With few exceptions, the trickle of British people who went on holiday abroad before the Second World War were looking for adventure or to better their minds, not to lie around on beaches. Foreign holidays were almost exclusively for the wealthy, starting when the aristocratic ‘grand tour’ of Europe became particularly fashionable in the 18th century. The hardships were many, but by the mid-19th century the coming of the railways made mass travel affordable. In 1841, Thomas Cook organised his first excursion, by train from Leicester to Loughborough. By 1855 he was leading tours to the continent and by 1866 to the United States, with his first round-the-world tour following in 1872. The focus of such excursions was usually on culture, adventure or health.
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By the turn of the century the first commercially organised British ski trips were heading for the Alps. Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle chose the Reichenbach Falls, above the Swiss mountain resort of Meiringen, for Holmes’s apparently fatal tussle with arch-rival Professor Moriarty, reflecting the growing popularity of walking holidays at that time.
The First World War halted most leisure travel, but as Europe started to recover after 1918 the first commercial flights took to the sky. By 1939 Thomas Cook was advertising holidays by air with a week in Cannes, in the south of France, costing £15/5s (about £930 in today’s money) – well beyond the financial reach of most people.
The Second World War again brought foreign holidays to a standstill, but tour operators of the 1930s including Thomas Cook, ski holiday company Inghams and Travel Club of Upminster found there was latent demand – which would be boosted by ex-servicemen wanting to revisit places in which they had fought. Travel Club resumed holidays to Europe in 1947, and its founder, Harry Chandler, recalled: “I painted a glowing picture of what Switzerland was like – plenty of food, shops full of goods, virtually pre-war conditions and a complete contrast to England at that time with its shortages, electricity cuts and hard times”.
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Travelling by rail or road across war-torn Europe wasn’t easy, and when a Russian émigré named Vladimir Raitz set up Horizon Holidays in 1950, he decided that his customers would fly from London to Corsica rather than undergo the 48-hour journey by rail and sea that he had made the previous year. By chartering a series of weekly flights to a beachfront campsite, he is generally considered to be the inventor of the package holiday.
The journey time by Douglas DC-3 aircraft, at a top speed of 170 mph, was a mere six hours, including a refuelling stop in Lyon. Horizon soon faced competition, but not from Thomas Cook, which preferred to operate cultural and adventure tours while acting as an agent for rail, sea, coach and air companies. Universal Sky Tours was set up in 1953, while pre-war companies including Sir Henry Lunn Travel and the Polytechnic Touring Association, which later merged to form Lunn Poly, also expanded into air travel.
The first charter flights certainly cut journey times dramatically compared to overland travel, but they were unreliable and expensive – and uncomfortable in bad weather. Other challenges facing charter flight pioneers were a shortage of suitable hotels, and a licensing regime requiring package holiday prices not to undercut the regular return air fare, which was very high. A company called Wings, set up in 1955 by the Ramblers’ Association, advertised package holidays to Portugal costing 49 guineas for two weeks (around £1,180 today), but had to withdraw them from sale after objections by British European Airways (BEA). BEA’s return fare to Lisbon, not including accommodation, was £54/18s (around £1,239). Restrictions on package holiday pricing lasted until the 1980s, by which time the demand for cheap holidays abroad was unstoppable.
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The big change came in the 1960s, as hotel construction developed rapidly in many Mediterranean countries but especially in Spain, where the fascist dictator General Franco saw tourism as a way of enriching a ‘backward’ nation. At the same time, larger and faster aircraft were becoming available to charter, bringing economies of scale, and restrictions on taking currency abroad were eased, though not yet abolished.
The booming economy and sense of fun and adventure that marked the 1960s encouraged tour operators of many kinds, with coach tours making use of better roads and rail tours continuing to be popular. But the most rapid growth was in air travel, with non-stop flights reducing the journey time to the Spanish island of Mallorca to four, and then three hours – whereas the journey by rail and sea a few years earlier took nearly 48 hours, including an overnight ferry from Barcelona. The arrival of the first jet aircraft in charter fleets by the mid-1960s reduced that journey time to two hours, which remains unchanged today.
Many of the package holiday pioneers were people who simply enjoyed travel themselves and fancied the idea of turning it into a business. They included a London taxi driver named Aubrey Morris, who set up Riviera Holidays, and three siblings whose Lord Brothers package holiday firm operated at first from their council house in Wimbledon, before rapid growth and relocation to Regent Street in the West End. Other pioneers were hardheaded businessmen, including Ted Langton of Universal Sky Tours and Norman Corkhill, whose Gaytours company (the word gay in this case meaning ‘merry’) started by selling end-of-season holidays to Blackpool’s seaside landladies.
When the Thomson Organisation, a Canada-based corporation with widespread media interests in the UK, decided to buy into the travel business in 1965, this was seen as a turning point. Big business saw the potential of package holidays, as Thomson acquired Riviera Holidays, Universal Sky Tours and Gaytours, names that disappeared within a few years. It also acquired Universal Sky Tours’ own charter airline, Britannia, and by the end of the 1960s Britannia was taking delivery of state-of-the-art Boeing 737 jets that transformed the economics and image of package holidays.
