Devil’s Bargains: Tourism in the Twentieth-Century American West
By Hal K. Rothman. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998. Photos, bibliographic essay, notes. xiv, + 434 pp. $34.95 cloth.
Reviewed by Todd M. Kerstetter, Assistant Professor of History, University of Nebraska at Kearney.
This book ought to appeal to a large readership. Who, after all, hasn’t been a tourist? But much of the book deals with elite tourism. It tells stories of Jackson Hole, Steamboat Springs, Aspen, Vail, and Santa Fe. Almost half the book details the history of skiing. Dude ranchers, dude archaeologists, and cultural, business, and civic leaders with the wherewithal to buy second homes in expensive resort towns make extended appearances. The book also chronicles tourism in the national parks and the rise of Everyman’s tourist destination, Las Vegas.
Hal K. Rothman tackled tourism because, he argues, it presents a blueprint for the West’s future. As the extractive industries such as mining that made the West a colony to industrial America disappear, tourism has developed to take their places. Tourism, an extractive industry funded by wealthy individual and corporate outsiders, not only changed the West but also ensured it will remain a colony. Therein lies the devil’s bargain. Westerners often viewed tourist revenue and concomitant economic development as a magical cure for stagnant or declining economies. They hoped this clean industry would provide the proverbial free lunch, but, of course, it did not. Tourism demanded, and almost always received, a community’s soul for its favors. Local people quickly found themselves marginalized by outsiders who brought capital to develop areas showing promise as tourist destinations. As these outsiders moved to budding tourist meccas, they began changing the local culture to suit their tastes. In virtually every case Rothman examines, local atmosphere joined local people on the waste heap. By the late twentieth century, as corporations took over tourist areas, they brought standardization. Tourists could shop at the same upscale retail chains and eat at the same restaurant chains regardless of their destination. Visitors saw places removed yet another generation from the characteristics that initially made them desirable. Rising living costs coupled with access mostly to low-paying service jobs flushed locals from these communities and contributed to their changing nature and dependence upon outside capital. In most cases, these changes carried negative connotations. In Las Vegas, however, Rothman’s analysis casts a positive glow. Corporate control of hotels and casinos drastically reduced the influence of organized crime and helped change the city into a family-oriented tourist destination and a family-oriented community for permanent residents. Decent casino wages made Vegas “the last Detroit,” where people with a high school education can earn a middle-class income and face the prospect of working for the same company most of their lives. Furthermore, Las Vegas knows itself. Las Vegans do not lament the loss of a quaint, “pure” past; they recognize the city’s heritage and future as an entertainment tourist destination and they are comfortable with that identity.
Rothman, professor of history at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and editor of Environmental History, earned his reputation primarily as an environmental historian. His numerous publications include books about national monuments and the Los Alamos area. He writes engaging prose and avoids a too-common pitfall for academics: sucking the life from what by all rights ought to be a fascinating topic. Rothman fulfills this project’s promise. His lively style suits his intriguing and entertaining subject. His painstaking research includes wide reading in secondary sources and primary sources ranging from mining claims to personal correspondence to National Park Service records. His arguments succeed on their own merits; furthermore, this reviewer, having lived in a resort community, albeit an eastern one, finds the ring of truth in Devil’s Bargains.
Those interested in San Diego and California history will probably wish Rothman had spent more time on those subjects. The Hotel Del Coronado appears several times as an example of Victorian tourism. Otherwise, California’s most significant role in the book may be as home of Thousand Oaks, the planned community that inspired developer William Janss as he constructed Snowmass outside Aspen, Colorado, and the home of thousands of tourists who flock to the locations he studied. Although California certainly occupies a central role in twentieth-century tourism, Rothman found his models elsewhere in the West. For instance, in examining entertainment tourism he uses Las Vegas as his case study rather than Disneyland. Overall, the book offers fascinating reading for anyone who has traveled. Those familiar with locales examined in the book will be particularly drawn to the narrative and analysis. But even tourists whose travels have not taken them to the West and residents of tourist and resort communities will find themselves nodding in agreement with Rothman’s analysis of how tourism changes an area’s economy, culture, and society.