Travel for ‘the millions’

Thomas Cook was part of a revolution that brought tourism to the masses.

Butcher and Smith

Topics Culture UK

The demise of Thomas Cook is a tragedy for its 9,000 staff, and awful for the 150,000 holidaymakers who may lose out as a result. It is poignant, too. Thomas Cook was iconic of so much that is good about mass tourism.

The immediate cause of bankruptcy was its inability to secure an additional £200million in financing on top of the £900million already secured. Last year’s summer heatwave and, inevitably, Brexit have been touted as reasons for the company’s woes. But there are deep-seated and long-term shifts that provide more plausible explanations.

It is scant consolation to newly jobless staff, and soon to be married couples with cancelled honeymoons, but the old model of the high-street travel agent simply doesn’t fly like it used to. The tour-operator model strongly associated with Thomas Cook has proved difficult to adapt to an online world that enables anyone to book their fight, transfer and accommodation independently. Innovations such as Airbnb reinforce the trend to cut out the ‘middle man’ of the vertically integrated tour operator.

The steam age and the jet age may have facilitated the success of the package holiday, at home and abroad respectively, but the internet age has challenged the whole business model.

Thomas Cook – a self-made man who left school at 10 years old – founded his company in 1841. The first trip he organised was from Leicester to Loughborough by train (his statue stands at Leicester station). He went on to match the rapidly expanding rail network with the growing desire to travel. Cook’s holidays rapidly became part of an emerging mass leisure culture.

The new holidaymakers faced criticism. In the 1870s the Reverend Francis Kilvert wrote of meeting ‘a noisy rabble of tourists, males and females, rushing down the rocks towards the Land’s End as if they meant to break their necks, and no great loss either’. Victorian gent Sir Lesley Stephens referred to the lower orders on their holidays as a ‘swarm of intrusive insects’. Later, in the 1920s and 30s, the middle classes were alarmed to see the lower middle-classes following them to their regular European summer residencies. For the British poet Edith Sitwell, these tourists were ‘the most awful people with legs like flies, who come in to lunch in bathing costumes – flies, centipedes’.

To his great credit, Cook defended an optimistic, progressive view of mass travel rarely heard today: ‘These are the days of the millions [who can] o’erleap the bounds of their own narrow circle, rub off rust and prejudice by contact with others, and expand their sails and invigorate their bodies by an exploration of some of nature’s finest scenes.’ There was no presumption that these millions excluded women. Cook asserted that female customers were: ‘Heroines who required no protection beyond what the arrangements and companionships of the tour afforded.’

The company rapidly extended the geographical scope of its tours from the UK to Europe, Africa and eventually around the world. In 1950, a ‘Moon Register’ was established, with registrees rather optimistically promised a ticket to the Moon at the earliest possible date.

Thomas Cook, the firm, has changed of course. Son and partner John Mason Cook took the reins in 1878. It was nationalised along with the railways in 1948, and then later placed back in private hands in 1972.

After the Second World War, the jet engine revolutionised the industry. The rapid growth of foreign package holidays marked real progress, especially for people whose previous experience of travelling abroad may well have been on military service, with a gun and kit bag. Growing incomes, longer holiday entitlement and new opportunities meant that foreign travel became a truly mass phenomenon.

Cook’s ‘millions’ were now able to enjoy conviviality, sun and the culture of foreign climes. But as with most mass phenomena, critics of consumerism bemoaned the package holiday, and the holidaymaker, as somewhat crude and unadventurous. As one astute travel editor put it, ‘Disdaining tourists is the last permitted snobbery’. Although Brexit voters may now disagree with that assessment.

Recent decades have witnessed the mainstreaming of those prejudices, of those who condemn holidays and holidaymakers as selfish and destructive. For environmentalist protesters, who recently threatened to disrupt UK airports with drones to ‘save the planet’, Thomas Cook’s demise will not be unwelcome news. The jet engine, the innovation that powered the holidaymaking revolution, is now cited by these environmentalists as a reason to stay on the ground.

So it is worth asking the question: where is the Thomas Cook of our times, prepared to celebrate and plan for the desires of those joining the travelling classes? Who is prepared to champion the growth of tourism to the majority of Brits who may dream of a week under the Mediterranean sun, but who lack the means? From the left, where is the demand for Fully Automated Luxury Travel? From the right, where is the vision of growing tourism internationally to benefit the millions for whom a relaxing, convivial fortnight on holiday is a distant dream?

