WSJ Historically Speaking: Four Millennia of the Hotel Industry



May is a merry month, not least because it heralds the start of tourist season. That’s good news for a visitor-friendly country like the U.S., where tourism has generated nearly $1.6 trillion of annual economic output in recent years.

Orlando, Fla., and New York are the two most popular destinations, though New York claims to have the better-quality hotels. Whether or not that’s true, it’s a sales pitch that has been used for at least 4,000 years. Tourism and its adjunct, the hotel industry, are as old as civilization. When the Sumerian King Shulgi of Ur (circa 2094-2047 B.C.) wanted to boast about his achievements, the list of accomplishments included having improved the roads in and out of Ur and “built there lodging houses…and installed in those places experienced men. Whichever direction one comes from…the traveler who reaches nightfall on the road can seek haven there as in a well-built city.”

Unlike the ancient Greeks, who followed the more old-fashioned practice of opening up one’s home to any wayfarer, the Romans regarded travel as a legitimate way to make money. After conquering the known world, among the first things the Romans did was to set up the hospitality business. The general tourist could chose from four classes of hotel, from the hospitium—which not only offered bedrooms and a full dinner service, but also had rooms that could be hired out for private functions—down to the stabula, the horse equivalent of a truck stop.

Some of the best hotels in the Roman Empire were to be found in Pompeii, including one that was large enough to accommodate at least 50 guests. Among its amenities: a large garden, a spacious restaurant complete with indoor latrines and nearby—close enough to warrant a sign in front of the bar that warned against loitering—the Grand Lupanar, a popular brothel. (The arrangement suggests that sex and foreign travel have never been strangers to one another.)

The demise of the Roman empire in the fifth century led to a precipitous collapse in hotel standards everywhere—with the exception of the world’s oldest hotel still in operation, the Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan (founded A.D. 705). A hot-spring spa and quiet retreat, this boutique hotel in the beautiful hills west of Tokyo kept the flame of hospitality alive. Meanwhile, the Christians had their monasteries for pilgrims, and the Ottomans their caravansaries for merchants. The tradition of luxury travel remained in abeyance until the 18th century, when no Englishman could call himself a gentleman unless he had been on the Grand Tour.

Even so, Europeans put up with far too much discomfort and second-class service for tourism to be anything but a hardship. The credit for driving up standards belongs to America: indoor plumbing and rooms that could be locked (the Tremont in Boston, 1829), the first passenger elevator (the Fifth Avenue Hotel in New York, 1859), 24-hour room service (a “first” claimed by New York’s Waldorf Astoria in the 1930s) and central air conditioning (the Adolphus in Dallas, by 1950).

It’s no wonder that so many people, from President Herbert Hoover to the composer Cole Porter, enjoyed their final years as permanent guests of hotels. As George Bernard Shaw once opined, the best “refuge from home life” is a fine hotel.

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