By: Keith Elliott

Type: General Entry

Published: 1976

Updated: January 16, 2019

While tourism as a major source of revenue for Texas is a relatively recent phenomenon, the state's role as a visitor destination may be traced far back into history. The origin of tourism in Texas might be rooted in the coastal map produced in 1519 by Texas's discoverer, Alonso Álvarez de Pineda, for map making and map distribution remain a keystone of modern tourist promotion. Similarly, active visitor promotion in Texas could be traced to Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, whose reports in 1536 of seven golden cities of Cíbola induced Francisco Vázquez de Coronado and 1,000 troops to make a tour of West Texas in a fruitless search for riches. Promotional literature in pre-republic Texas was beamed at potentially permanent residents, although at least one guidebook for casual visitors, Mary Austin Holley's Tourist Guide to Texas, was published in 1835. A number of guides to Texas were published during its decade as a republic and during its early days of statehood. In Melinda Rankin's Texas in 1850, the author wrote as shamelessly as any contemporary publicist that "a traveller, passing through Texas during the months of April and May, would not fail of pronouncing it to be the most charming spot on earth." Before and after the Civil War, railroad development in Texas gave impetus to travel for pleasure and adventure. Stagecoach, steamship, and riverboat lines made deliberate bids for recreational traffic, posting special excursion rates, and promoting the charms and comforts of Texas with various items of literature. Between 1873 and 1878 commercial buffalo hunts promoted cooperatively by railroads and private entrepreneurs drew many hunters, who helped spread the state's fame as an outdoorsman's paradise, a status it has retained. The salubrious climate of Texas has long drawn visitors, and various health spas have flourished since the 1850s. The Hot Wells health resort of San Antonio, a pioneer tourist attraction throughout the last half of the nineteenth century, attracted visitors by the thousands through such imaginative devices as a race track featuring ostriches. In the early 1900s the Rio Grande valley and the Texas coast, principally around Galveston, became popular as winter resorts. By 1922 the fame of Texas as a winter retreat was so well established that President Warren G. Harding vacationed at length in the Rio Grande valley. Early writers of Western novels, such as Rex Beach and Zane Gray, helped to publicize Texas as "cowboy country," an image Texans would later seek to soften. The guides to Texas written in the cowland idiom by Charles A. Siringo and sold in paperback on west-bound trains are said to have outsold the Bible between 1885 and 1900.

Except for the increased construction of highways after 1917 (see HIGHWAY DEVELOPMENT), which was a decided advantage for travelers, Texas did not formally enter into the field of tourism until the centennial year of statehood in 1936. Then, at the request of the legislature, the Texas State Highway Department established information bureaus at principal entry points to counsel visitors drawn to Texas by the Texas Centennial celebration at Dallas. The information bureaus were so popular among visitors that the legislature asked that they be operated permanently as a service to tourists. In 1995 state tourist bureaus were located in Amarillo, Anthony, Austin, Denison, Gainesville, Langtry, Laredo, Orange, Texarkana, Valley, Waskom, and Wichita Falls. Since 1936 the highway department has published annually a new edition of a Texas travel map for tourists. Lavishly illustrated with photographs depicting outstanding tourist destinations, the map's distribution exceeded a million copies in 1967. The highway department has also published a wide range of informational, statistical, and safety materials since 1936 to assist travelers on Texas highways. Until 1958 publication of literature designed primarily to attract visitors to Texas was proscribed by the "carpetbagger clause" in the Constitution of 1876. Inserted by Texans with recent memories of Reconstruction and concomitant "carpetbaggers" and "scalawags," the constitutional provision made it unlawful to expend any state funds for the attraction of immigrants; by various court interpretations, tourists were ruled to be immigrants. In 1950 tourism surprisingly emerged as Texas's fifth largest industry. In 1958, enlightened by findings that tourism in Texas was declining despite a growing thirty billion dollar annual vacation expenditure among Americans, Texans voted a constitutional amendment to allocate tax monies to attract visitors. In 1960, under the revised constitution, the Texas highway department published the first brochure specifically designed to lure tourists to the state, and since that time it has developed a large spectrum of promotional pieces.

