Travel is something we take for granted. The idea of visiting a country across the world is not only possible, but it’s also very accessible. What once took weeks, if not months or years, now takes hours. You don’t need to be very rich or male to make your way across the world. Today, we can do just that, thanks to the many people who came before us and changed the world of travel forever.
While some of them made important discoveries, others broke through barriers and challenges. They pursued their dreams, achieved the impossible and paved the way for travellers like us today. Although this list could be a lot longer, I decided to narrow it down to those that resonated with me. Many of them are from the past, but there are a few contemporaries and some fictional ones. All it proves is that many different characters have influenced the world of travel. I hope you enjoy my picks.
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Explorers that changed the world of travel
There wouldn’t be a world of travel if it weren’t for explorers. These people, inspired by curiosity, discovery and profit, ventured to foreign lands before anyone even thought of travelling for leisure. They brought the world home and changed the course of history. They also changed the world of travel as we know it.
Christopher Columbus (1451 – 1506)
Born in Genoa, Italy, Christopher Columbus is widely known for discovering the New World. Although some argue that he wasn’t the first one to step ashore on the new continent. The discovery was made 500 years earlier by Iceland-born Viking Leif Erickson. So, why Columbus, not Erickson?
Columbus’ discovery was a massive windfall for his masters and other European countries. For the natives, the story is much different. Many were wiped out by diseases brought by the Europeans or slaughtered by the conquistadors. Over the years, Columbus has been celebrated as a great explorer. However, today we know more about his less-than-stellar conduct. Genocide, slavery, oppression and murder followed his discovery of the Americas and changed our history.
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Even if Columbus wasn’t the first to discover the new continent, someone else would have done what he did eventually. The discovery helped establish new trade routes, led to discoveries of new resources and ensured the development of new settlements. The world of travel became a much larger and more curious place because of him.
Elizabeth Cochran Seaman aka Nellie Bly (1864 – 1922)
You might be familiar with the name Nellie Bly. She was the New York World journalist who exposed the cruel treatment of patients living in an insane asylum on New York’s Blackwell’s Island. Bly faked insanity so she could be admitted. The expose written about her experience made her famous and resulted in much-needed reforms. Her work became the basis for what today we call investigative journalism.
Nellie was fierce and determined, especially when it came to being told she couldn’t do something because she was a woman. You must love her for that alone. But why is she on a list of people who changed the world of travel?
In 1889, inspired by Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days, she decided to replicate the grand odyssey in a shorter time. This is significant for three reasons. She was the first woman to circumnavigate the globe in just 72 days. She was also the first person to test the credibility of the book’s timeline. In addition, she was racing against another female reporter. Elizabeth Bisland from a competing paper left New York on the same day but in the opposite direction.
Nellie Bly only learned about Bisland’s journey when she got to Hong Kong. It didn’t faze her, and she arrived back home ahead of her competitor. Not only did she complete the journey in a record time of 72 days, but she also did it in time without planes. Travelling by sea, trains, horses and donkeys in a time when women didn’t have many rights is inspiring and remarkable.
Gertrude Bell (1868 – 1926)
Gertrude Bell is another female traveller after my own heart. She truly changed the world of travel for women. An inspiration to women and travellers of all kinds. She showed us that stereotypes could be broken and that women can achieve the impossible. It’s not a surprise then that she makes my list of people who changed the world of travel.
Bell defied expectations imposed on her by the mores of her day. Known as the Queen of the Desert, she was instrumental in creating Iraq and helped establish what we know today as Jordan. Pretty impressive accomplishment in a world where travel was mostly limited to the wealthy white males.
Educated at Oxford, Bell was an accomplished archeologist, mountaineer, diplomat and explorer. Bell taught herself Persian and later Arabic. She travelled to Iran in 1892, where her uncle was an ambassador to Britain. For the next couple of decades, she travelled extensively to parts of the world that were not frequented by many westerners at that time.
Gertrude Bell led an extraordinary life. She worked for the British government and, along with the like of TE Lawrence, worked in the Arab Bureau during the first World War. She also helped establish the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad. It holds one of the world’s greatest collections of Mesopotamian antiquities. Not bad for a girl.
