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Digital humanities in tourism history in the German-speaking context – quantité négligeable?

Les humanités numériques en histoire du tourisme dans le contexte germanophone – quantité négligeable ?
Martin Knoll


Parcourant le paysage de la recherche en histoire du tourisme et les disciplines connexes dans l’espace linguistique germanophone, l’article donne à voir un certain retard de mise en œuvre et des débats méthodologiques concernant l’application des outils numériques et de la numérisation à ce champ. L’article analyse des initiatives et publications récentes, et présente un projet de recherche en cours, qui explore les documents parlementaires en tant que sources historiques pour l’histoire du tourisme. Ces exemples soulignent les potentiels, limites et problèmes des développements actuels. Les humanités numériques en histoire du tourisme nécessitent à la fois l’exploration et l’expérimentation ambitieuses des technologies numériques dans notre domaine, mais également une réflexion critique sur les défis à relever.

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1The starting point for this paper has been the invitation to review and comment on the role of the digital resources and methodology in the field of tourism history within the German linguistic area. This is a very broadly defined task, which includes both the digital recording, editing, and availability of relevant sources, as well as the application of different digital methods of historical source analysis in the tourism history context. Sharing observations in a rather essayistic manner, the contribution does not claim comprehensiveness. The review will take stock of recent activities and publications in the field and briefly discuss some evidence from an ongoing project at Salzburg University.

2There are obvious limitations to the approach of this paper: first, concentrating the discussion on evidence from only one linguistic area might somehow draw arbitrary boundaries, while at the same time the growing internationalization of research communities suggests a declining importance of governmental and linguistic boundaries. It should be noted that the focus on the German research landscape does not mean ignorance of the international debates and community.

3Second, is the broad scope of exploring the meeting point of different terms and concepts, which tend to have blurring boundaries, such as digital humanities, digital history, and computational history. Döring et al. (2022, p. 5) convincingly argue that the takeover of the English term “digital history” in the German-speaking area around 2009 is no coincidence, since after the establishment of digital humanities a few years earlier there was a vacuum between the much older, but in the broader historiographical community, considerably less acknowledged, computational history, and the younger, more widely perceived, digital humanities, to which digital history could refer.

4Third, the very basic question is what kind of application of digital methods is considered adequate to be documented and discussed in the context of this article. For pragmatic reasons, the review acts very inclusively in this respect and, therefore, also catalogues digital collections and publications that address the broader public.

5The approach taken in this article to concentrate on the Germanophone research landscape might be criticized in the above-mentioned way, however, this approach is likely to provide some telling evidence, since particularly in the field of tourism history—unlike German-speaking historical research in general—the application and reflection of the methodology of digital humanities still seems to be in an infant state.

6In the following lines, first, the state of discussion on how digital tools are used in tourism history shall be examined and a comparison to other fields of historic research, namely global and micro history, will be made. After this, a deeper look into the current usage of digital humanities in tourism scholarship and the public presentation of its findings will be taken. Lastly, the example from Salzburg will show how one such project looks in detail and where the methodological and practical challenges turned out to be.

Some observations on recent debates and activities regarding the use of digital methodology

  • 1 Digitale Geschichtswissenschaft – Das Blog der AG Digitale Geschichtswissenschaft im VHD: https://d (...)

7New digital methods are being applied in research and publication at a breathtaking rate. History in the German speaking countries is no exception here. Also, the disciplinary debate on potentials and problems is well established. For the German speaking community, the foundation of a working group on digital history (Arbeitsgruppe Digitale Geschichtswissenschaft) within the biggest German scholarly society for history dates back to the year 2012. A regularly updated blog1 reports on the activities and debates within this context. Browsing this blog, however, and taking the recent example of the long list of projects running for the “Peter Haber Prize for Digital History” 2023 as an indicator, one comes across a finding, which we will encounter even more often in the course of the article, namely the invisibility of the field of tourism history (Moeller, 2023).