In 1963 the legislature authorized the state's first tourist-advertising budget and established the Texas Tourist Development Agency as a part of the governor's executive department. The agency was charged to promote a responsible and accurate national and international image of Texas through creative advertising and public relations. Within the purview of the Texas Tourist Development Agency, Texas became the first state to base its national advertising schedules upon motivational research findings. Depth-interviews were conducted nationwide by the Belden Associates opinion polling firm of Dallas and supplemented quantitatively by the national Gallup Poll to guide the agency in developing its advertising programs. Texas tourist advertising in national publications emphasized scenic and cultural diversity, pleasant climate, abundant water, good accommodations, and sophisticated activities to offset the research firms' findings that large numbers of Americans felt Texas to be a desert land peopled largely by cowboys and oilmen and devoid of such nationally favored vacation charms as inland water, beaches, forests, mountains, historic sites, and cosmopolitan cities. In its first three years the tourist development agency, in cooperation with various tourist-oriented businesses over the state, also hosted four tours of Texas for nationally known travel writers and editors, resulting in worldwide publicity on the emerging "Vacationland Texas." A $12,000 exhibit dramatizing the message of "Texas for a World of Difference," the theme of early Texas tourist advertising, was sponsored by both the tourist development agency and private businesses. It began touring the nation's principal travel and vacation shows in 1967. In the late 1960s the Texas highway department estimated that the number of out-of-state pleasure travelers in Texas increased sizably over the nonadvertising years.

While developing and promoting tourism in Texas was the primary responsibility of the state's tourist development agency, other state agencies were involved on an ancillary basis. The Texas highway department remained most active in tourism through its travel and information division, operation of tourist bureaus, production of travel-promotion literature, maintenance of extensive photograph files, and tourist counseling. Many programs of the Texas State Historical Commission and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department were keyed to a growing awareness of the economic importance of tourism. The role of the newly formed Texas Fine Arts Commission (now the Texas Commission on the Arts) and the Texas Film Commission was anticipated to bear similarly upon the state's efforts to recruit additional visitors. By the late 1960s the total tourism effort had helped excite increased interest of investment capital in building additional facilities to accommodate and entertain those vacationing in Texas. The most outstanding developments aimed at entertaining visitors were Six Flags Over Texas, of Dallas-Fort Worth, and HemisFair '68 in San Antonio. Other outstanding attractions included the Astrodome in Houston; the Ballpark in Arlington; Texas Stadium in Irving; Astroworld in Houston; Aquarena Springs in San Marcos; the outdoor drama, Texas, at Palo Duro Canyon; Schlitterbahn in New Braunfels; and Seawolf Park at Galveston. The Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Clear Lake has a tourist complex, Space Center Houston, built to educate and entertain visitors about the United States space program. A large number of cities, towns, and geographic regions, such as San Antonio, El Paso, Dallas-Fort Worth, Corpus Christi, Padre Island National Seashore, the Rio Grande valley, the Guadalupe Mountains National Park, and Big Bend National Park were also considered tourist attractions. Lyndon B. Johnson's election as president caused a notable increase of tourists to the Texas Hill Country and to the Lyndon B. Johnson State Historical Park; the Lyndon Baines Johnson Birthplace, Boyhood Home, and Ranch; and the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library in Austin. San Antonio also enhanced its marketability to tourists with its Riverwalk (see PASEO DEL RIO), Busch Gardens-Sea World theme park, and Fiesta Texas. Tourist information and tourist guides are available through the Texas Department of Transportation, Travel and Information Division, and the Texas Department of Commerce-Tourism Office. For a listing of the more off-beat and unusual attractions in Texas, tourists can check out Dick Reavis's 1995, Texas, a Fodor guide. In 1991 travelers spent almost $18 billion, and the second-ranked tourist industry employed 357,000.

W. W. Bryant, Bryant's Railroad Guide (Austin, 1875). Jim McIntire, Early Days in Texas: A Trip to Hell and Heaven (Kansas City: McIntire, 1902). Modern Directory of Chambers of Commerce and Convention and Visitors' Bureaus in Texas (Longview: East Texas Tourism Association, 1988). Texas Legislature, Texas: The Home of the Emigrant from Everywhere (St. Louis: Olshausen, 1876). Texas State Travel Guide (Austin: State Department of Highways and Public Transportation, 1995). Kathryn Leigh Thornhill, ed., The Best in Texas (Houston: San Sebastian, 1982).

Time Periods:

  • Texas in the 1920s
  • Great Depression

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Keith Elliott, “Tourism,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed January 24, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

January 16, 2019