Travel literature is a broad genre consisting of descriptive accounts, also known as travelogues or itineraries, telling about an individual or a group's encounter with a new place, peoples and cultures. This kind of literature may present an account of a cross-cultural or transnational travel, or tell about travel to particular regions of a country. Spaceflight accounts can also be perceived as travel literature.
Travel guides and travel literature overlap to some extent, but while travel guides offer travel advice and pragmatic information about a certain place, travel literature presents a place, people, or culture through the eyes of the writer. Travel guides are informative, while travel literature is descriptive. Travel literature is classified in varied subject areas including literature, history, geography, which demonstrates its lack of unity. Sometimes travel literature overlaps with essay writing. While describing a trip, an author makes detailed observations on the people of the country visited.
The mythology and folklore of every culture contain instances of journeys which are seen as having a fundamental significance for that society, whether in the form of myths of origin, or in the form of folktales which recount the travels and associated tests and interrogations undergone by the hero. Many myths and folktales also recount the efforts of an individual or group to find their way back home after a period of exile, war or captivity.
Pausanias' Description of Greece from the 2nd Century AD represents an early example of travel literature. Other examples include the detailed travelogues written by Ibn Jubayr (1145-1214) and Ibn Batutta (1304-1377), which tell about the authors' travels across the known world. The travel genre was fairly popular in medieval Arabic literature. The journeys of Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) and the other great explorers of the Renaissance contributed an intense stimulus to nearly every literary genre in Europe. The thirst for knowledge of travelers' adventures was met in large part by the genre of travel literature.
The first wave of travel literature in the century following Columbus recounted heroic tales of crusades, conquests and pilgrimages. Gradually, however, a different style of travel narrative emerged, more oriented to the natural historian and natural philosopher. It often included "true" reports and authentic narratives and histories. Travel literature soon became an important source of knowledge in natural philosophy. The reading of such literature was promoted by English philosopher Francis Bacon (1561-1626) who realized their importance as sources of facts for the construction of natural histories. It was these histories that, in Bacon's view, constituted the basis of natural philosophy. Voyages, a foundational work in the genre of travel literature, was published in 1589 by Richard Hakluyt (c. 1552-1616).
Later examples of travel literature include accounts of what was referred to as the Grand Tour of Europe. Young aristocrats, clergy and others who were wealthy in the 17th and 18th centuries often spent several years traveling around Europe in a bid to broaden their horizons and become familiar with languages, architecture, geography, art,and culture. The Grand Tour was initiated in the 16th century and gained popularity during the 17th century. Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894) was a pioneer of tourism literature. Travel literature in the 18th century was widely known as the book of travels. Such books mainly consisted of sea travel diaries. The majority of prominent writers in 18th century England created works in the travel literature form. The diaries of Captain James Cook (1728-1779) were as popular as present day best-sellers.
Bitter Lemons (1957) by Lawrence Durrell (1912-1990) is an example of how writers settle in a certain place for an extended period but still retain a travel writer's approach. In Durrell's case the book tells of his experiences on the island of Cyprus. Travel and nature writing intersect in the works of naturalists, such as Gerald Durrell (1925-1995) and Charles Darwin (1809-1882), who wrote about their fields of study. A large part of travel literature also consists of fictional travelogues. Distinctions between fictional and non-fictional works have proved hard to make in practice, in cases such as the famous travel writings of Marco Polo (1254-1324).
Travel literature criticism and study emerged in the mid-1990s and developed most extensively in the late 1990s. The influential International Society for Travel Writing (ISTW) was founded in 1997. The subjects of contemporary travel writing studies have included gender and travel; political functions of travel; postcolonial perspectives on travel; and language in travel.