8Browsing several other German language specialist online portals for historical research, there is ambivalent evidence. Tourism history proves to be a topic of broad coverage: introductory texts and literature reviews can be found in portals of general history (Hachtmann, 2011; Tissot, 2022), contemporary history (Hachtmann, 2010), European history (Gyr, 2010), and urban history (Kaspar, 2014). Unfortunately, the majority of these texts are already several years old. The possibility to update data easily thanks to technology is not used, a fact that may be interpreted as a decreasing interest in the field. Additionally, these essays do not discuss or promote any innovative approaches and methods of digital history. It remains to be seen if other more interdisciplinary communities, such as cultural heritage computing or, for example, Timemachine Europe, an initiative claiming to collect and construct the “Big data of the Past”2 as well as linking open data, will be a game changer in this respect, as they—at least in some aspects—work in close relation to tourism scholarship.

9To display the current state of the discussion around digital humanities in the field of tourism scholarship, a few examples shall be named. The first stems, once again, from the disciplinary background of historical research. Geschichte in Wissenschaft und Unterricht, a journal positioned in the liminal zone between historical science and history didactics. The journal published a theme issue in 2018, which focuses on the research topic of tourism history and promotes a widening of its perspectives inspired by global history (Glaser and Lingelbach, 2018). The blend of case studies presented, however, does not include any paper that thematizes the analytical potential and challenges of digitization and digital humanities. This seems even more surprising since in global history digitization is, in fact, discussed critically, as a recent essay by Michael Goebel suggests. He raises an intriguing question: “Has the silent digitization of our work environment been the unsung catalyst behind the triumph of transnational and global history? And if it has, what are the implications of this finding?” (Goebel, 2021, p. 35). Goebel critically assesses Lara Putnam’s argumentation (2016). While in analog conditions, the high costs of research across political, linguistic, and archival borders reinforced historians in their national or regional specialization, the younger digital framework facilitating the accessibility of data “tempts historians into ‘overemphasizing the importance of that which connects, and underestimating the weight of that which is connected: emplaced structures, internal societal dynamics’” (Goebel, 2021, p. 36).

10In addition to this, it is worth noting that the potential of digital methods is discussed not only in the field of global history, but also on the other end of the dimensional scale, microhistory. Julia Laite delivers a thoughtful nuanced evaluation, which underlines the potential of digitization as enabling reconstruction, contextualization, and crosschecking of micro-historical data at a pace and precision never possible in the world of analog historiography. Nonetheless, she also raises ethical questions deriving from this efficiency and points out the problems of uneven digitization. Laite advocates a “two-tiered approach” (Laite, p. 973) of analog and digital methodology (Laite, 2020, p. 963ff).

11Returning to tourism scholarship, my second example is the Zeitschrift für Tourismuswissenschaft, an interdisciplinary journal of tourism research. The editors of a theme issue published in 2021, dedicated to “Tourism and big data”, discuss the somewhat surprising observation that their call for papers only found mild resonance (Egger and Aschauer, 2021, p. 153). In the issue, Kim Hartmann and Matthias Lederer display the following impression based on an analysis of 148 peer reviewed journal articles dealing with big data and tourism:

One key finding is that traditional data analysis is often wrongfully subsumed under the Big Data label. Further, the scientific literature predominantly discusses ideas or theoretical considerations, fewer tangible Big Data implementations, and fails to address and/or meet all requirements to be classified as Big Data. Only a minority of the presented solutions processes data in real time, whereas many rely on only one data source or structured data. (Hartmann and Lederer, 2021, p. 209)

12Returning to the disciplinary context of historical research, it can be seen clearly that digitization and the application of digital methods have fundamentally altered the historians’ practices of research and dissemination. The field of tourism history is no exception. The more intriguing question might be, however, why there has not yet been, for example, a symposium of methodological scope similar to the one published in the Journal for Tourism History, 9/2017, in the German speaking research community. This is not easy to answer, and it may not only relate to the still limited number of historians dealing with tourism, but also to the fact that the communities of economic and social historians on one side, and tourism historians on the other, do not have a close relationship in Austria and Germany.

