Thomas Cook: Tourism and the rise of Britain's empire in the Middle East

Thomas Cook: Tourism and the rise of Britain's empire in the Middle East
Despite being synonymous with affordable package holidays, the Thomas Cook travel company, which collapsed this week, was once at the forefront of Britain's imperial expansion into the Middle East.
6 min read
26 September, 2019
The Jaffa Gate, Jerusalem, with a Thomas Cook travel agent sign, dated 1910. [Getty]
British travel empire Thomas Cook collapsed this week in financial ruin, bringing the curtain down on a 178-year-old company that revolutionised 19th century mass tourism in an era of nascent globalisation.

But despite now being synonymous with affordable package holidays, the company was once at the forefront of Britain's imperial expansion into the Middle East.

A product of the industrial revolution, mass tourism took advantage of the advent of steam travel, railways and improved technologies of communication in the mid 19th century.

At the British Empire's height, during the 'imperial century' from 1815 to 1914, Britain controlled the lives of some 400 million colonial subjects, and up to 20 percent of the world's territories. 

Thomas Cook, a 32-year-old former Baptist preacher, organised his first rail trip in 1841, ferrying members of the Victorian temperance movement, a Christian anti-alcohol group, to a campaign rally.

Initially employing the power of the railway to mobilise a religious movement dedicated to social reform, his vision soon burgeoned into a domestic enterprise of commercial trips across Britain.

As Western influence expanded globally through imperial conquest, the company took advantage of the establishment of colonies and protectorates, becoming a semi-official institution of empire that facilitated the movement of tourists, traders, missionaries and armies across the world.

Thomas Cook's World Ticket Office in Jerusalem. [Hulton Archive/Getty Images]

Mass tourism in the Middle East

After initial domestic successes, including bringing 150,000 travellers from rural England to London for the Great Exhibition of 1851, Thomas Cook took his first party of tourists to Egypt and Palestine in 1869.

Cook was reportedly present at the opening of the Suez Canal later that year, a project which provided Britain with shorter sea routes to its empire, above all India, and cemented the Middle East as a major focal point of British imperial interest.

"Tourists were part of the growing number of westerners—missionaries, teachers, traders, developers, bankers, messianic dreamers, and empire builders—who arrived each year in Jerusalem, Cairo, and other cities of the eastern Mediterranean," historian F. Robert Hunter wrote in the Middle Eastern Studies journal in 2004.

"The tourist enterprise accompanied British armies to Egypt and the Sudan in the 1880s and 1890s. Tourism was inseparable from the west's conquest of the Middle East."

A poster from 1930 promotes Thomas Cook tours
along the Nile River. [Getty]

Following the opening of the Suez Canal, Cook's company soon established tourist offices in Cairo in 1872, two Palestine offices in Jaffa and Jerusalem in 1874, and others in Algiers, Khartoum, Tunis and Constantinople/Istanbul. 

Ancient ruins and biblical sites on such tours included the Holy Sepulchre Church in Jerusalem, the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, Palmyra in eastern Syria, and Petra in Jordan.

The Cook & Son company also later reinvented the international tourist trade in Egypt through the Nile transit service.

While religious travel routes had long been established to the Middle East, Cook pioneered the creation of mass tourism for the European middle classes, with most having no experience of travelling so far abroad.

The advent of mass tourism, however, soon overlapped with Western military and political expansion in the Middle East and beyond.

In the 1880s Cook & Son opened offices in Calcutta, Bombay and Cape Town, with the firm providing banking services for British soldiers, arranging trips to the Raj for British tourists, and even receiving invitations to transport British notables and Indian princes to Queen Victoria's Jubilee in 1897.

Such activities earned Cook & Son the moniker of 'booking clerk to the Empire'.

The expansion of mass tourism to the Middle East was soon reflected in popular Western culture, with the 'Orient' becoming an exotic backdrop in British literature, especially the work of Agatha Christie in novels such as 'Death on the Nile' (1937) and 'Murder in Mesopotamia' (1936).

European painters also created exotic depictions of harems, Pashas and rural landscapes in what became known as Orientalist art.

But this 'discovery' of the Middle East, above all the Levant, through European mass tourism, and it's reproduction through ancient historical sites on tourist brochures, often reinforced the legitimacy of colonial rule.

One of Thomas Cook's newsletters from the 19th century, for example, featured an article 'France in Algeria: The romance of Algeria' at a time when the country was under brutal French colonial control.

Thomas Cook & Son, now run by John Mason Cook, was also recruited by the Ottoman government to organise Kaiser Wilhelm II's tour to Palestine in 1898, part of Germany's imperial designs to court the crumbling Ottoman Empire.

An advertisement for ‘Cook’s Nile Service’, a cruise on the Express Steamer ‘MS Hatasoo’ run by Thomas Cook and Son, circa 1900. [Getty Images]

Hajj in the age of empire

In the 1880s, the company offered one of the earliest package tours available, albeit to an unlikely destination.

The British Empire is thought to have ruled over half of the world's Muslim population at its height, with a growing number embarking on the Hajj pilgrimage to present-day Saudi Arabia.

A study of Britain's relationship with the Hajj during the age of empire by John Slight shows that the pilgrimage was a major concern for authorities, with its' effective management seen as a tool with which to appease Muslim colonial subjects.

"We are the greatest Mohammedan power in the world. It is our duty to study policies which are in harmony with Mohammedan feeling," Winston Churchill observed in a 1920 memo to the British Cabinet, according to Slight.

A ticket for travel to Jeddah from Bombay in 1886. [PA]

Significant cholera outbreaks propelled British authorities to oversee the mass travel of pilgrims, with the Cook company called in by the government in 1886 and given a contract, which amounted to a monopoly, to organise train and ship journeys and other logistics for Muslims in India to perform Hajj.

"It was one of the most significant unintended consequences of Britain's rule over a large part of the Islamic world," Slight wrote. "Britain ended up facilitating the pilgrimage in an ultimately futile attempt to gain legitimacy among its Muslim subjects".

An unintended consequence of Britain's management of the Hajj pilgrimage was that some Britons, including eminent Victorian explorer Richard Burton, travelled to Mecca and converted to Islam.

Britain's management of the Hajj pilgrimage was ultimately short-lived, as rival Muslim shipping companies regained control of the routes.

The Cook company became briefly state-owned as it helped to aid Britain's war effort in the 20th century, before becoming privately controlled.

This week, decades after colonial rule ended, Thomas Cook collapsed overnight, bringing its legacy in the Middle East to an abrupt end.

The company's disintegration will severely damage fragile tourism industries in Turkey, Tunisia and Egypt - which have seen a recent return of tourists after extremist attacks and political turbulence.

In all three countries, European tourists staying at seaside resorts on package holidays were a key source of revenue.

Just as Thomas Cook's meteoric rise was tied to Britain's global expansion, it's sudden demise seems linked to the declining influence of an inward looking Brexit Britain.

Charlie Hoyle is a journalist at The New Arab.

Follow him on Twitter @CharlieCHoyle