Could the demise of Thomas Cook mark a new beginning for the tourism industry?

Could the demise of Thomas Cook mark a new beginning for the tourism industry?

A passenger walks past a closed Thomas Cook office at Palma de Mallorca airport on 23 September 2019.

(AP/Francisco Ubilla)

Some big and startling numbers have been thrown about in the grim aftermath of Thomas Cook’s collapse.

Roughly 600,000 tourists were left stranded when the world’s oldest travel company ceased trading on 23 September 2019. The United Kingdom began its biggest ever peacetime repatriation of 150,000 holidaymakers. At least 21,000 people worldwide lost their jobs.

Hotels in Tunisia, Turkey and Egypt were left with unpaid bills running into millions of euros. Turkey said it expects at least 600,000 fewer visitors a year as a result of the collapse. Egypt too spoke of 100,000 cancelled bookings well into next year. The Gambia, mainland Africa’s smallest country, faced the doleful prospect of millions of dollars in lost foreign exchange earnings because Thomas Cook folded just before the start of its peak tourist season in October. Tourism accounts for more than 20 per cent of The Gambia’s US$1.6 billion GDP and Thomas Cook – which also ran hotels and an airline, as well as tour operators in 18 countries – brought in nearly half of all its visitors.

In Spain, at least 500 hotels were said to be preparing to close because Thomas Cook will no longer be funnelling in British holidaymakers on charter flights. Greece, which received three million visitors a year via Thomas Cook, estimated losses of at least €300 million. In Cyprus, Thomas Cook’s fifth most popular summer destination for 2019, hoteliers forecast losses of roughly €50 million from unpaid bills for July, August and September.

How could the collapse of one company, that too a mere travel operator, shake so much of the world? Thomas Cook wasn’t in any of the sectors that normally produce corporate powerhouses and national champions – healthcare, financial services, consumer products, construction, energy, security, e-commerce, big tech. But Thomas Cook was not the usual corporate titan.

Thomas Cook invented tourism as we now know it, commodifying places and peoples, and packaging experiences in digestible, accessible chunks that turned the travellers of yore into tourists. Its business model, originally deeply entwined with the British empire, served a market that can be understood by parsing Florence Nightingale’s pronouncements on Egypt. The pioneering British nurse, an angel of mercy known for her grace and nursing abilities, offered a perspective shocking today but not out of place in her time. “Egypt to the European is all but uninhabited,” she said. “The present race no more disturbs this impression than would a race of lizards, scrambling over the broken monuments of such a star. You would not call them inhabitants, no more do you these”.

That partial view of Egypt, one of the world’s oldest civilizations, went unchallenged by Thomas Cook’s package tours. Arguably, they solidified it, enabling the construction of what Professor Edward Said has called “imaginative geographies” about the ‘Orient’. Today, that would be understood as countries in east Asia, but at the time, the reference was to the perceived exoticism of the Middle East region. Eventually, this would lead to the patronising mindset that Said, founder of the field of postcolonial studies, defined as Orientalism. In fact, it could justifiably be seen as one of the reasons that most of the western media focus has been on the effect of Thomas Cook’s collapse on its European employees, rather than on the many thousands more, further afield, who have also lost their jobs.

Time to reimagine mass travel

Thomas Cook’s demise does not mean the end of its 178-year legacy. That the aftershocks of its sudden end will continue to be felt far and wide – and especially in the 25 small countries most dependent on resort tourism – underlines the extent to which the worldwide sector continues to be bound up in the model pioneered by Thomas Cook.

That said, Thomas Cook’s end could be a beginning. It could be a chance for cities, countries and regions to reimagine travel as an organic and authentic discovery of the different ways in which the planet is one. What this would mean is a different-strokes-for-different-folks approach to travel, rather than the Thomas Cook concept of moving large numbers of westerners through foreign places in a way that never allows the locales and locals to become genuinely familiar or relatable.

Cultures that pride themselves on vibrant family networks could offer homestay holidays rather than high-rise hotels. Those that revolve around a particular style of cuisine could stress that aspect by means of, say, a week of cook-and-eat sessions with different hosts. Millennials want meaningful encounters with new places, people, cultures and foods, and that means the commercial packages created in the late 19th century just won’t do. From the ‘enclave tourism’ of the Thomas Cook era then, there could now be diverse community-based travel schemes that rely on local strengths. Some examples of these already exist, but not enough, and they are certainly not yet a template for global tourism.

As Philip Scranton and Janet F. Davidson note in their 2007 academic offering, The Business of Tourism, Thomas Cook’s enclave tourism relied on a dedicated tourist infrastructure, which greatly restricted the diffusion of industry profits across the local economy as well as meaningful human connections.

The point of a new travel model would be to forge the real linkages that enrich the visitor just as much as the people and the place they have visited. This has never been more important. The demonisation of migrants in Europe and in Donald Trump’s America is creating an acute sense of the West under siege by the ‘other’. There is a growing hostility worldwide to foreigners, especially those fleeing conflict or seeking refuge from persecution at home. A lengthening list of countries that have traditionally hosted migrants and asylum seekers – from Jordan and India in Asia, to Peru and Trinidad and Tobago in the Americas – are forcing refugees to leave. In these circumstances, travel is more necessary than before – to truly broaden the mind and challenge the notion of foreignness. While this should be everyone’s right, this privilege is generally only extended to those with the ‘right’ passports and the means to experience non-essential travel.

Of course, it would be fanciful and absurd to call time on the culture – and logic – of package tours just because Thomas Cook has failed. The company made several bad business decisions in recent years, while in the past decade, package holidays’ market share has only grown, against trips booked as separate components. That said, the Swedish concept of flygskam or ‘flight shame’ for environmental reasons appears to be spreading, with climate activists exhorting people to eschew air travel unless absolutely necessary. All of this is bound to affect the tourism model – and about time too.

Tourism accounts for nearly 3 per cent of the world’s GDP according to the World Travel and Tourism Council and employs 5 per cent of the global workforce. The United Nations’ World Tourism Organisation estimates that in 2030 there will be nearly two billion travellers. Since 2012, China has been the world’s biggest source of tourists, accounting for 70 per cent of global tourism growth, according to the McKinsey Global Institute. This expansion of tourism from middle-income countries with a growing middle class means an inversion is underway. Places that once received tourists are now sending visitors abroad. The West is a destination for the Chinese and for travellers from other emerging economies. In that sense, the Thomas Cook model survives in the reverse. The West now has an opportunity to explain itself better to visitors from overseas, rather than simply serving as a stage set for selfies.

Overall though, it’s clear that travellers everywhere will continue to want relatively affordable and well-managed opportunities to visit new places. But in the next phase of mass tourism, these would be curated without being artificial; a distinction that can best be understood as the contrast between relaxed family photographs and carefully composed shots uploaded to Instagram. How that is achieved is a challenge, but more to the point, an opportunity. It must be seized.