13The potential of different tools of digital humanities—such as quantitative and statistical analysis, distant and close reading approaches to large text corpora, or instruments of geospatial analysis and visualization—for Tourism History is without any doubt substantial. The structure of several source types relevant to the field, suggest, in particular, their application. Just to give one telling example: the development of the Austrian railway network is precisely documented in a fine-grained set of data by the official Austrian Railway Statistics, first published in 1898 under the title Statistik der in den im Reichsrathe vertretenen Königreichen und Ländern im Betriebe gestandenen Locomotiv-Eisenbahnen, a series of data which obviously interrelates with tourism history. The source is particularly rewarding as it also includes cable cars and chairlifts and, thus, also documents the expansion of these tourism-related infrastructures. Surprisingly though, this rewarding historical record, which can be used—amongst other holding institutions—at the Austrian National Library in Vienna, is not yet digitally available. Detecting these and other corpora of historical relevance, but also evaluating ways of their digital processing in historical research, would be a rewarding task and could pave the way for the development and implementation of new digital formats for research and dissemination in tourism history. What has been said here for the example of railway statistics might be also explored for other bodies of statistical data, for example, those provided by official online platforms, such as Statistik Austria3, Destatis4, or the Swiss federal agency for statistics5, all of them—amongst other topics—dealing with tourism.

14One of the few recent contributions from the German speaking linguistic area, which explicitly reflect the application of digital approaches with a methodological discussion, is a paper by Jan-Hinnerk Antons, who shares his experiences in working with HGIS (historical geographic information systems). In his essay titled, “HGIS in Tourism History. Transnational Streams of Visitors in 19th Century Baltic Sea Tourism” (Antons, 2021), he follows two aims: the first is to discuss the potential of digital methods, HGIS most notably. The second is to provide a case study on 19th century Baltic Sea tourism, which helps to detect benefits, problems, and challenges in line with the application of digital methods. The study is based on guest lists, which are a particularly rewarding type of records for tourism history. They allow an analysis of the visitor’s social profiles, the geographical zone of attraction of certain destinations, as well as seasonal travel patterns. However, this type of source also has problematic elements, since the lists were not published frequently over longer time spans; additionally, the data tends to lack consistency due to hoteliers and innkeepers not reporting, or at least not comprehensively, on their visitors. In awareness of the shortcomings of the source type, Antons uses guidebooks, travel literature, and tourism related articles in the local press as complementary qualitative evidence (Antons, 2021, p. 360). He highlights the analytical potential of HGIS visualization of mobility profiles, uncovering spatial relations that tend to be neglected using conventional methods. Antons’ study objects are several 19th century resorts located at the Baltic Sea, Travemünde near Lübeck, Heiligendamm in Mecklenburg, Germany – Pernau (Pärnu), Arensburg (Kuressaare), Hanko (Hangö), and Mariehamn (Maarianhamina), all located in the Russian Empire. Antons studies certain sample years throughout the 19th century. Amongst his findings, he points out that, “the hypothesis of a determination by traffic infrastructure proves to be of only limited relevance. Cultural and climatic factors play considerably more decisive roles in shaping the prevailing north-south and east-west directions of visitor streams.” (Antons, 2021, p. 357). Building on the observation that GIS methods are not yet well established in historical research, he points out their potential to structure data spatially, to display it on maps, and to facilitate spatial analysis connecting supposedly incompatible sources or data sets (Antons, 2021, p. 363). Antons convincingly advocates interdisciplinary co-operation between geographers, historians, and information scientists. However, referring to Antons’ case study, one might welcome a more detailed explanation to what extent the added value of HGIS is applicable to his research questions compared to what he calls “low end-solution[s]” (Antons, 2021, p. 361) of historical science. This question leads to a second observation: Antons demonstrates a problem which is likely to appear in many other projects. The first step of data collection and processing is, in many cases, still not automatized and is, therefore, time consuming, which in consequence, limits the capacity of research projects in terms of manpower, and accordingly, their funding. Similar experiences were also found in the Salzburg project, which is discussed below.

