BERLIN – The bankruptcy of Thomas Cook Group Plc, the company whose founder is credited with inventing the modern tourist industry, is being blamed on Brexit, a series of bad management decisions and an unsustainable debt level. Perhaps, however, it’s worth looking at Thomas Cook’s failure as the beginning of the end of the tourism model the company helped create.
Thomas Cook’s rise from organizing train “excursions” for the masses in Britain to “Cook Pasha,” as he was known in the British-dominated Middle East and North Africa, is well-documented. Driven by the idea of distracting ordinary Brits from drink, the lay Baptist preacher lured them with the idea of going places and seeing things while never leaving their comfort zone. Eventually, Cook arrived at a concept that is still central to the tourist industry. As F. Robert Hunter wrote in a 2004 paper about Thomas Cook & Son, the modern company’s predecessor:
“The centerpiece of this new structure was the ‘Resort.’ Resorts were places dedicated to tourists. They could be sites of great scenic beauty, located in the mountains, or along coastlines. Mineral water locales, once reserved only for the sick, were becoming attractive to tourists. The resort contained a variety of accommodations, geared to different income levels. These ranged from the pension, to the hotel, to the grand hotel (containing hundreds of rooms). The most developed popular resorts had all three types of accommodation, with meals and other services.”
The resort also included a promenade, or strolling area, whose form (for example, the jetty at Brighton) varied. And it contained small armies of people hired to provide services to travellers — pageboys, waiters, chefs, nurses, physicians, tour guides, etc. To convey passengers quickly from their homes to the resorts and back again, tourist networks appeared. These comprised steamships, railways, and other means of conveyance, and a host of agencies, offices, and sub-offices. Tour agencies were established with their own staff and schedules. Promoters like Cook & Son created tourist “seasons” — fixed periods that corresponded to the most advantageous times for travel.
This was the invention of what researchers call “enclave tourism”: Whatever experiences — such as trips to various “exotic” locations or tourist adventures — can be organized out of the resort, the enclave holiday has the characteristics of an exhibition where visitors file past objects without interacting with them. As Waleed Hazbun from the University of Alabama wrote in 2007: “The enclave model thus facilitates expanding tourism volume and extending travel to new, unfamiliar territories despite little prior development of tourism facilities. Enclave tourism relies on a dedicated tourist infrastructure, which is easier to build than a public one but is generally used only for tourism purposes.”
Thomas Cook settled on the enclave model because he expanded his business to territories invaded and controlled by the British Empire, such as Egypt and the Sudan. The locals were often hostile to Europeans, especially the English, and neither the empire nor the local kings and sheiks had any interest in building European-quality infrastructure for everyone to use. So the tour organizer built its own — and bribed the locals to tolerate it.
“Those donkeys are subsidized by Cook; that little plot of lettuce is being grown for Cook, and so are the fowls; those boats tied up on the bank were built by the sheikh of the Cataracts for the tourist service with money advanced by Cook,” British journalist George Warrington Steevens wrote of the Cook operation in British-occupied Egypt.
In that way, Cook created whole worlds superimposed on the actual places and cultures that supported his business. We often still travel in these worlds. According to the U.K. tourism industry association, ABTA, in 2018, 49 percent of Britons traveling abroad bought a package tour, most of them because it meant “everything was taken care of” and many others because it was relatively cheap.
But even without a package, many travelers end up in resorts as Cook envisioned them, because the whole infrastructure of travel — airports, accommodation, opportunities for cultural exploration and fun with the kids — is geared to the model.
Let’s not kid ourselves: By booking flights and accommodation separately, and even by going with a service like Airbnb, we’re not really avoiding enclave tourism, just approaching it from a different angle.
At Thomas Cook itself, the management appeared to believe the enclave-tourism model was immortal, and it was simply a matter of serving to each generation the package that it prefers. In its 2019 Holiday Report, the company wrote of a shift in demand from the alcohol-soaked, nightlife-oriented vacations the under-35 clientele used to like, to “poolside yoga, nutritious dishes and contemporary cocktails designed by in-house mixologists.” “Today’s ‘Millennials’ and ‘Gen Z’ (those aged between 18 and 35) want to look after their bodies, shy away from one-night stands and hangover fry-ups, and favour wheatgrass smoothies (which make for better Instagram fodder),” the company wrote.
Thomas Cook chose to treat the most recent generational trends as fads. There’s increased demand for more sustainable travel? Sure, we’ll stop laundering towels as often as we used to, and advertise the same old resorts as eco-friendly. Tourists want “instagrammable” experiences? Sure, we’ll design them with a square picture frame in mind. Tourists want a “genuine local experience”? Difficult, but then, “genuine” is only an advertising label.
So far, there’s no statistical evidence that this approach is failing. Hotel occupancy rates are going up in most regions of the world. Overtourism is a problem, undertourism isn’t. But imagine for a moment that sustainability, simplicity, sincerity and the rejection of a colonialist mentality aren’t just fads — that society is actually changing. Then the failure of Thomas Cook will start to look like a symbolic event, a sign that an era is ending, not just the consequence of poor management and being headquartered in the wrong country.
Flight shame, the uncomfortable feeling that one leaves too big a carbon footprint by flying, is already undermining cheap air travel. Young people are increasingly uncomfortable treating locals at tourist destinations as their social inferiors, and their quest for experiences is impossible to satisfy with cookie-cutter tourist products. The locals still take the tourists’ money, but whenever I travel to popular tourist destinations, I sense an undercurrent of the same irritation that once informed the British poet William Wordsworth’s protest against mass train “excursions” to England’s Lake District: “As for holiday pastimes, if a scene is to be chosen suitable to them for persons thronging from a distance, it may be found elsewhere at less cost of every kind.”
At the same time, even in poor countries, the infrastructure is becoming navigable even for someone who has grown up in the West. Unpackaged travel, which allows more contact with one’s surroundings, is more accessible than ever, especially since it’s become easier to find accommodation online. It’s a world increasingly out of sync with the tourism industry as invented by Thomas Cook in the 19th century (plus a few bells and whistles).
I’m not predicting the end of seaside resorts, big hotels or packaged tours. There is a niche for them, just as there is one for vinyl records. It’ll probably remain a relatively big niche, too. But it won’t likely remain the dominant model for long, for all its legacy power.
Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg columnist.
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