Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
With cheap flights and Airbnb at their fingertips, British travelers have branched out from the package beach vacations that were Thomas Cook’s specialty.
Today the tourism industry is reeling today from some major news: Britain’s largest travel company, Thomas Cook, has just declared bankruptcy, leaving a staggering 600,000 people stranded abroad with their flights cancelled. The logistics of managing this volume of marooned vacationers are of the sort normally associated with major disasters or wars. For the 150,000 stranded customers who are British, the U.K. government has just announced a $124 million two-week operation to fly them home, the largest repatriation in the country’s peacetime history.
Meanwhile, as the rescue operation kicks into gear, people are already conducting a post mortem into the death of this 178-year-old travel-industry leviathan—a British household name, with storefronts offering all-in-one resort vacations on almost every main street in the country. Among the causes, one striking possibility has emerged: Did the apparently unstoppable rise of the city break cause the company’s demise?
The rise in popularity of shorter urban breaks does indeed seem to have been a factor. In 2019, the average Briton is far more likely to be found wandering around Barcelona or Amsterdam than, say, sunbathing on the beaches of Spain’s Costa Del Sol, a 1980s favorite.
The number of Britons taking a yearly two-week vacation (a travel-agency staple, long standard because of the country’s generous vacation days) has fallen by more than 1 million since 1996. The number of short trips, meanwhile, has skyrocketed. By 2017, more than half of people in the U.K. were taking at least one short trip annually. This shift is crucial, because it meant that most growth happened in a sector where travel agents do relatively poor business.
Companies such as Thomas Cook struggle in this market because, since the popularization of the Internet, they are no longer so badly needed. In our analog past, travel agents were vital mediators for less experienced (or simply time-poor) travelers. They smoothed people’s paths to countries that might otherwise have seemed intimidatingly exotic and inscrutable. Now that you can book decent, affordable flights and accommodation in a European city in the time it takes to read this article, such streamlining and reassurance is less sought after.
As for costs, the price of flights has fallen through the floor. Today, a flight from the U.K. to a city on the continent can cost the same as or even less than an (overpriced) train ticket from central London out to the airport. You don’t need to go through a travel agent to keep costs low, and so people have increasingly been removing the middle man. Accordingly, just one in seven British vacationers now book trips through agents, and most of these are older and/or on lower incomes.
Whereas well-off travelers might have seen buying a Thomas Cook package as a status symbol in the 1980s, the social prestige of group travel has fallen in recent years as people (even those who sneer at Instagram) seek to curate an image of themselves as highly individual through bespoke-seeming consumer choices. Nowadays, being photographed in front of some Berlin graffiti has more cachet than sipping a drink on a poolside lounger, and the vacations people buy reflect that.
Most of all, though, it’s the liberalization of the aviation industry in Europe since the late 1990s that has radically changed people’s destination choices. Before the advent of bargain airlines such as easyJet and Ryanair, the only really cheap flights to be had were summer charters to beach destinations, so that’s where people went. Nowadays, the volume of affordable, even obscure destinations has hugely expanded. Previously far-flung cities such as Trieste, Italy, or Riga, Latvia, are now weekend-break destinations. Travel agencies that depend on block-booking a large number of rooms in high-volume destinations find it hard to capitalize on this trend.
These aren’t the only reasons for the decline of Thomas Cook and many companies like it, of course. Britain’s ongoing Brexit mayhem has made people more cautious with their money, and made that money’s international value plummet. In 2000, there were 0.61 Euros to the British pound. Now that stands at 0.88 Euros, so British vacationers can end up, after exchange commissions, with fewer Euros than they had pounds, making prices in even the Eurozone’s cheaper countries a little steep—and vacation-shoppers accordingly more thrifty.
Meanwhile the U.K. is, like the rest of the world, getting warmer. Never a particularly cold place by global standards, Britain nonetheless suffers from chronically unreliable summers that mix sun, rain, and cloud, during which a trip southwards to a beach has long acted for many as an insurance policy against entering autumn with still-depleted vitamin D. The summer of 2018, however, was an endless blaze of sunshine, meaning that suntan tourism slumped a little at the expense of … yet more city breaks.
Once the chaos of Thomas Cook’s collapse is past and its customers recompensed and recovered from their shock and disappointment, should we mourn the eclipse of big travel agencies of its type? To an extent, perhaps we should. It’s true that package-holiday providers used to get a bad name for corralling their customers into unsustainably-built mass resorts with little local character, making it hard to tell sometimes exactly which country you were in (Portugal? Tunisia?).
And sure enough, their form of mass tourism spurred unsympathetic, concrete-heavy construction along previously beautiful coastlines. But the travel agents’ mass clientele at least made planning easier and more predictable. Their arrangements were far less likely to disrupt ordinary people’s lives in the way that, for example, Airbnb is skewing city rental markets. Vacationers globally may increasingly prefer a more small-scale, bespoke approach to traveling, but we shouldn’t think that because we are more likely to take trips in smaller groups, our footprints necessarily fall any lighter.