But this week, the company collapsed, leaving hundreds of thousands of travelers stranded all across the globe. Coming in the midst of discussions about the impact of overbooking on popular sites and the ways in which travel contributes to global warming, Thomas Cook’s bankruptcy seems like another warning sign that the age of widely accessible travel is at risk. But even if travel becomes harder to access, Thomas Cook’s insights about the value of getting away from home, and the company’s commitment to democratizing trips abroad, have been a gift to millions of people across multiple generations.
Cook, a Baptist preacher turned cabinet maker, pioneered mass tourism about 180 years ago as a way of giving workers something other than alcohol to distract them from the unregulated hours and unfair wages that were transforming their lives during the Industrial Revolution. The first of his “excursions,” as he called them, was a train trip from Leicester to Loughborough for a temperance meeting. But Cook knew this was also a pleasure trip — a different kind of escape.
An amateur printer, the skills that Cook applied to religious tracts enabled him to create enticing handbills and posters. “Advertising is to trade what stream is to machinery,” he once said.
Five hundred people signed up for that first trip, and Cook never looked back. His excursions widened from the British Isles to the continent and finally to the destination he’d eyed from the start — the Holy Land. The formula Cook and his descendants followed was simple: an inspiring journey, promoted via advertising, for a cut-price fare ensured by a group booking.
By the 1970s, Thomas Cook was no longer a family concern. But as a growing chain of travel agencies extended its reach, the company truly democratized travel, enabling families who had never ventured beyond the British seaside to experience the delights of “abroad.”
Plenty has been written about what went wrong later. Thomas Cook’s investments had forced it to become a tour operator, a hotel group and an airline — all at the same time. Its image had become fusty and tarnished. Above all, it failed to adapt convincingly to the digital era, instead choosing to reinvest in those cheery stores. It was already horribly in debt before Brexit fears caused many British travelers to scupper this summer’s vacation plans.
In the meantime, travel has been democratized in a different way. Rather than opt for a one-size-fits-all package, travelers can combine online booking with low-cost flights to build custom vacations. Families are opting for quirky Airbnb apartments instead of cookie-cutter hotel rooms. They prefer to avoid the selfie-stick brigade in favor of living like locals.
For those who follow travel trends, it’s possible that the demise of Thomas Cook signals the end of an era. Could mass tourism itself go into decline?
There’s a growing realization that, given air travel’s outsize contribution to carbon emissions, staying home — or traveling to closer places, preferably by train — is a far more climate-friendly vacation option. Long under pressure from volatile fuel prices, airlines now face “eco-taxes” such as the one imposed by the French government on all outgoing flights, due to go into force next year. These might lead to higher ticket prices.
At the same time, heavily visited destinations such as Venice are looking at tourists differently. That city’s mayor introduced a “tourist tax” to help preserve the World Heritage jewel. Similar destinations around the world have begun weighing the positive economic impact of tourism with the damage wrought to their environment and way of life.
Looking further ahead, there is even evidence to suggest that rising global temperatures could prevent planes from taking off during the hottest months of the year, when the thinner air hampers lift. In 2017, a number of planes in the U.S. West and Southwest were grounded by scorching weather.
The net result could be fewer people traveling less often around the globe — and paying more when they do.
Ironically, this will only reinforce travel’s timeless allure. Thomas Cook understood from the start that people will always want to escape, to slip not only into other places but other lives. His place in travel history is secure.