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History of Tourism

Where Visitors want to be


Since the first settlers made their way west, California has been one of the world's most desirable destinations for residents and visitors alike. Fueled by transportation advances over the last 150 years and emboldened by big ideas in the last quarter century, the Golden State has been a powerful leader in growing its travel economy while shining a spotlight on its inherent value.

Since the first settlers made their way west, California has always been viewed as one of the world's most desirable destinations for residents and visitors alike.


But despite the Golden State's magnetic quality, it took decades of proactive leadership to build the state's tourism industry into the multibillion-dollar industry it is today.


Read on to learn more about the history of tourism in California.


  • 1850 | California becomes 31st state in the Union.
  • 1850s-1870s | Rail travel enables first major waves of mainstream leisure travel with the founding of California’s first railroad, the Sacramento Valley Railroad, and the completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad.
  • 1890s-1920s | The first gasoline automobile is sold; mainstream automobile travel creates new connectivity between beyond-the-rails destinations.
  • 1920s-1930s | First California ski resort, motel open, along with the launch of the state’s first commercial flight; airline rental car locations popularize the growing industry; Highway 1 opens in Big Sur.
  • 1950s-1970s | Federal Aid Highway Act establishes the United States’ first Interstate Highway System; I-80 opens as California’s first freeway; Disneyland, Universal Studios Hollywood, SeaWorld open and become some of the world’s most-visited attractions.
  • 1989-1992 | Loma Prieta earthquake devastates Bay Area and visitation to California plummets to all-time low; in response, early tourism leaders concept idea for public-private partnership to promote travel to California.
  • 1995-1998 | Gov. Pete Wilson signs Tourism Marketing Act, enabling state’s travel industry to assess itself to conduct statewide tourism marketing; passage of first industry-wide referendum gives the newly created California Travel and Tourism Commission (CTTC) legal standing.
  • 1998-2000 | CTTC scales globally, opens first international offices; first California Welcome Centers open.
  • 2001 | 9/11 rocks nation; domestic travel drops by 50 percent.
  • 2002-2003 | Tourism returns to pre-9/11 levels.
  • 2006 | California meets domestic market share goals in tourism benchmarks five years ahead of projections.
  • 2008-2010 | Great Recession grips nation; leisure and hospitality one of only four sectors to post employment gains.
  • 2011-2013 | California becomes first state in country to surpass $100 billion in travel-related spending.
  • 2016-2019 | 100th Tourism Business Improvement District opens; tourism industry repeatedly breaks own records, sets new high-water marks in travel spending, employment, tax revenues.

Download the History of Tourism Timeline here.