15Anton’s exploration of the potential and limitations of historical geographic information systems for tourism history allows the conclusion that GIS can play a productive role in research. This insight should also inspire an examination of the potential of public GIS services. To name one example, SAGIS, the open access GIS of the Austrian province of Salzburg, offers a broad range of geospatial data relevant for tourism studies, such as historical cadastral maps, thematic cartography, and orthophotography, with respective export functions6.

Browsing the scene: appearance and lack of digital humanities in the context of tourism history

16In this respect, a horizon scanning must start with probably the most important research archive of the field: the Historical Archive on Tourism (Historisches Archiv zum Tourismus, HAT), hosted by Berlin Technical University and curated by Hasso Spode. It holds a collection of approximately 700 shelf meters, consisting of a broad range of tourism-related source types, such as journals, leaflets, posters, maps, guidebooks, travel literature, etc., but also private media, such as diaries, photo albums, and video tapes7. The focus of the collection lies in the 19th and 20th century and is catalogued in a database. Thematic excerpts of this catalogue (main list, signatures list, authors list, periodicals list, etc.) are accessible online8. Due to very limited financial resources, the holdings themselves have not yet been systematically digitized on a larger scale, nor have other digital projects that are based on the collection been realized so far9.

17Travel literature is one of the most important source types for tourism history. In this respect, it is worth mentioning that the State Library Eutin (Germany) holds an extensive collection of travel literature. It includes travelogues, topographies, travel novels, and related literature, dating from the 16th to 20th century. The library hosts a research centre on historical travel culture (Forschungsstelle zur historischen Reisekultur) and does offer online search functions, both in its catalogue of travel literature and in a bibliography of German language travel literature from the 18th to 20th century10. This institution also offers access to digital search functions, while not offering online access to digitized sources themselves.

18Travel literature and other types of relevant digitized sources for tourism history can be browsed and accessed in the holdings of large public libraries, such as the Austrian National Library11, the Bavarian State Library12, the Swiss National Library13, or the collaborative project of the German Digital Library14.

19Museums are institutions where collection, research, and exhibition meet, thereby linking scholarly and conservatory work with the public audience—an agenda that invites the application of digital media. The “Touriseum”, a museum on tourism history located in Meran, in the bilingual Italian province of Südtirol/Alto Adige, is an institution of obvious relevance for the field in both research and dissemination. Like most museums, the “Touriseum” offers an elaborately designed and material-rich website15. This is not only aimed at visitors and public outreach, e. g., with virtual tours through exhibitions, blogs, and podcasts, but it also addresses researchers, providing access to the collection catalogue through an online search mask and information about research activities and publications. The example of the Haus der Geschichte Österreich (House of Austrian History) in Vienna, suggests that tourism gains relevance also as a topic for museums of general history. In 2020, the House of Austrian History accompanied the launch of a new focus area on tourism in Austria with a campaign on its website, which included interactive elements (Benedik, s.d.). This digital trend also applies for the Deutsches Historisches Museum (German Historical Museum) in Berlin. It provides visitors of its website and its “LeMo” platform (Lebendiges Museum online, Living Museum online) with introductory texts, digitized objects, and reports of contemporary witnesses related to tourism as an aspect of the history of everyday life (Dietz, s.d.; Hinz-Wessels, 2003; Schriefers, 2014; Spode, 2017, amongst others).

  • 16 Bavarian Broadcasting Company (Bayerischer Rundfunk), alpha retro, Gruß aus den Bergen 1964: https: (...)