Idris Hall aka Aloha Wanderwell Baker (1906 – 1996)
I must say that I didn’t know anything about Aloha Wanderwell. Randomly, while looking for some ideas, I came across this kick-ass lady and felt like I had discovered a hidden gem. Born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, in 1906, this fellow Canadian became known as “The World’s Most Travelled Girl.” She changed the world of travel as we know it, yet her name is long forgotten.
As the daughter of a British Army reservist, Idris moved to Europe with her family, where she attended a convent school in France. After her father’s death, the young woman found inspiration in his collection of books. She dreamt of travel, intrigue and adventure. It wasn’t long before the adventure called.
At 16, she joined Captain “Cap” Walter Wanderwell as his lady secretary on a whirlwind driving tour. Idris found the Captain’s newspaper ad and convinced her mother to let her apply. “Brains, Beauty & Breeches – World Tour Offer For Lucky Young Woman…” – it’s easy to see how appealing that would have been to her.
Soon after, Walter (himself born Valerian Johannes Piecynski) gave Idris a new name befitting her new role. Aloha Wanderwell was born, and she became the face of the Wanderwell Expedition project. Aloha was a jack of all trades. Camera operator, video editor, mechanic, secretary, actress, translator and anything else. She spoke 11 languages and always drove her car. As the first woman to drive around the world, Aloha visited 80 countries. She was a photographer, filmmaker, author and adventurer, which made her a huge celebrity.
Eventually, Aloha married Walter, and they were together till he was mysteriously killed in 1932. A year later, she married Walter Baker, and they continued to travel around the world. She often lectured and wrote about her travels. With her accomplishments, she changed the world of travel even if she died in obscurity.
Marco Polo (c. 1254–1324)
There is no arguing that Marco Polo was one of the greatest explorers who changed the world of travel. This famous Venetian came from a family of wealthy merchants. Travel and adventure were in his blood. Polo’s father and uncle were gone for most of his young life, doing business in Asia. In 1271, he joined them on a journey to the far east that lasted for over two decades.
In his book, The Travels of Marco Polo, he vividly recalls his adventures across Asia. The world he described was unlike anything his contemporaries could imagine. Many even accused him of making up stories and considered his book fictional. However, Polo’s intimate knowledge of the cultures and customs he described has been deemed accurate by modern experts. It was also a great inspiration for many others that came after him.
Marco Polo was a prolific chronicler who managed to capture his experience in an incredible manner. He documented what he saw and experienced without making it about him. His book is an intimate insight into a world that was different from his own. Just imagine if he was the one who sailed the ocean blue and reached the Americas instead of Christopher Columbus. Perhaps history would have been very different today.
Sir Richard Francis Burton (1821 – 1890)
When it comes to people who changed the world of travel, there is no one more deserving than Sir Richard Francis Burton. This British explorer was like a Victorian mix of James Bond and Indiana Jones. Burton spoke 29 languages plus numerous dialects and was able to assimilate seamlessly.
This ability made him the perfect British spy and offered under-covered missions others would not be able to survive. Later he worked as a diplomat for England while documenting his travels. He was particularly interested in studying cultures and customs while exploring the unknown.
He is best known for documenting his trip to Mecca in disguise at a time when Europeans trying to enter would be punished by death. Along with John Hanning Speke, Burton was the first European to explore the African Great Lakes as they searched for the source of the Nile River.
Burton was the quintessential adventurer and a badass. Driven by the thrill of adventure, he was an accomplished writer, soldier, geographer, fencer, ethnologist and linguist. He authored over 40 books about his adventures across Asia, Africa, the Middle East and the Americas. His contributions also include the translation of the Kama Sutra and The Arabian Nights into English.
Dreamers Who changed the world of travel
Changing the world of travel often requires having big dreams. Even if those dreams seem so out of reach that others think you’re crazy. This appears to be a common trait of those who changed the world of travel.
Amelia Earhart (1897 – 1937(39))
The story of Amelia Earhart has always fascinated me. A woman determined to pursue her passion for flying in a man’s world. Fully succeeding and inspiring girls everywhere. Just to mysteriously disappear at the height of her career.
I think Earhart is very relatable to many women today. She was a tomboy and defied the conventions of female behaviour imposed on her. She faced numerous hardships, disapprovals and obstacles, while still accomplishing her dreams. As far as female role models go, she’s the real deal.
So, how does Earhart stack on the list of people who changed the world of travel? Well, her dream was to fly, which led her to travel to faraway places. She set numerous records and became the first female pilot to fly across the Atlantic Ocean. Not only did she show women they could achieve their dreams, but she also demonstrated that women could travel independently and on their terms.
