Some 15 million Americans will visit Europe this year, a small part of a flood that helps reinforce Europe’s position as the most buoyant tourist market in the world. Despite economic uncertainties, Europe recorded a 5 percent increase in international tourist visitors in 2011, in some measure benefiting from the declining fortunes of the Middle East and North Africa (where tourist numbers were down 9 and 15 percent respectively last year).
Among the areas of Europe where business boomed were those countries most beset by economic misfortune. Greece, Portugal and Ireland all recorded double-digit growth in tourist numbers in 2011. Recession does nudge prices down, and budget-conscious tourists are quick to reap the benefits.
The Cook Connection
But cast back 150 years, before the days of mass mobility, and tourism was altogether a more select trade. In 1862, some 40,000 Americans visited Europe. Yet the travel game was not all one way.
A growing band of adventurous European travelers, particularly from Britain, were beginning to discover America as a vacation destination. Among them was a man called Thomas Cook, who had already established a formidable reputation in Britain for his appreciation of the nascent tourism industry.
Cook’s business had revolutionized tourism in Europe, with the amiable entrepreneur personally escorting tours to all the main “must-see” sights (often dubbed “the lions”) and to less explored territories. So Cook went to the US, full of expectation and just slightly miffed when, upon disembarking in New York, the United States customs levied a hefty import tax on his publicity materials.
Cook’s early efforts in the US met with a mixed reception. On the plus side, his company had a hand in fixing the first luxury cruise ever to depart from America’s shores, a moment that Mark Twain nicely recorded in Innocents Abroad. But not being a US citizen, Cook fell foul of US protectionism.
By 1872, the New York Times was bemoaning the fact that the USA had no home-grown Cook: “If we only had an American Cook, how much of the troubles of our tourists would be simplified,” opined the editor.
From travel tickets to travel finances
Thomas Cook & Son did eventually get a foothold in the US market, briefly engaging an American partner who turned out to be a scoundrel. In time Cooks grew to become an American institution as much as a British one, pioneering the use of hotels vouchers, travelers’ checks (then called “circular notes”) and allowing its American clients to book train tickets from one end of Europe to the other. Cooks would cover everything, providing reservations for the ocean crossing, for train journeys on European railways, meals and accommodation.
The First World War put a sudden stop to this brisk trade. And thereafter travel was never quite so simple as it had been in those halcyon days when an omniscient (and seemingly omnipotent) Cooks agent seemed to be available on every ship, at every quayside and on every railway station to smooth the path of novice travelers.
Those were indeed the days.