20Going further into the territory of public history, it is noteworthy that it is not only museums that play an important role in presenting topics of tourism history to a broader audience with the help of digital methods. One platform that indicates the obvious attractiveness of the topic is Planet Wissen (Planet Knowledge). It is a multimedia educational offer produced by German public television, which has edited a series of introductory texts and videos on Tourism History. It provides a general overview (Kaufmann and Hilt, 2019), but also zooms into a broad range of special topics such as Thomas Cook (Hilt and Wengel, 2019), the tourism organization “Kraft durch Freude” and the “Prora” spa project in fascist Germany (Kaufmann, 2019; Seesing, 2021), the history of camping (Holtmeyer and Schwanenberg, 2019), the history of cruise ship trips (Kaufmann and Niebling, 2019), and the history of Mallorca as a tourism destination (Schultens, 2020). Also, other broadcasting companies provide digital offers relevant for tourism history, such as “alpha-retro”, a platform of Bavarian public broadcast, where historical films and documentaries from the institution’s own archives are made searchable and accessible online16.

21Alpine associations have been important historical actors regarding tourism history in the Alps. From their work and historical development, they host their own huge collections, and they do so also in a virtual environment. The German Alpine Association (Deutscher Alpenverein, DAV) offers a virtual tour through its Alpine Museum, since the exhibition is currently not physically accessible due to construction work17. The Austrian Alpine Association (Österreichischer Alpenverein, ÖAV), which does not have room to exhibit its collections, presents parts of them online18. In 2026, the three Alpine associations of Austria, Germany, and South Tyrol launched the Historical Alpine Archive (Historisches Alpenarchiv), an online portal based on a jointly managed database facilitating online search functions in the archival collections of all three clubs19. This portal not only provides access to the catalogues, but also to thousands of historical documents, landscape paintings, postcards, photographs, and objects such as mountaineering equipment.

Tourism in the political debate: a research project at Salzburg University

22Since an overview of the research and public field of tourism history now has been given, it may be illustrative to take an exemplary look into an ongoing research project. With the assumption that tourism policy is a very important issue for local governments, a research project was started at Salzburg University to analyze records of the regional parliament of the Austrian province of Salzburg. Initially funded by the university’s “Stiftungs- und Förderungsgesellschaft”, and carried out by Katharina Scharf (Scharf, 2021), a historian who conducted a comparative study of tourism induced processes of regional change in the province of Salzburg and the French Haute Savoie, the project was able to build on the good accessibility of the parliamentary records. The negotiations of the Salzburg Landtag are documented in stenographic minutes of meetings, which are nearly completely available from 1861, the year the parliament was founded, to the present. This means the source can be analyzed almost continuously over the period of nearly 160 years. A second advantage related to the source type is that the protocols are accessible online, most of them via ALEX20, a portal hosted by the Austrian National Library, which grants access to a huge collection of legal texts. The years from 1861 to 1937 and 1945 to 1994 were digitized and published by the Austrian National Library (with some gaps of documentation, mainly in the interwar years); the more recent years have been uploaded by the parliament itself21. The parliamentary notes are of different lengths and detail. The records comprise an average of a thousand pages a year.

23Based on this source, a broad range of analytical questions can be dealt with: what continuous and changing discourses shaped Salzburg’s history of tourism? Which individual and collective actors put tourism on the agenda and pushed ahead with tourism expansion and which actors opposed tourism and its intensification? What were and are the arguments and motives? In the period since 1861, are there Salzburg-specific trends or topics? How can these Salzburg-specific transformations be integrated into larger aspects— concerning tourism (history), mobility, or social and cultural processes of change?

