology, sociology, culture, and behavioral science intersect to influence travel choices. Ultimately, I want to provide some insights that help travel and hospitality marketers better understand their target audience’s motivations, enabling them to tailor their offerings so they are in alignment.

My five part series will be broken down as follows:

  1. The history of human travel
  2. The motivations around travel
  3. Existing models & frameworks
  4. Niches within travel motivations
  5. Exploring future travel motivations

I don’t expect marketers will learn or address every theory of travel motivation. Far from it. But by understanding and catering to the physical and phycological needs of travellers, you can create more of the conditions that satiate them, ostensibly creating memorable and deeply rewarding travel experiences.

Here at Wallop, we’ve been developing a proprietary model around value alignment, but from a service-design perspective our goal is to develop a framework that allows us to drill down into the motivations of the target audience using existing tools like surveys and interviews, then pairing it with data (e.g. behaviours like spending, travel, what they do on site, or web/app interactions) and examine them as they move along a traditional sales funnel. So stay tuned for that.

Part 1: The history of human travel

The subject of human travel throughout history is rich and extensively documented, so I’ll focus narrowly on the reasons why people traveled, and how those reasons have evolved over time. Broadly speaking though, it follows an arc that begins with survival, which becomes exploration, then trade, hedonism, and more recently to self actualization and growth. Layered on top of that are the theories that explain why people make the decisions they do about where they travel, and why. We’ll talk about that in another post.

So lets start with the historical reasons why people travelled. Human history is rife with examples of people traveling for trade, exploration, migration, and tourism. Some of these key events and milestones in the history of travel are as follows:

  • Prehistoric times: Humans have been traveling for tens of thousands of years, likely for the purpose of hunting and gathering resources.
  • Ancient civilizations: Many ancient civilizations, such as the Egyptians and Greeks, were known for their trade networks and the traveling merchants who facilitated them. In addition, people in ancient times also traveled for religious pilgrimages, to visit holy sites and shrines.
  • The Middle Ages: During the Middle Ages, travel was often difficult and dangerous due to limited infrastructure and the threat of bandits. But people still traveled for trade and religious purposes, and some for educational purposes, to study at universities in other cities.
  • The Age of Exploration: Beginning in the 15th century, European powers began exploring and colonizing new lands, leading to an increase in long-distance travel. This period also saw the development of the first modern form of tourism, with people traveling to exotic locations for the purpose of leisure and cultural enrichment.
  • The Industrial Revolution: With the development of steam-powered transportation in the 19th century, travel became faster and more convenient, leading to a surge in tourism and the growth of the travel industry.
  • Modern times: In the 20th and 21st centuries, travel has become increasingly accessible and affordable, with a wide range of transportation options available and the proliferation of online booking websites and apps. Today, people travel for a variety of reasons, including leisure, business, education, and cultural exchange.

Perspectives & Caveats

A few years back, I stumbled into a newfound fascination with human history when I picked up Yuval Noah Harari’s groundbreaking book, “Sapiens.” It’s become a staple on my bookshelf, a tome I’ve revisited time and again because it challenges many of my preconceived notions about our past. What struck me the most was Harari’s portrayal of human history as a tapestry woven with stories. Whether it’s the narrative of civilizations, political systems, legal frameworks, monetary systems, or intricate financial instruments like derivatives – they all derive their power from the collective belief in them. There are no inherent laws of nature underpinning these constructs; rather, they are upheld by the shared beliefs of people in societies. As the saying goes, history is often written by the victors, and their accounts are often shaped by biases and self-interests. This fundamental understanding lays the groundwork for any exploration into the history of human travel.

Another aspect to ponder is the reliance of human history on both stories and artifacts. While we may uncover remnants like arrowheads, insects preserved in amber, frozen woolly mammoths, or shell mounds hinting at past diets or practices, piecing together the story of ancient human migrations is a far more intricate task. We’re left to connect these fragments—stones, preserved wood, bones—and infer motivations for travel, whether driven by famine, opportunity, or conflict. With each layer of knowledge we unearth, our understanding grows, but the farther back we delve into history, the more obscured these motivations become.

Yet, it’s essential to recognize that the significance of travel in human history is relatively recent. Homo sapiens have inhabited the Earth for roughly 300,000 years; a mere blip compared to the planet’s 4-billion-year history. Migration out of Africa, the earliest evidence of our wanderings, dates back around 100,000 years—nary a pinpoint of light in the grand timeline of Earth’s existence. This perspective, inspired by Oliver Burkeman’s musings, underscores the fleeting nature of our species’ presence and our relatively brief history of travel.

Reflecting on “Sapiens,” one stark realization resonated deeply with me. Wherever humans have ventured, ecological devastation always followed. The arrival of our species has coincided with the extinction of numerous mammalian species and their ancestors, highlighting the cataclysmic impact we’ve had on the world around us. Despite our modern romanticization of travel and migration, the truth remains: throughout history, humanity has been a disruptive force, reshaping ecosystems and leaving a trail of destruction in our wake.

Taking stock

As we conclude this exploration into the human history of travel, it’s clear that the journey from survival-driven migrations to the pursuit of personal growth and self-indulgence has been profound. Our motivations for travel have evolved alongside our societies, reflecting the complex tapestry of human desire, curiosity, and necessity. The shift from survival to exploration, and eventually to self-actualization, mirrors the broader arc of human development, where travel has played a pivotal role in shaping cultures, economies, and individual lives.

Throughout history, travel has been a constant, driven by the endless human quest for knowledge, resources, and connection. From the earliest migrations out of Africa to the global explorations of today, travel has facilitated the exchange of ideas, cultures, and technologies, fostering innovation and understanding across continents. The impact of travel on human history cannot be overstated, as it has been a catalyst for change, a source of inspiration, and a means of survival.

Yet, as we’ve seen, the history of human travel is also a story of impact—on environments, on native species, and on the very fabric of the earth itself. Our movements across the planet have not been without consequence, and this reflection offers a critical lens through which to view our current travel practices. In the modern era, as travel becomes more accessible and frequent, the responsibility to travel mindfully and sustainably has never been more important.

In wrapping up, this series aims to offer insights not just into the “how” and “where” of travel, but into the “why.” Understanding the motivations behind travel can help us design better experiences, both for travelers seeking to fulfill their desires and for the destinations that welcome them. By aligning the services and products in the travel and hospitality industry with the deeper psychological and sociological needs of travelers, we can create more meaningful, enriching, and sustainable travel experiences.

As we look to the future, the history of human travel serves as both a guide and a cautionary tale. It reminds us of our innate desire to explore and connect, but also of our responsibility to do so with care for the places and cultures we visit. In this light, travel becomes not just a personal journey but a collective endeavor towards a more understanding, respectful, and interconnected world. Let’s carry forward the lessons from our past as we continue to explore, learn, and grow through travel.