The U.S. Travel Bureau began on February 4, 1937  and was briefly called the “Tourist Bureau” . The office was created by Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes and placed within the National Park Service. Its purpose was to market the national parks, both to American citizens and foreign tourists, in the tradition of NPS founding directors Stephen Mather and Horace Albright .
The Travel Bureau had offices in New York and Washington, DC, and it operated with emergency funds. It was hoped that Congress would enact legislation to make it a regular agency, but early legislative efforts were unsuccessful . Still, Secretary Ickes enhanced the Travel Bureau during fiscal year 1939 by the appointment of an “Interdepartmental Travel Advisory Committee” and the opening of a new office in San Francisco .
To encourage tourism in the United States, the Travel Bureau mounted exhibitions in places like the New York World’s Fair and the Golden Gate International Exhibition; coordinated with public and private groups interested in recreational travel; printed various materials such as a calendar of events and monthly bulletin; and made use of radio, film, and lectures. In the New York office, a “Travel America Hall” was created, filled with exhibits and promotional material . These and other efforts worked to boost recreation and tourism across the country. For example, visits to the national parks “for the period October 1939, through September 1940, reached the all-time high of 16,741,855 persons” . President Roosevelt, meanwhile, declared 1940 to be “Travel America Year” .
The Travel Bureau also participated in the production of “The Negro Motorist Green-Book,” a travel guide developed by postal worker and social activist Victor H. Green. The guide listed “hotels, boarding houses, restaurants, beauty shops, barber shops and various other services” friendly to African Americans. Because of racial discrimination and hostility, travel could be quite uncomfortable, and even dangerous, for African Americans. The Green-Book assisted travelers for nearly three decades, from 1936 to 1964 .
Congress finally passed legislation giving the Travel Bureau a firm statutory footing, which President Roosevelt signed on July 19, 1940. Ickes and his department noted that “for the first time since its establishment in 1937, permanent existence of the Bureau was assured and long range planning made practicable” . The positive mood could only have been enhanced when, in 1941, reports indicated that Americans were spending more than ever for recreational travel (the $6 billion they spent in 1940 is about $100 billion in 2014 dollars) . With its tiny annual budget of $75,000 (a little over $1 million today) , the Travel Bureau was helping to stimulate the economy on a grand scale. Because of this, it enjoyed “aggressive” support from the private sector .
Unfortunately, World War II signaled the demise of the Travel Bureau. During fiscal year 1942, the New York and San Francisco offices were closed. And even though the Travel Bureau had a few new duties, e.g., travel and recreational resources for war workers, the writing was on the wall . During fiscal year 1943, all activities of the Travel Bureau were terminated, except for a few projects nearing completion . Nevertheless, the age of mass outdoor recreation was launched, and car travel and park visitation would continue to grow rapidly in the postwar era .
Sources: (1) “The United States Travel Bureau,” Kelvin Smith Library, Case Western Reserve University, http://library.case.edu/ksl/collections/govdocs/travel/bureau.html, accessed November 15, 2015. (2) Annual report of the Secretary of the Interior, fiscal year 1938, p. 34. (3) Annual report of the Secretary of the Interior, fiscal year 1937, p. 70. (4) See note 2, p. 3. (5) Annual report of the Secretary of the Interior, fiscal year 1939, p. 269. (6) Annual reports of the Secretary of the Interior, fiscal years 1938 through 1941. (7) Annual report of the Secretary of the Interior, fiscal year 1940, p. xvi. (8) Ibid., p. 169. (9) Ibid., p. 170, and “Green Book Helped Keep African Americans Safe on the Road,” Independent Lens, PBS, January 10, 2013, http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/blog/green-book-helped-keep-african-americans-safe-on-the-road/, accessed November 15, 2015. (10) See note 7, p. 169. (11) Annual report of the Secretary of the Interior, fiscal year 1941, p. 297. (12) Ibid., p. 296. (13) Ibid., p. 297. (14) Annual report of the Secretary of the Interior, fiscal year 1942, p. 164. (15) Annual report of the Secretary of the Interior, fiscal year 1943, p. 218. The Travel Bureau was “reestablished” in 1948, as the “U.S. Travel Division,” but was terminated again in 1949, due to a lack of funds (see annual reports of the Secretary of the Interior, fiscal years 1948 and 1950. (16) For overviews, see Hal Rothman, Devil’s Bargains: Tourism in the 20th Century American West. Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Press, 1998, and Marguerite Shaffer, See America First: Tourism and National Identity, 1880-1940, Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 2001. (Note: annual reports of the Secretary of the Interior can be found on Hathitrust.)