24However, the project also has shown limitations and obstacles. Firstly, the protocols until 1994 that are accessible online in ALEX are only provided via PDF scans without OCR-based encoding. Thus, the data collection for this huge collection of records could not be based on automated methods of data mining but needed a conventional (and time consuming) hermeneutical approach that is mainly based on the tables of content and cross-reading. First attempts to apply a decentral OCR-encoding based on Adobe PRO did not provide satisfying results. Therefore, this step needs further effort, e.g., by applying an AI based text recognition system such as Transkribus22. In the pilot phase of the project, the establishment of a database with a structure suitable for thematic analysis was achieved. The chosen technical solution, MS Excel, may be considered as a rather conventional option, but allows for the easy transfer of the gathered data into future digital humanities applications.

25The project is structured using an Excel file consisting of three worksheets, the catalogue as central node of information: a keyword list facilitating constant updating of keywords and avoiding redundancy; a logbook documenting the state of work; and a sheet linking to the tables of contents of the parliamentary material. The catalogue is structured around the following categories: sessions (documentation of the parliamentary session, in which the topic has been debated); title (short title of the topic); date; pages (precise documentation of the date and location of the recorded entry); content (description of the discussed topic in a few sentences); involved persons (list of all involved persons, be it as applicant, speaker, expert etc., and hyperlinks, where possible, to online accessible biographical data); cross-references to other steps in the parliamentary process, with hyperlinks, keywords, and files, where possible (hyperlinks to downloaded and de-centrally stored PDFs); direct links (hyperlinks to the online accessible document).

26The project has produced a broad set of structured data. In case of further funding, the next step would be to find a more efficient solution to filter and obtain the data. This would make the planned continuation of the recording much easier. Right now, it only extends into the pre-World-War-One area. Finally, a suitable form of digital accessibility and publication of the project will be developed. In doing so, the project can play an important role in making historical debates and politics in tourism more accessible.

Concluding remarks

27The paper has given an overview on the research landscape of tourism history and related neighbouring disciplines in the German speaking linguistic area, resulting in the impression of a certain lack of application and methodological debate on the application of digital tools and digitization in tourism history. Based on the reflection of the pilot phase of a research project at Salzburg University, which explores parliamentary records as historical sources for tourism history, potentials and limitations have been made visible. The impression that there is still a lot to be done can be viewed as promising, pointing to the digital future of the discipline, but it also has to be read as a claim for critical reflections, such as those discussed in other communities of historical scholarship by authors like Lara Putnam (2016). In their introductory paper on Big Data in tourism research, Roman Egger and Wolfgang Aschauer (2021, p. 153) second the claim by Simon Lindgren that “the development of a critical science of data by combining the interpretive theoretical approaches from the social sciences with the predicative and prognostic powers of data science” is needed. In the same issue, Dirk Schmück and Julian Reif (2021) identify not technical challenges but the accessibility of data to be the bottleneck in digital tourism research. From the viewpoint of a historian, I would like to add a closely related epistemological problem. Due to the structure of our historical source material, we face a mixture of non-digitized material, low-tech digitized material (for example, that without encoded texts or vectorized graphics), and fully digitized material. In the application of digital humanities in tourism history, we should be aware of the dangers mentioned by Putnam, i.e., the biases resulting from the privileged use of material that is digitally well accessible, corresponding with excluding that which is digitally less accessible, when generating new scientific evidence. To give one very telling example: the digital newspaper archives of the Austrian National Library23 and the Munich State Library24 offer thousands of digitized historical newspapers and their pool is constantly being expanded. Thus, their value for research and academic teaching with respect of tourism history is, without doubt, tremendous, however, it also bears the risk of the above-mentioned bias. Digital humanities in tourism history demands both an ambitious exploration and testing of digital technologies within our field, and also a critical reflection of the challenges.

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Martin Knoll, « Digital humanities in tourism history in the German-speaking context – quantité négligeable? »Mondes du Tourisme [En ligne], 24 | 2023, mis en ligne le 15 décembre 2023, consulté le 29 mai 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Martin Knoll

Professor for the history of European regions at University of Salzburg (Austria)

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