The rise and fall of the package holiday

The demise of Thomas Cook, a travel industry titan, has generated plenty of airtime. Newspaper headlines have focused on refund frustration, stranded holidaymakers and deserted beaches following the company going into administration, but where did it all go wrong?

To many of us there is an incredulity surrounding the collapse of the world’s oldest travel company, the founder of affordable mass market tourism. The slogan, ‘don’t just book it…’ is as ingrained in our national conscience as the Milk Tray man and Tufty the Green Cross Code squirrel. When Thomas Cook organised his first excursion in 1841, a tour by train from Leicester to Loughborough for a group of temperance campaigners, he could not have foreseen the explosion of the package holiday.

Progressing from rail tours in England and Scotland, Thomas Cook organised his first overseas trip in 1855, a grand tour of Belgium, Germany and France. Offering travel, food and accommodation for the very first time.

An advert for Thomas Cook’s first package train journey
📷 THOMAS COOK

In 1919 Thomas Cook & Son became the first travel agent in Britain to advertise airborne pleasure trips; by 1939 the company was offering holidays by air to the South of France. The cost of air travel was prohibitive in these early days, and by no means a mass market option.

The advent of World War II, swiftly followed by the post war years prevalence of the great British seaside holiday and Butlins, put foreign travel on ice.

By the early ‘50s there was a wind of change; more than a million Britons were travelling abroad each year, mainly to France, Italy, Spain and Switzerland. In 1950 newly founded Horizon Travel introduced charter flights between London and Corsica. Followed by Palma, Majorca, Lourdes, the Costa Brava and Sardinia.

It was in 1954 that amendments to the Convention on International Civil Aviation allowed for a surge in mass tourism proper, heralding the arrival of charter planes. British European Airways started flights to Valencia in Spain in 1957 and the name “Costa Blanca” came into being, created by travel companies keen to promote tourism. By the 1960s, hotel construction was rapidly developing across Spain and the Mediterranean.  Thomson Organisation – later Thomson Holidays and now TUI – decided to buy into the UK travel business.

Despite blips in the package holiday boom, including the crash of Horizon in 1974, the industry rallied through the ‘80s and ‘90s. Further security measures were put in place including, crucially, the 1990 EU Package Travel Directive, offering protection to travellers on packages in the case of a tour-operator or airline failure.

Meanwhile the arrival of online-bookable budget airlines led to the surge in ‘do-it-yourself holidays’. The golden age of package holidays arguably began its downward descent when the ‘big four’ became the ‘big two’ in 2007, as Thomson merged with First Choice, and Thomas Cook with Airtours. More recently, DIY holidays have been given a further boost with the arrival of Airbnb and Airbnb Experiences, enabling travellers to easily curate their perfect, affordable trip.

Airbnb Experiences
📷 Airbnb

Writing in the Telegraph, Nick Trend has blamed the demise of Thomas Cook on a failure to reinvent itself in a digital age, calling it a “debt-ridden dinosaur”.

It’s not all doom and gloom. Last year ABTA, the UK’s leading association of travel agents and tour operators, reported a rise in the proportion of holidaymakers booking a package. ABTA Chief Executive Mark Tanzer believes that the failure of Thomas Cook is more to do with financial exaggeration than a failure of travel itself, and he expects the industry to rally.

“Far from signalling the demise of the package holiday, the Thomas Cook failure has been its vindication,” he said at their recent conference.

And of course, any Thomas Cook customer who had booked flight-only should be covered by the scheduled airline failure clause of their travel insurance policy.

One thing’s for sure, whether you’re booking a package or prefer the DIY holiday approach, it pays to do your research and speak to travel insurance experts.

Wherever your travels are set to take you, make sure you’re covered. Contact us for more details and a no-obligation quote.

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