What Is a Bed & Breakfast Anyway?

I first encountered the term "Bed & Breakfast" while exploring the English countryside by motorcycle back in '65. Yes, I know, that was a long time ago. There were still 240 pence to the pound, in those days. "Mods" and "Rockers" were the two (just two!) competing styles of popular youth culture. And in some cities--like Bristol, for example--you could still find some bombed out buildings left over from the war without too much trouble. In fact, it was World War II that gave birth to the "Bed & Breakfast" phenomenon as we know it today.

With nightly bombing, and facing the threat of an imminent Nazi invasion, the Brits had to focus all of their resources into a massive defense effort. In the end, the only invasion of the British Isles was by soldiers from the U.S., Canada, and other allied countries as they gathered in England to mount the counter-attack that would put an end to the Nazi peril. But that invasion and the social and economic upheaval that accompanied it left Old Blighty changed forever. Many bereaved widows and mothers in the towns and in the countryside found themselves alone in houses that once reverberated with the sounds of family life. 'There's a good number of travelers about,' they might have mused in their loneliness as they struggled to make ends meet through the lean years following the war, 'so, why not hang out a sign and offer them a decent bed for the night and a spot of tea for the morning?'

The rest, as they say, is history.

The choice of the term "Bed & Breakfast" must have seemed obvious to the first of this new class of entrepreneurs as they dipped their brushes in paint. Soon many small signs, often attractively decorated, began to spring up throughout Britain--on fences, in yards, and on doors. But it was the clientele that really made the venture a success, for travelers found that not only was this new accommodation service reasonably priced but also provided a more personalized and domestic style of comfort. Most important of all, it offered an opportunity to meet local residents of a community in their own homes. As prosperity returned and painful memories of the war slowly faded into the past, a new breed of tourist, eager to experience the world and its wonderfully diverse people, came to appreciate the value of the "Bed & Breakfast" establishments more and more.

Many returning servicemen and women came back to North America with an increased awareness of the British B&B. As well, many Brits themselves emigrated to North America after the war. It was not surprising, therefore, when some homes on this side of the pond evolved into B&Bs in the British style.

Tourism boomed beyond all expectations in the late in the twentieth century as the superpower stand-off that had sucked up so many dollars in the decades after WWII crumbled into dust along with the Berlin Wall. Soon the industry of travel for pleasure surpassed even that of providing armaments and weapons to those unhappy folks whose idea of fun is to blow each other to bits. This development did not go un-noticed by ever-vigilant manipulators of capital who never fail to recognize an opportunity in peace or war. Accordingly, tourism development began to rival military projects as a target for massive investment. This new trend manifested itself in casinos, cruise ships, and lots of new hotels in all the places where tourists like to congregate, from the steamy Caribbean to the Inside Passage to Alaska.

But every cycle has its ups and downs and the travel/tourism boom is no exception. Some of the more popular destinations were beginning to find themselves overbuilt with the owners of hotels staring at empty white spaces in their guest registers.

As these big business types began to look around to see where in the Sam Hill their clientele was hiding they began to notice the Mom & Pop B&Bs were still doing OK. Some tried to imitate the personalized character of the B&B in their service style (a flattering gesture!) and the commercial B&B hotel was born. Others lobbied politicians and government regulators to pressure their competitors--the real B&Bs--with more regulations, restrictions, and higher taxes (a low-down but predictable strategy).

A textbook example of this phenomenon is especially evident in Cuba, of all places. There, in the throes of the deprivation produced by the U.S. trade embargo, the Castro regime was desperate to promote its tourist industry and made deals with a number of mostly European-based hotel interests to invest in development schemes that saw tourism zones set up in designated areas. The idea was to combine the best (or rather, worst) of both worlds: from the capitalist point-of-view, keep the tourist herd in a controlled area, a captive audience at the mercy of their corporate hosts; from the communist/totalitarian point-of-view, keep the corrupt foreigners apart from the general population lest they form personal relationships with people and pervert them with politically incorrect ideas--but still take their money!

A cunning plan, worthy of Machiavelli, but many of the common folk of Cuba were apparently not as imbued with communist values as Cuban government planners may have wished, and the good old Mom & Pop B&B turned out to be a thorn-in-the-side for both members of this un-holy alliance. Just walk down any street in Cuba and you'll see what I mean.(1) "Hey, looking for a good place to stay tonight? Follow me." And if you accept such an invitation, chances are you will be taken to a very nice home and offered decent food and clean and comfortable accommodation therein--and all for a very reasonable price. Most rewarding of all, in thwarting the best efforts of the worst kind (i.e., crude capitalists, cruel demagogues, and the identical species of servile agents that aid them both) you'll meet some of the finest people you could hope to find anywhere.

Of course the Cuban government hasn't let this disobedience to authority go un-punished. Violators are routinely slapped with steep fines. Still, the B&Bs of Cuba persist--and if they can do so there, they can do so anywhere.

Ironic, isn't it, that these diametrically opposed groups, utterly consumed with self-interest, should both be allied against the Mom & Pop B&B--a place where people from all walks of life can meet and talk while sharing the universal values of the comforts and security of home--and view it as some kind of threat? Only in Cuba you say? Don't be too sure!

1. U.S. citizens, you are not allowed to try this due to certain restrictions placed on your freedoms--and I'm so sorry! As consolation I invite you to visit my Cuban website at... íSaludos desde Cuba!

Back to Carriage House B&B Page