Earhart was one of the first solo female travellers, breaking barriers and pushing the boundaries. In 1937, she mysteriously disappeared when her plane vanished while flying over the Pacific Ocean. Despite numerous searches, she was officially declared dead in 1939.
Heinrich Schliemann (1822 – 1890)
When it comes to chasing your dreams, Heinrich Schliemann takes the cake. This German adventurer spent over 20 years and boatloads of money searching for the mythical city of Troy. He became a pioneer of modern archeology, paving the road for treasure seekers, academics and cultural travellers. The world of travel has never been the same.
Schliemann came from humble beginnings and became a tradesman. He had a fascination with the ancient world, became fluent in 15 languages (this seems to be the trend here) and made a fortune. Obsessed by Homer’s Iliad, Schliemann set out to find Troy, the city many felt was a work of fiction. It seems that books can really inspire travel, no matter when they were written.
Until Schliemann, nobody believed that Homer’s Trojan War saga was based on actual events. He started excavating at Pinarbasi in Turkey until he was redirected to Hissarlik (also in Turkey) by Frank Calvert. The British archeologist bought the land to search for Troy but ran out of money. Schliemann took over and eventually uncovered numerous settlements constructed on top of each other. In 1873, he discovered a cache of gold and several other valuable objects, which he named Priam’s treasure.
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Schliemann’s discovery wasn’t without controversy. He conveniently excluded any references to Calvert and was criticized for destroying a huge part of the site with dynamite and smuggling the treasure out of Turkey. Over the years, experts have argued whether what he discovered was the real Troy or not. Regardless, his find was a huge game changer and ensured the endurance of his legacy.
Jules Verne (1828 – 1905)
Although I grew up with the stories of Jules Verne, I’ve never read his books. There was always a movie or a show version of the book that allowed me to experience the story without reading it. To say I was fascinated by his stories is an understatement. Around the World in 80 Days, Journey to the Centre of the Earth and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea have all fuelled my imagination.
Wild adventures across the world, under the sea and to imaginary worlds. As we saw with Nelly Bly, his books have inspired readers everywhere. He became the second most translated author of all time. To say that his work opened the world of travel to the populace is an understatement. Many movies have been made from his books, introducing new generations to his works.
Born in Nantes, France, Verne travelled around finding ideas for his books. He wrote during the 19th century when things like submarines, planes and other technological advancements were more fiction than reality. He authored over 60 books, many considered too far-fetched at the time and has been called the father of science fiction. Pretty impressive dreaming.
The Wright Brothers (1867 – 1912 and 1871 – 1948)
Without the Wright brothers, we might not have gotten planes till much later. Wilbur and Orville Wright were American inventors and aviation pioneers. They achieved the first powered, sustained and controlled airplane flight in 1903.
The brothers tinkered with various gliders as they analyzed problems and shortcomings. They knew that they had to solve the issue of lift and control to achieve flight. It was then they concluded that wings were needed to generate lift while a propulsion system would enable movement through the air.
The brothers eventually secured contracts with the US Army and continued to improve their planes. In 1910, they started up their own company, and the rest is history. Today, planes are an ingrained part of our lives, and they have opened the world of travel to the masses.
Disruptors that changed the world of travel
There have been many adventurers and explorers in the past. They paved the way for future generations of travellers and dreamers. Opened the world of travel to many others like them. Some are not even real people, showing us that travel inspiration can come from anywhere.
Anthony Bourdain (1956 – 2018)
There is no arguing that Anthony Bourdain has left a profound mark on many. He travelled to popular areas and those off the beaten path, using cooking to connect with people. With his travels, he showed us the world in a different light. From the food stalls in gritty alleys to hanging out in the homes of regular folks. No place was off-limits, and no food was too weird to eat.
“Travel changes you. As you move through this life and this world you change things slightly, you leave marks behind, however small. And in return, life — and travel — leaves marks on you.”Anthony Bourdain
Through his shows, Bourdain showed us that there are interesting stories everywhere. He encouraged us to discover more about the cultures we visit and think critically about how we understand each other. To be more adventurous, open-minded and understanding. Bourdain’s death left a massive void in our lives, and his shows live on. There is no denying that he opened the world of travel to many.
