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The charter tour, round-trip fare, in-flight magazine, and traveler’s check were all standards of late twentieth century travel. But each was predicated on innovations introduced long before the age of commercial jet travel. Thomas Cook and Son Ltd., which filed for bankruptcy in September 2019, pioneered all these familiar set pieces of middle class tourism during the Victorian era, when tourism followed the course of the British Empire.

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“Thomas Cook” and “Cook’s Tours” were once synonymous with “travel.” Until recently, the Cook name was associated with “the world’s foremost travel services agency,” writes the scholar F. Robert Hunter from the heart of the company archives, near Cambridge, England:

The key to Cook’s success was invention of the hotel coupon (begun in 1868), used to pay for accommodations and meals; the circular note (from 1874), a kind of traveler’s check; round-trip fares at relatively low prices; and exceptional promotion skills. By the 1880s, these elements were in place and the age of mass tourism, appealing to the appetites of Europe’s growing middle classes, had begun. Cook and Son’s monopoly of mass tourism continued well into the 20th Century.

Although Cook and Son became international in scope, Hunter concentrates on the Middle East, a major site of tourism before the Second World War, and its postcolonial aftermath. Cook publications were a key component of their promotional strategy in the region. They explicitly “linked themselves with development and modernization.” References to “barbaric” and “uncivilized” places and peoples were commonplace.

Thomas Cook's World Ticket Office in Jerusalem.
Thomas Cook’s World Ticket Office in Jerusalem. Getty

Company newsletters, the Excursionist and the Traveller’s Gazette, were filled with the romance of the Nile (“Egypt Is So Gay Now,” 1902) and Biblical Palestine (“The Land that is Desolate,” 1913). As Hunter writes:

There is no doubt that Thomas Cook and Son became powerful and influential, but this was a power linked to and made possible by empire. Without the support of the British government and its diplomatic representatives abroad, Cook and Son would have achieved much less fame and fortune.

But this relationship was mutual. “The British government turned to Cook and Son for assistance in empire building,” Hunter continues. The examples he gives include the company’s shipping being used as an extension of the Royal Navy. Cook and Son conveyed the general staff of the occupying British Army to Egypt in 1882 and organized the evacuation of British wounded after the battle of Tel al-Kabir, that same year. Hunter quotes a British commentator, writing in 1898:

Egypt is now in the hands of two armies of occupation. One is composed of British soldiers, and the other of the men of Thomas Cook and Son. The latter generals have certainly taken possession of the Nile. The former are here to preserve order and insure good government.

Actually, they were there to insure the Suez Canal stayed in British hands.

Hunter ultimately recognizes that “there was only one power on the Nile—the British.” Empire prepared the way for tourism, and tourism reinforced empire. Their successors adapted Thomas Cook and Son’s tools of tourism for the aviation age.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story erroneously implied that Palestine was under British rule in 1913. British rule of Palestine didn’t begin until 1917.


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Middle East Studies Association Bulletin, Vol. 36, No. 2 (Winter 2003), pp. 157-164
Middle East Studies Association of North America (MESA)