Thomson Holidays was soon to become market leader, its position secured after the demise of Clarksons, part of the massive Court Line group, which went bust in 1974 after the first global oil crisis hit demand and forced up prices. Clarksons grew rapidly from the mid-1960s, being the first major package holiday operator with a ‘pile-it-high, sell-it-cheap’ mentality. It led the way in Spain by funding the construction of hotels for its exclusive use, especially in Benidorm, as the resort grew from a village into a high-rise tourist city. But by the time it was taken over by Court Line – which also acquired Horizon during the oil crisis – Clarksons’ margins were wafer-thin. It looked like the all-too-brief era of package holidays had reached a premature end.
It was easy to start a tour operation in the 1960s – you needed no experience, and no financial backing. Only the airlines that provided the flights were licensed. Fly-by-nights came in and sometimes went bust, leaving people out of pocket or stranded abroad. Regulation and financial monitoring came slowly, and the government had to set up an emergency fund to rescue the customers of Clarksons and other failed operators. The money was recouped through a levy on all air packages, as regulation was tightened. Only in recent years have people lost money again in the collapse of travel firms, but they were not travelling on packages. A failsafe system to protect people when an airline goes bust has never emerged.
Despite the Clarksons collapse, the UK had got into the package holiday habit and it wasn’t long before other companies were growing to rival Thomson – especially Intasun, which shared Clarksons’ price cutting approach. By now people expected rock-bottom prices, and half-finished hotels, poor food and sanitation and other ills of an industry had developed too quickly.
Some travellers distanced themselves from the ‘sun and sangria’ image of the package holiday, but there were plenty of alternatives. City breaks, pioneered by companies including Time Off and Travelscene, were becoming popular. Skiing became mass market, with people visiting the same countries on ‘lakes and mountains’ holidays in the summer. Escorted tours had continued to grow, especially by coach and air but less so by rail. Adventure tour operators started to offer overland travel to Asia and Africa, appealing to a new generation who had the cash but wanted the organisation.
The biggest growth, outside sunshine packages, was in faraway or ‘long-haul’ holidays, led by a Swiss company called Kuoni, which started operating from the UK in the mid-1960s. Advances in aviation made faraway places increasingly accessible, with the Boeing 707 jet, which made its debut in 1958, cutting journey times dramatically. The Boeing 747 jumbo jet, first seen in the UK in 1970, was also a game-changer. With more than 400 seats it brought vast economies of scale, and ushered in the era of cut-price tickets. Tours and stay-put holidays were soon made affordable almost anywhere in the world. The United States and former parts of the British empire were the first to be discovered, but soon British people on some kind of package were turning up in the most unlikely places.
The 1980s were an era of huge growth in package holidays, as Intasun tried to knock Thomson off its perch. New technology made reservations simpler, and there was corresponding growth in the number of high street travel agents, with Thomas Cook being overtaken by Lunn Poly, part of Thomson. Discounting became rife as the last price controls were abolished, with Intasun becoming almost as big as Thomson until Thomson bought the then number three, Horizon. Intasun’s flamboyant founder, Harry Goodman, became a media personality, acquiring many other companies and setting up his own airline, Air Europe, to operate not only charters but also regular scheduled services, in advance of European Union deregulation of air travel.
But Goodman’s International Leisure Group (ILG), as it had become known, did not survive to reap the benefits of deregulation. It went bust in 1991, a major factor being the Gulf War of 1990–91 and Saddam Hussein’s threat to shoot down western civilian aircraft.
As in 1974, it appeared that the era of package holidays could be over – but it was not to be so. Another company, Airtours, grew rapidly to replace ILG as Thomson’s main rival. Airtours’ many innovations included charter flights to the Caribbean and mass-market cruise ships, and it also acquired tour operators in other countries as a foretaste of the multinational tour operations of the future. In the late 1990s, four large tour operating groups including Thomson, Airtours and First Choice went on a spending spree and snapped up many smaller names. The fourth player was Thomas Cook, which belatedly moved into mass-market tour operating by acquiring Sunworld, a company set up by ex-ILG people.
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All looked set fair for the 21st century, but the 9/11 terror attacks caused global panic and hit travel hard. At the same time, ‘no-frills’ or ‘low-cost’ airlines that grew out of deregulation in the mid-1990s started turning their attention to package holiday routes, having already undermined city break packages. Online booking of EasyJet, Ryanair and other airlines led to a boom in ‘do-it-yourself holidays’, with many online firms now offering accommodation bookings and resort transfers to go with the flight. The golden age of package holidays was finally over, with the ‘big four’ becoming the ‘big two’ in 2007 as Thomson merged with First Choice, and Thomas Cook with Airtours.
After more than four decades Thomson remains a market leader, although the TUI brand will replace it in 2017. Thomas Cook, which celebrated its 175th anniversary in July 2016, has experienced a turbulent few years, and package holiday operators – which gave so many people their first taste of foreign travel – have a much lower share than a decade ago. Escorted tour operators are generally faring much better, as more enter middle age with disposable income and time to spare. Many medium-sized companies have disappeared, but there are still plenty of small tour operators offering the kind of holidays that their owners enjoy. In some ways, then, the wheel has turned full circle.
Dave Richardson is the author of Let’s Go – A History of Package Holidays and Escorted Tours (Amberley Publishing, 2016). For more information, visit www.historyofpackagetours.co.uk
This article was first published on History Extra in July 2016