The ancient Roman Empire
As it turns out, the answer is the ancient Roman Empire. Thanks to the Romans’ successful conquest of the Mediterranean in and around the first century BCE, wealthy Romans had access to a vast empire’s worth of provinces to visit. With the Pax Romana, the Roman Peace, in full effect, travel was relatively safe from bandits and pirates.
Tradition of religious pilgrimage
The fall of the Roman Empire ended the imperial peace and the wealth that had allowed some privileged Romans to go on vacation. During the Middle Ages, however, a new tradition of religious pilgrimage cropped up, as pilgrims from farther north sought to visit Rome and pilgrims from across Western Christendom sought to visit Jerusalem.
The merchant convoy: another tradition of long-distance travel
Another tradition of long-distance travel that was born in the Middle Ages was the merchant convoy. The journeys of Marco Polo in the 13th century were long and arduous, but they were also an extended trip to a far-distant land, Mongol-ruled China, which was unimaginably exotic and distant for most Europeans.
The birth of the modern tradition of vacation
Still, it took centuries more until the birth of the modern tradition of vacation. European aristocrats revived, or reinvented, the Roman tradition of the “Grand Tour” of Europe. Travel was difficult, the old Roman roads long having faded away in most areas, but the advent of steam travel made it much easier.
The railways popularized vacations
The railways also popularized vacations, making them much cheaper and more accessible for the middle class and then the working class in Britain by the end of the 19th century.
During the same period, vacation was booming in the United States, with holiday-goers flocking to places like the Adirondacks. Travel also boomed to California and to Florida, with their much-vaunted beaches and opportunities for rowing.
Steam travel also opened up foreign lands, at least for the wealthy. The Orient Express, for example, offered trips by rail across Eurasia, and the rise of the steamship created new maritime options.
The 20th century saw the rise of a new phenomenon: paid vacation. The management literature of the 1920s encouraged it, building on the literature on fatigue from World War I: it was clear to many authors that workers did better with a little time off.
Many countries require paid vacation
Many European countries mandate some paid vacation, with EU standards set at a minimum of four weeks per year. Sweden and Germany mandate seven weeks of paid vacation. In the U.S., efforts to mandate paid vacation stalled under the Taft administration, and so the major push came from the unions during the New Deal era.
Despite the lack of a federal governmental mandate for paid vacation in the U.S., many employers – 77% of all employers in the private sector – offer some paid vacation, allowing workers a chance for some much-needed recreation.