Thomas Cook is gone, and that is tragic. But its legacy should survive not just in memories and photographs, but as an inspiration to anyone who seeks to challenge the pessimism and misanthropy of today’s fashionable anti-tourism. We have all benefited from the vision, ambition and optimism of the man and the company that helped bring travel to ‘the millions’.

Jim Butcher is a lecturer at Canterbury Christ Church University.

Peter Smith is senior lecturer in tourism management at the University of West London.

They co-wrote the book, The lifestyle politics of international development, published by Routledge in 2015

Picture by: Getty

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Topics Culture UK


Al Hunter

29th September 2019 at 11:48 am

TC’s demise is indeed sad, but one suspects that (like all good capitalist markets) others will enter the void left behind and so whilst one brand has gone, other entrants will replace it.

I’m surprised (not) that the Environmental lobby have not been clambering over their solar panels to shout from their rooftops that TC’s demise is a good thing: it hits many of the targets at which they aim – fewer flights, fewer emissions, fewer oiks ruining the countryside etc. Or could it be that they are reluctant to engage with the real-world “person on the street” consequences of their policy aims?

Why is Rebecca L-B asking for taxpayer money to be used to pay for insurable (and in the case of ATOL repatriation, already insured) risks and why instead isn’t she trumpeting that this exactly the re-balancing that the Eco lobby demand?

If they were honest about their world view, the ruined honeymoons and loss of jobs are just necessary, acceptable collateral damage in the march of their Green agenda. The silence is deafening.

Jim Lawrie

25th September 2019 at 11:20 am

The directors set up a remuneration scheme based on the share price. With that in place they went on the acquisition trail and massively inflated the share price. The damage was done and discovered as far back as 2014, but they were well motivated to cover up and continue. What they bought with borrowed money was a load of old dross that produced virtually nothing in revenue and was worthless. The value of these acquisitions was last year belatedly written down by their accountants, but the other side of the balance sheet still showed the borrowings. Ergo, trading insolvent. Bear in mind that the Chinese suitors were hoodwinked into pumping in around £1bn. The game was up when they refused to put in more.

FX rates had nothing to do with it and in any case were hedged. Profits for incoming tourists to the UK these last 3 years have been massive.
Much of their business was overseas. 600,000 left flightless. 150,000 stranded was the number of Brits. Do the 450,000 Johnny foreigners and their weans no count?

Mike Ellwood

5th October 2019 at 7:11 pm

So it sounds like capitalism gone rogue was the problem, while the core business was still basically sound. And it’s not like people had stopped using them, or else not so many people would have been left stranded.

I checked, and we last used them 5 years ago to go to Tenerife, but that was flights only (booked online), not a package, as we’d booked a villa separately. Would quite happily have booked a package with them in other circumstances, and I don’t see why their model couldn’t fit the online world.

For 200 poxy million, the government could easily have stepped in (with the quid pro quo being that the rogue element would have got the old heave ho, and their affairs closely scrutinised). Or even nationalised them again on a temporary basis. I know, I know, socialism. We can’t be having that.


25th September 2019 at 9:54 am

You persist in having your cake and eating it. You want travel for the masses, but Brexit has made it 20% more expensive by the drop in the value of the pound. What’s more, travellers between the UK and Europe will soon be subject to criminal record checks, more stringent than the Good Character test used when people apply for British citizenship.

Jerry Owen

25th September 2019 at 11:08 am

We don’t have Brexit.
What is wrong with a test for criminality, all countries like to know who is entering their country. Have you not heard about the terror attacks in this country carried out by people freely traveling through Europe ?


25th September 2019 at 12:42 pm

Countries have the right to stop people who are being actively sought by police and hand them over at the border. But not to stop people enjoying the same freedom to travel as everyone else after they have served their sentence, been deemed fit to rejoin society and to hold a passport.
The Good Character test for British citizenship clearly sets out how severe a past criminal offence (as measured by length of prison sentence) may be and how recent it needs to be for an application to be refused. No such rules are set out either for the Settlement Scheme for EU citizens, or for the ETIAS system which will apply to non EU citizens travelling to the EU after 2020, meaning that people can in theory be turned away for a speeding ticket 20 years ago.

Jim Lawrie

25th September 2019 at 11:23 am

I have no idea what you are trying to say or what your point is.

