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Those Were the Days: Tourism before mass mobility

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A 1922 advertisement for Thomas Cook's Nile cruise. Photo: Wikipedia
A 1922 advertisement for Thomas Cook's Nile cruise. Photo: Wikipedia

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.

A Thomas Cook advertisement for the 1900 holiday season. Photo: Vintage Ad Browser

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.

Fighting Protectionism

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.

About the author

hiddeneurope

About the authors: Nicky and Susanne manage a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine.

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2 Responses to “Those Were the Days: Tourism before mass mobility”

Convenient as it was, that sounds like such a restrictive way to travel, and exclusive. The experience of an organized cruise (or, I suppose, a train ride) is still available to me but I feel like I can see so much more more cheaply staying in hostels and eating bread and cheese for lunch every day. My mom’s always idealized the cruise situation, but I prefer buses and RyanAir to identical port towns and seasickness.

Guido says:

I would vote for a sedate tour of Europe the Cooks way, rather than RyanAir any day, Ella. Thomas Cook really gave many travellers their first taste of independent travel. Better by miles than being herded by RyanAir.

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