Edward Michael Grylls, aka Bear Grills (born 1974)
Today, Bear Grills is a familiar name to many. While his brand of travel is not for everyone, there is no denying that he has opened a very different world of travel to many. As a natural outdoorsman, he has always tackled adventure. Whether climbing, sailing or skydiving, he excelled at everything he tried. In addition to his native English, he speaks Spanish and French, which aligns with the many adventurers that came before him.
Grylls has quite a several achievements under his belt. Climbing Mount Everest at age 23, circumnavigating the British Isles on a jet ski and crossing the North Atlantic Ocean in an open rigid inflatable boat, to name a few. If that wasn’t enough, he explored Antarctica and paramotored over the Himalayas for Discovery Channel, setting a record by reaching 9,000 metres (29,500 ft).
With his show, Man vs. Wild, Grylls introduced fans to his wilderness adventures and extreme survival skills. While this is not my kind of travel, there are many people out there who have used his show as travel inspiration.
Indiana Jones (fictional character)
There is no denying that the brash, fedora-wearing, whip-cracking Indy has influenced a new generation of travellers. Since the Raiders of the Lost Ark movie hit the screens in 1981, many kids out there have found a hero. I am proud to say that I am one of those kids.
Growing up, before I knew of all the other pioneers that came before us, I wanted to be like Indiana Jones. I wanted to find hidden treasures, travel to foreign lands and have epic adventures. These movies have inspired me to pursue my love of history and travel to the places I have learned about. To learn more about other cultures and their past.
The fictional character of Professor Indiana Jones was created as an homage to the classic adventure films of the past. This new adventure genre became so successful that it spawned new types of film for years to come. Not only did Indiana Jones open the world of travel, but he also opened the world of adventure.
Lara Croft (video game character)
While Lara Croft might not initially seem like someone who would change the world of travel, you might be surprised. This video game character initially developed for a male audience, proved to be a female fan favourite. A more modern, female version of Indiana Jones showed girls they can be attractive and kick ass at the same time.
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Lara Croft is an archeologist, and a tomb raider with family fortunes to finance her adventures. She is tough, independent and resourceful. However, we must remember that she’s not a real person. She is a symbol. Simultaneously, she’s cast as a feminist icon and sexist stereotype. Whatever your feeling is, I think she deserves to be on this list. There are many women out there, that have been empowered by Lara. I’m convinced that all single women travellers have parts of Lara in them, and they are stronger because of that.
Thomas Cook (1808-1892)
While the name Thomas Cook might be familiar to many, most people don’t know much about the man behind the name. Cook not only opened the world of travel, but he also changed how people travel. He was the inventor of packaged vacations and modern travel.
Cook grew up poor. He worked hard to provide for his family since he was a child. Seeing the social problems that arose from excessive alcohol abuse all around him, he became a strong supporter of the temperance movement. In fact, this was how he got started in what became a very successful business. In 1841, Cook started arranging rail transportation between cities for his fellow temperance supporters. He was able to get them better deals and make money by doing so.
Eventually, he arranged rail expeditions around England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales. Seeing travel as a better alternative to drinking, he started to plan itineraries and create guide books and maps for his clients. In a world where travel was expensive and potentially dangerous, Cook offered a cheaper and safer alternative. But he wasn’t done.
The tours spread to other places in Europe and Cook started to offer meal and accommodation options for those on the tours. While we take the concept of a packaged holiday for granted, it was revolutionary at the time. He even went one step further and introduced a “circular note” which eventually became the traveller’s cheque. Not bad for a boy with no education and humble beginnings.
Final thoughts on people who changed the world of travel
I think that as travellers today, we sometimes forget that we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. Those who defied the odds and travelled further than anyone imagined was possible. Women who challenged the roles society tried to impose on them and still managed to forge their own path. Men and women with incredible determination, desire for adventure and the need to learn more. They all helped to ensure that the world of travel is open to all of us.
The world of travel has changed. Check out how travel is different today than it was in the past!
There are many others, from the past and modern times, that could fill the pages of a book. Many of them are now forgotten, their achievements lost in time. Others are our contemporaries, and we might not see them all that different from us now. Perhaps many of us will inspire future generations of travellers.
What people have inspired you to travel? Are there others you think I could have included on this list? Why do you think that? Let me know.
Travel Planning Resources
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Don’t forget to check out my travel resource guide for all my fave resources to help you plan your trip.