The History of the Gap Year

The History of the Gap Year

The origin and development of the student gap year tradition.

In a limited sense, the ‘gap year’ concept resembles the ‘trick-or-treat’ phenomenon – at first, no one had heard of it. Then, overnight, everyone did it, though they were never completely sure why! On the assumption there is a grain of truth in such an observation, let’s look at how gap years actually came to be.


Essentially an idea born in the 1960’s, it seems international cultural exchanges first prompted and popularised the notion of a purposeful youth-travel experience. During this period of rapid social and cultural transformation, it became clear young people wished, and were expected, to do more than simply inherit the world as handed down by their parents. Confidence, aspiration and expectation were encouraged at every level in society, simultaneously creating optimum conditions for the gap-year concept to flourish.

Many 60’s travellers were seeking alternative spiritual and/or lifestyle options which led them to explore India, with its rich mix of cultures, and similar exotic destinations. So the ‘hippie highway’ from Delhi to Goa came into being, and is still going strong to this day.

The Project Trust, a small educational charity, sent three young volunteers to Addis Ababa in 1967 to support Ethiopia’s development as a nation. Apart from the desire to help other nations, the Trust also hoped the young people would ‘develop their skills and learn to live independently.’ Thus the ‘volunteer ethos’ emerged, and has remained a constant ever since.

Gap-year pioneers

The concept of a gap year grew and developed throughout the 70’s. Individual champions tested routes and innovative modes of travel, inspiring others to take the plunge and do likewise. Graham Turner, an Australian living in London, purchased his own double-decker ‘magic bus’ in 1973, and drove a bunch of youthful fare-paying passengers all the way to Kathmandu. Soon after, Tony Wheeler achieved a similarly remarkable overland trek to Asia, and later wrote a best-seller about the experience. His company, Lonely Planet, now dominate the travel-guide market.

During 1977, UK-based, GAP Activity Projects, began to arrange placements specifically for volunteer opportunities for school-leavers wishing to travel abroad for a year before starting university. Though essentially recycling the model established by The Project Trust in the 60’s, this ‘gap year’ initiative was nevertheless the first time ‘gappers were defined as a social group. Beginning a year later in 1978, Raleigh International launched Operation Drake sponsored by the Prince of Wales and others. A global gap-year project for young people, Operation Drake kick-started the concept of a world trip as a popular gapper option.

The gap year industry

Gap year projects snowballed through the 80’s and into the 90’s. Hippies updated to backpackers; whilst international travel became simpler, acceptably safer, and so much cheaper. Thus a post-school gap year became a common option with CV-enhancing potential. Sensing a business opportunity like others before him, Tom Griffiths set up in 1998 as an online social network. This portal for gappers facilitated the sharing of experiences, inspired innovative technologies, and generally established as a global platform for the new-millennium community of gap-year students.

Now a feature of the global travel industry, gap year travel is more accessible than ever. The current top five gap-year destinations, in ascending order, are Peru, South Africa, USA, Australia and Thailand.

Though the gap year concept has evolved over the years, the travel element has remained constant. Life experience is now highly valued by employers and, as the world shrinks, so the multi-cultural dimension of our own lives increases. Thus, more than ever, the gap year remains a great way to ‘grow individuals’.