From Disease to Desire: Panama and the Rise of the Caribbean Vacation

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  • This dissertation traces the historical "roots" and "routes" of a transnational tourism industry stretching from the Straits of Florida to the Isthmus of Panama. The project describes the emergence of a quintessential "Caribbean vacation" and critically examines ideas and social practices guiding U.S. travelers comfortably into the tropics. Focusing on historical linkages embedded in a key trade route - coalescing at the Isthmus of Panama - the dissertation shows how leisure travel reshaped the history of U.S.-Caribbean relations. The building of the Panama Canal between 1904 and 1914 marked a profound shift in U.S. traveling culture. Modern tourism emerged within the crucible of U.S. empire building and its associated cultural, scientific, and infrastructural developments. My research documents this history through the stories of a wide range of travelers who helped shape and define the Caribbean's tourism industry. By paying close attention to specific cases of mobility and sometimes immobility, the dissertation analyzes broader trends that still effect the tourist experience.
  • Chapters highlight the stories of U.S. frontiersmen who became tourist entrepreneurs in the early twentieth century; national elites in Panama and Cuba who turned liberal aspirations of progress and desirable immigration into tourism development; naturalists and explorers from the Smithsonian who produced knowledge not only for science but also for tourists in search of adventure and discovery in exotic lands; and traveling writers from the "Lost Generation" who articulated new motivations and means of escape for folks at home tired of the drudgery of modern life. These diverse social groups have rarely, if ever, been analyzed in relation to the Caribbean's modern tourism industry. Their ideas and their travels influenced the way generations of tourists dreamed of and experienced the Caribbean.


Smithsonian History Bibliography


Scott was a predoctoral fellow at the Smithsonian Institution.

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Institutional History Division, Smithsonian Institution Archives, 600 Maryland Avenue, SW, Washington, D.C. 20024-2520,




  • Tourism
  • Description and travel
  • Health
  • Tropical medicine
  • Diseases
  • Caribbean area
  • Travel


  • Cuba
  • Caribbean Area
  • Panama
  • Caribbean Sea
  • Panama Canal

Physical description

Number of pages: 312; Page numbers: 1-297

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