Evolution of German tourism and fall of Thomas Cook

Published on : Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Traffic jams snaking down the highway and endless queues at airport counters has become the familiar sight of summer holidays in Germany these days. But how did it come to this after centuries since German pilgrims became some of the first “real” travellers.

 

Over time, travel destinations, modes of travel and the purpose of travel have significantly changed.

 

Hasso Spode, who heads the Historical Archive on Tourism at the Technical University of Berlin, estimates that package tourism, which made up the primary business of the once huge and now bankrupt travel company Thomas Cook, still accounts for 40-50 per cent of the travel volume today. “But the zenith has been reached,” he said.

 

“Tourism is a journey without an actual purpose,” said Spode, while travellers once always had a mission. “For example, pilgrims wanted to find salvation, conquer the conquerors,” said Spode.

 

In the 18th century, however, people began to travel for fun. Vacation as “paid leisure time for the purpose of recreation” was, according to Spode, a European invention emerging from the period of industrialisation.

 

In July 1881, Englishman Thomas Cook organised the first railway journey of 570 activists of the Leicester Abstinence Movement to nearby Loughborough. The train journey in an open wagon in the 3rd class, which did not include seats, cost one schilling per person.

 

But the aim was not to earn money. Instead, the lay preacher Cook wanted to guide people away from the local pub and the gin bottle. “Connecting people with people and people with God” was his motto. The cost of the trip also included a ham sandwich and a cup of tea.

 

A sort of social tourism likewise began to emerge in Germany, organised by charities and trade unions. The hiking association “Naturfreunde,” for example, offered hiking tours for workers.

 

The leisure-time organisation “Kraft durch Freude” (Strength Through Joy, abbreviated KdF), founded by the Nazis in 1933, organised some 43 million trips. Propaganda pictures of the KdF show Germans relaxing on deck chairs on elegant cruise ships.

 

The legacy can still be witnessed on the island of Rügen. Indeed, by the beginning of the war, KdF tourism had come to an end.

 

With the German economic miracle of the 1950s and rapid development after the war, the travel budget grew, as did the desire of Germans to travel. This was helped with national paid vacation leave for employees that first emerged during the Weimar Republic, and which was increased to two weeks per year after the war, and to three weeks in the 1960s.
“Mass tourism slowly began to emerge,” said Sina Fabian, historian and cultural studies researcher at Berlin’s Humboldt University. “You could book with a tour operator and don’t have to organise it yourself.

 

The development of tourism packages and growing access to cheaper travel became cheaper resulting in a “democratisation of travel,” said Spode.

 

And by the 1970s, large passenger jets were making transport to faraway travel destinations more affordable. The Spanish island of Majorca was condescendingly dubbed the “cleaning women’s island,” implying that even cleaners can afford a trip there. Beaches around the Mediterranean Sea were dominated by German sun worshipers and sarcastically dubbed “Teuton grills.”

 

It wasn’t until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 that former East Germans could do as the West Germans did and explore the world on holiday. “Freedom to travel” (Reisefreiheit) becomes the word of the year in 1989.

 

“The tourist destroys what he or she is searching for the moment he or she finds it,” wrote German author Hans Magnus Enzensberger back in 1957, referring to the hordes who were already descending on holiday destinations.

 

Today, classic European holiday destinations such as Greece, France, Portugal or Spain are visited by more tourists every year than they have inhabitants, turning entire villages into “human zoos” and causing irreparable environmental damages.

 

But the growth of online flight, hotel or restaurant reservations has ultimately sounded the death knell for the traditional travel company, Thomas Cook, with Hasso Spode referring to the “individualisation of travel planning” marking a new era in the rapidly evolving tour and travel business.

 

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