In September 2019, Thomas Cook filed for compulsory liquidation, leaving 600,000 customers stranded abroad. It was a sorry end to a company that had lasted 178 years and survived both world wars. Founded by a Baptist preacher who began organising railway trips to Midland cities for local temperance societies, the company grew into one of the largest travel agencies in the world, thanks to the transformation of tourism from an activity for the idle rich to an experience open to all.
This opening up of travel is the story Lucy Lethbridge tells in Tourists, taking the reader from the last years of the Grand Tour to the first years of the package holiday. The book follows a broadly chronological structure, while also discussing popular activities such as hiking in the mountains, caravanning by the coast and sketching trips to classical sites and foreign capitals. Her focus is mostly on Europe, and the experiences of everyday travellers, the chapters filled with quotations from letters and diaries, as well as the guidebooks that accompanied them abroad. In between, we get brief histories of souvenirs and postcards, spa towns and water cures, upmarket campsites and working-class walking tours.
It’s remarkable how many widely held views about holidays were inventions of the tourist industry – for example, the idea that mountain air might be healthy, or that lying in the sun might be fun, or that foreign food might be preferable to the dishes found at home. The industry also had to convince people that going abroad was an adventure rather than an inconvenience, and that doing nothing was a legitimate pastime for people other than the elderly and infirm.
It’s equally remarkable how many tourists’ complaints have been around for a long time.