Brit-Yank freelance journalist roving around the Middle East.
Currently writing about regional geopolitics for National Geographic and others.
Egypt was awash with foreign visitors in the early months of 1869. Reporters and shipping agents came for the opening of the soon-to-be completed Suez Canal. Archaeologists poured in, extra suitcases in hand, to delve into the country’s pharaonic past. On top of the usual cast of missionaries, mercenaries and rapacious international museum collectors, Cairo hoteliers had never had it so good.
But the arrival of the year’s most consequential band of travelers passed pretty much unnoticed. Sailing into Alexandria on February 4 after three days at sea, 28 unassuming-looking Britons disembarked in the early hours, ignored by all but the porters vying for their business. In a city long accustomed to colorful characters, not even the appearance of a tall, fastidiously dressed figure at the head of the group could arouse much curiosity.
The locals didn’t know it yet, but it was the very ordinariness of these new arrivals that set them apart. Led by a cane-wielding Thomas Cook, this bunch of mostly middle-aged professionals and retirees was the advance guard of a business that would soon reshape international travel. They were, in many ways, the very first modern tourists.
Up until that point, travel for travel’s sake had largely been the preserve of the affluent and time-rich. These early vacationers often toured with large retinues, engaging local dragomans to guide them at great expense along the way. Without jobs or pressing deadlines to return to, they’d sometimes spend months unhurriedly floating from the great art collections of continental Europe to the archaeological sites of Egypt, a warm-weather winter destination of choice.
But when the Industrial Revolution dawned in the late 18th century, England—and then much of the rest of Western Europe and the U.S.—suddenly had a middle class with some disposable income. They, too, wanted to see the world, but their limited means meant they had to vacation close to home. That’s where they might have remained had an ambitious young cabinetmaker from central England not spotted this glaring gap in the market—and moved to expertly exploit it.
Cook’s venture was rooted not in a tourist’s desire to kick back a pint and visit a few historic sights, but in his fervor to keep would-be globetrotters from drinking in the first place. Convinced from an early age of the evils of alcohol, he spent much of the 1820s and ‘30s walking the English countryside, spreading his religious message to all who’d listen and distributing pamphlets extolling the dangers of beer to those who wouldn’t. It was a desperately inefficient means of advancing his cause.
And so when the world’s first railway network began to open right on his doorstep, Cook was quick to recognize its value. By arranging free or discounted train trips, he could ferry large cohorts of temperance supporters to rallies across the country. With the development of telegram wires, 2,000 miles of which were laid in Britain by the early 1850s, he was soon even able to direct his temperance tourists’ itineraries from afar.
It didn’t take Cook much longer to grasp that these cash-churning expeditions might earn him more than heavenly favor. Putting his missionary work on hold, he started organizing and then guiding sightseers on trips around Britain. In 1855, he ventured over the English Channel to France, then to Switzerland a few years later. No sooner had the American Civil War ended than he shepherded a tour across the Atlantic to New York.
“Using the promise of large numbers of sales, Cook secured discounts that were then passed on to this customers, who received the benefit of a single payment covering all travel and transit,” writes Andrew Humphreys in On the Nile in the Golden Age of Travel. Alcohol wasn’t banned, but came at a heavy additional cost.
But Cook didn’t really hit his stride until he took that first, slightly bewildered group across the Mediterranean. The inauguration of the Suez Canal in 1869 attracted a rash of new visitors to Egypt. At the same time, Christian interest in exploring the Holy Land and its environs added to the clamor for tickets. Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798 had helped spur on a European obsession with the pharaohs. Their interest spiraled into full-blown Egyptomania when a French scholar finally finished deciphering the Rosetta Stone’s hieroglyphics a few decades later. Cook could scarcely charter enough Nile boats to cater to the demand.
Nowadays, Cook’s business model with its all-inclusive deals might seem fairly run-of-the-mill. Back then, though, it was revolutionary.