Jerry Owen

25th September 2019 at 3:51 pm

I didn’t expect you to respond to my point about terrorism .. and I am proven correct.
I like your ‘theory’ about speeding tickets, is that your best shot ?

James Knight

25th September 2019 at 5:40 pm

If the pound is weaker it is good for travel for the masses as more tourists may come to the UK and hopefully spend money here.

Steve Roberts

25th September 2019 at 8:55 am

Smashing article from Butcher and Smith with interesting questions.
It is quite interesting that while many capitalist enterprises and states – at least superficially and often enthusiastically for their own needs – support all things sustainable etc the travel industry does not seem particularly affected in the mass market area. Yes there are the middle class moralists with their smug virtue signalling treks, but nonetheless mass tourism continues to grow, which is wonderful and no doubt some other company will take up where TC failed.
So it can be claimed that the spirit of TC it’s infancy is still pursued by the masses, we want more and should demand it, we want to fly and explore and broaden our lives, it appears some capitalist enterprises will continue to buck the mainstream trend and provide that very product that consumers desire.
And then of course we have the real problem in the middle, yes the miserabilist, misanthropic enviro’s in their varying guises, as usual a minority, a loud and shouty one, sod them all, lets enjoy our lives and make the world a place all can enjoy, we don’t want any of that disdainful “..oh it used to be so nice here until those people found it too.. “

Jerry Owen

25th September 2019 at 11:12 am

Steve Roberts
We have the irony of the ‘miserablists’ calling Brexiteers inward looking ‘little Englanders’ but low cost mass travel that allows ‘little Englanders’ to taste other cultures and broaden their cultural horizons should be banned.
What was it they say about double standards and the left !

Hana Jinks

26th September 2019 at 7:43 am

Jerry Oven-Kraut.

You remember what a twit and a pommie-whacker l made Peeved Gobbett’s look, and will continue to do so. So is this about pommie-whackers sticking together? You vile little creep.

Gerard Barry

25th September 2019 at 4:43 pm

I recently saw statistics for flights taken by Germans last year (I live in Germany myself) and they were at a record high. Surprising in a way given the way the Greens are doing so well here! If people aren’t careful, those f*****s will be in power some day and could well put an end to people’s trips abroad.

Hana Jinks

26th September 2019 at 7:41 am

What is the point of inflicting all these facile burblings on us, Peeved Gobbett’s?

Stephen J

25th September 2019 at 8:03 am

As is usual, if you want someone to mess something up… nationalise it.

The civil service has a knack of turning business principals on their head. They take no notice of any of the warnings that a more agile private company would make, civil servants just don’t need to, they can develop inefficiency so that it is all pervading.

So, like a number of other re-privatised businesses, they had developed a sort of porridge like approach to business, they bought into high street shops, when everyone else was selling out. They bought their own planes, when everyone else rents them. They failed to use the internet in any meaningful way.

In short they got what they deserved.

Finally, like most companies they are at their best when the founder is still in full control, when he employs the accountants and auditors, rather than the reverse, where the accountants are in charge of bringing their company to its knees.

Jerry Owen

25th September 2019 at 8:01 am

Our flight back from abroad on Monday was with Thomas Cook.. 10 hours after it went out of business. We were fortunate in that we got another flight to Gatwick only four hours later than scheduled, others we spoke to returning elsewhere were not so lucky.
We returned to a wet UK the bus taking us from the plane to the terminal went via many parked up planes, several were Thomas Cooke planes . A very sad sight indeed. The 200 million needed was peanuts in the big scheme of things , our government could have bought a share in the company and kept a British world wide known business going. The reality now is that it will cost more than that to repatriate everyone back home.
A sad ending indeed.

Jerry Owen

25th September 2019 at 8:04 am

Just as an aside, we got talking to a couple behind us… The topic of Brexit came up …two Brexiteers became four .. they were as passionate as us for Brexit. Their views on climate change were the same as ours.
Every cloud ….!

Stephen J

25th September 2019 at 8:28 am

I am not so sure, even notwithstanding its “brand status”, I reckon that the writing was on the wall from the day that it was privatised. The civil service had insinuated its “work” ethic throughout the company.

You could walk into one of its shops and witness a bunch of long serving staff busily working away at their administrative duties., cursing under their breath every time a nuisance customer entered the shop.

Hana Jinks

26th September 2019 at 7:47 am

Here’s Jerry the Red – “Let’s use more of everyone else’s money to subsidize corporate theft.”.

You make me sick, Babydoll.

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