The bulk of The Talented Mr. Ripley takes place in mid-twentieth century Italy, but its main characters aren't Italian: they're wealthy Americans traveling in order to see more of the world, enhance their own reputations, or mingle with upper-class society. Travel to Europe, for these Americans, is a way of showing off and spending one's wealth, or of cultivating the appearance of wealth. Indeed, for much of American history, leisure travel was considered an activity for elites. This applied not only to international travel, which could be enormously expensive and arduous, but to domestic trips. After all, early American society in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was primarily agricultural, and even successful subsistence farmers didn't have much time or money for vacations. To the extent that elites traveled recreationally, they usually did so by visiting spas or traveling to climates deemed beneficial to their health. More or less parallel norms existed in Europe. There, most people didn't have the option to take vacations, but the rich might go to a spa town like Bath, England, seeking to benefit from mineral spas.
One of the obstacles to recreational travel prior to the nineteenth century was transportation: traveling solely by horse and buggy or ship made unnecessary voyages dangerous, long, and unpleasant. Those who did manage to traverse long distances, whether for leisure or out of necessity, were likely to stay for a long while. This changed after the building of railroads in the mid-nineteenth century. Train travel, while still slow by today's standards, made previously long journeys suddenly manageable. By the following century, cars had become a staple of American family life, making it even easier for middle-class Americans to travel for fun. For Tom Ripley and his peers, living in a society where domestic tourism is no longer available solely to elites, international travel remains imbued with an aura of exclusivity and mystique. Still, even trips to Europe became more accessible in the years following World War I. In particular, women became far likelier to travel abroad alone during this period. Later, even air travel became affordable for the middle class: Pan Am began offering inexpensive tourist-class tickets overseas in 1952. Altogether, these changes—alongside the increased number of Americans with disposable income and leisure time—meant that travel to Europe increased greatly during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Indeed, between 1820 and 2000, it increased at an average rate of 5% per year.
Even in the earliest days of American travel to Europe, when recreational visits were exceedingly rare and limited to a privileged few, Italy occupied an outsize position in the touristic imagination. While Americans were likely to tour other European countries, Italy was generally viewed as the indispensable core of the trip. In the 1800s, American artists—especially visual artists—sought inspiration in Italy, associating it with both romance and Renaissance artistry. In the 1930s, American cruise ships brought tourists to the Mediterranean coast of France and Italy. Furthermore, while fascism and war in Italy did a great deal of economic harm to the country and temporarily brought tourism to a halt, two world wars also introduced a diverse group of American soldiers to Europe. In the postwar years, as Europe's economies recovered from the devastation of the early 1940s, these visitors and their families returned.
In general, Americans' access to European nations has followed a pattern: options available to the powerful and wealthy have slowly become accessible to greater swaths of the population, leading to the eventual evolution of mass tourism. Tom Ripley and his friends do their best to prove that they belong to the select group of elites who have long made Europe a second home, rather than to the swelling ranks of middle-class visitors taking short, budget-friendly tours. Therefore, Tom and his peers strain to separate themselves from the typical American tourist of their era, who was likely to visit for short periods. They spend money conspicuously, rent grand homes, and take language lessons.