Those who’d never traveled or at least gone beyond familiar-ish Europe liked Cook’s tours because everything was pre-arranged, leaving them with a sense of confidence in their abilities to cope with radically different cultures. By presenting himself as a “traveling chaperone,” as Humphreys puts it, Cook also seemed a safe and morally upstanding pair of hands for lone women, most of whom had never before considered solo travel.
Many of these cosseted Victorian travelers—both male and female—really did need their hands held. One tour participant in Alexandria sought out the ancient library and was upset to find that it had burnt down some 1500 years previously; others were scandalized by naked monks swimming in the Nile. Contemporary guidebooks warned European tourists against sharing their opera glasses with Egyptians, implying that the simple act of borrowing binoculars could result in disease.
Cook was eager to embrace the new opportunities that modern technology had unleashed—advances that put him way ahead of the game. Previous generations of leisurely Nile cruisers had drifted up and down the river in small, slow-moving and expensively crewed dahabiyya sailing boats. Cook rented cargo steamships from the khedive, which he then subdivided into rooms and jammed his passengers in for a three-week whirlwind around key historic sites. When American and German rivals arrived on the scene in the 1880s, Cook wasted little time, ordering the construction of a fleet of new state-of-the-art steamships to keep competition at bay. As a primarily winter destination, the Egyptian market was a hot commodity—one that allowed European operators to run tours in their own countries in the warmer months, then head south during the off-season.
Personal connections helped Cook, too. Operating at a time when the British Empire was expanding up the Nile, he benefited greatly from his intimate association with her majesty’s armed forces, particularly after they invaded and occupied Egypt in 1882. That relationship only deepened when Thomas Cook’s company, now mostly run by his son John, was charged with transporting thousands of British troops upriver in his steamships to assert imperial control over Sudan. “This is believed to be the only occasion on which the British Army has gone to war conveyed by private transport,” Humphreys writes. The positive press that resulted did Cook’s business no harm at all.
Intent on establishing a permanent foothold amid the ever-sunny ruins of Karnak, Cook even turned to city-building. He transformed what was then a tiny cluster of houses and mostly sand-covered temples into what is now known as Luxor.
Cook built a riverside boardwalk or “corniche” on which his steamboats might disgorge their loads, then built several hotels, including the still-standing Winter Palace, in which the news of Tutankhamun’s discovery was announced. Until his arrival, tourists had stayed either on the boats, in tents on the riverbank or inside the ancient tombs themselves. Running along the Nile’s east bank, just across from one of the world’s largest hoards of ruins at ancient Thebes, the resort soon became a fixture of global tourism.
Tourism remained the Cook family business after Thomas died in 1892. The family was as savvy at selling their interest in the travel company as they’d been while running it. After weathering World War I, when many of their boats were commandeered for use as troop transports, Thomas’ grandsons sold the business on the eve of the Great Depression in 1929—right before an economic crisis that would cripple the tourism industry for several years. Through the 1930s and 1940s, the Egyptian tourism scene crumbled, with some abandoned Cook pleasure cruisers finding a use only as floating lodgings for archaeologists.
The onetime preacher’s legacy is still keenly felt in Egypt, above all in Luxor. “He built Luxor,” said Ehab Gaddis, a scion of one of the city’s original families and owner of its oldest shop. A few years ago, residents tried to demonstrate their appreciation by building a statue of the founding father, but the former governor blocked it, saying monuments of foreigners were inappropriate.
These days, Egyptian tourism is at its lowest ebb. Political instability and terror concerns have scared away millions of tourists, many of whom used to arrive on Cook-style package holidays. The Thomas Cook Group—now a publicly-listed airline and tour operator—was among the first to halt flights to Luxor after the 2011 revolution, Gaddis says.
Up to 300 modern cruise liners gather sand along the riverbank, waiting for the sightseers to marvel once more at the ruins. Though there are hints that tourism might pick up soon, a boom has yet to materialize.
But Francis Amin, a local Egyptologist and tour guide, is optimistic tourists will come back. “We just need time, stability, more TV [publicity],” he says. “And maybe,” he jokes, “we need Thomas Cook.”