How Thomas Cook helped shape the Israel of today

The venerable travel company, which recently closed down, was taking tourists and pilgrims to the Holy Land as far back as 1869


Thomas Cook, the travel agency, is no more. After 178 years in business, its demise marks the end of an era. With such a tremendous run behind it, including as the originator of the package tour, why exactly the company failed will no doubt occupy many management case studies — not to mention financial journalists — for years to come.

Yet it’s fair to say that beyond any mistakes it made, the company had a revolutionary impact on the worldwide travel industry. And one major beneficiary was an embryonic Israel: the Holy Land.

In the early 19th century the Holy Land was a backwater of the Ottoman Turkish Empire known geographically as Palestine. Few inhabitants had the means to journey out, while Westerners visited at their peril.

Dangers comprised Arab bandits, disease, untrustworthy guides who might turn to kidnapping their employers, as well as many areas of unmapped and hazardous terrain.

Thomas Cook — and Thomas Cook & Son as the business was later named when John Cook joined his father — helped change regional accessibility. Rather than venture alone, the company set up safer, planned group tours for people wishing to explore the country.

Thomas Cook, the founder, led his first Palestine tour in 1869 for 60 travellers. Along with them went 80 servants, 21 sleeping tents, and sufficient horses for their needs. He wrote of the experience: “Our first night was spent in the Valley of Ajelon… a turkey carpet covered the floor; an iron bedstead was ready for each of us (three ladies to a tent) with clean sheets and blankets… in the evening after the toils of the day we enjoyed our table d’hôte of soups, fish, flesh and fowl. For 30 days that lasted, almost every day pitching our tents in some fresh place.” Touring with Cooks clearly meant camping in some comfort.

For many travellers in these initial years, Palestine was the second leg of a larger tour, the main destination of which was Egypt. Thomas had already established a thriving business there. But, increasingly, people joined just for the popular second leg. Pilgrims, though, were a ready-made market — a trend that continues in Israel to this day.

Thomas, a former Baptist preacher, therefore developed tours for Christian pilgrims to walk the Holy Land in the footsteps of Abraham and Jesus. The extensive guide, Cook’s Handbook to Palestine and Syria, reflected this. Attractions included Solomon’s Pools, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and Jesus’s birthplace in Bethlehem. Missions, mosques and old synagogues were attractions too, along with Roman archaeological ruins.

The Western Wall, cast almost as a curiosity, is referred to as “the Jews’ wailing place”. A typical tour route was: Jaffa, Gaza, Beersheba, Jerusalem, Dead Sea, Jericho, Samaria, Nazareth, Cana, Sea of Galilee, Baalbek, and Beirut. The latter stop, in southern Syria, included a visit to the Chapel of St George, highlighted as the place where the patron saint of England famously slew a dragon.

Having strong religious convictions, Thomas insisted on the importance of these tours, even when not profitable. A rift with John, the more hard-headed businessman, is understood to have come about for this reason.

Nevertheless, demand was such that between 1867 and 1877 Thomas Cook & Son brought around 2,000 travellers of all kinds to visit the country. Indeed, 1897 saw a group of British Jews from the Order of Ancient Maccabaeans visit in addition to considerable numbers of French Catholic pilgrims.

By the turn of the century, upwards of 12,000 travellers had been escorted across the land, including royalty. Prince Albert Edward, Britain’s Prince of Wales (later Edward VII), visited Jerusalem in 1862. Prince George (later George V) followed in 1882. Kaiser Friedrich Wilhelm II of Germany visited the Holy Land in 1898.

A network of contacts the company built with Bedouins, Arabs and international consuls aided in finding trustworthy employees. Reliable guides were required to shepherd travellers from arrival by steam ship at the Port of Jaffa until departure. Similarly, a multitude of honest baggage handlers and wagon drivers were needed. Meanwhile, small businesses like restaurants, cafes, souvenir sellers and money exchangers mushroomed — though travellers had to be wary. But it all stimulated tourism, local trade and the larger economy.

As the company’s activities grew, its Jerusalem office near the Jaffa Gate became its area business hub. Bookings for hiking and camping in tents remained an option but increasingly there were rail journeys and hotel stays. Israel’s first railway between Jerusalem and coastal Jaffa — initiated by Joseph Navon and Joseph Ben-Tzion Amzalak, two Jerusalem entrepreneurs — opened in 1892, and Cooks took full advantage.

The company also acquired leases on several hotels — including the Jordan Hotel in Jericho and the Inn of the Good Shephard between Jericho and Jerusalem — and had arrangements with others. For example, the Mediterranean Hotel, run by Moses Hornstein, in Jerusalem’s Old City (the building leased from the Amzalak’s). It attracted the famous, such as writers Mark Twain and Herman Melville, and American President Ulysses S Grant.

Cooks were not the only large tour operator in Palestine during this period. Other companies included: Barakat, Clark, Hamburg, and Tadras. Besides expanding the options for travellers, competition spurred Cooks on. Soon they had branch offices at David Street in Jerusalem, the German Colony in Jaffa, and in Haifa close to the Carmel Hotel.

Thomas had in fact gained considerable experience of competition in England, where a major rival to his highly successful railway excursion operation was Henry Marcus.

Both men were at the forefront of creating mass tourism for the middle and working classes. Interestingly, though Marcus wasn’t himself Jewish, he was descended, it is believed, from the notable medieval German-Jewish diarist Gluckel of Hamelin, and Moses Marcus, a founder in 1701 of the Hambros Synagogue in London.

Tourism led to associated activities for Cooks. They funded the Jerusalem Ophthalmic Dispensary, a free hospital — and similarly in Egypt, a general hospital at Luxor, used by sick travellers and locals alike.

Their relationship with the British-based Palestine Exploration Fund helped produce better maps. They also had a major mail concession along the Nile with an international service for letters and mail forwarding. One result of having this reliable regional facility was that in 1897 Solomon Schechter was able to send a significant proportion of the Cairo Geniza of Jewish artefacts to the British Museum.

The Balfour Declaration in 1917 prompted the company’s Travellers Gazette to state that it was of “worldwide importance” that the Jews have a place “where they can have conditions in accordance with their religious precepts…” Arab tour guides, though, often conveyed an unsupportive narrative.

Likewise, as Kobi Cohen-Hattab of Bar Ilan has pointed out, local Arab representatives, responsible for employing guides on behalf of travel companies such as Thomas Cook and American Express, exercised almost total control of Christian tour groups and access to Christian and Muslim sites; often barring Jewish tour guides too. Nor would Arab representatives favour small Jewish businesses: owners of taxis, cafes and souvenir shops.

In attempting change in the 1930s, the Zionist Information Bureau found little favour with the British Mandate authorities, who sought to remain neutral.

However, when approached, Thomas Cook became the first travel company to recognise both the use of Jewish tour guides, and the inclusion of Jewish historical sites and points of interest reflective of contemporary Palestine in the itinerary of all guides — particularly when showing Jewish tourists around.

The world would increasingly see Palestine as an attractive place to visit. And though Thomas Cook, the company, may have shut its doors ignominiously (leaving thousands stranded across the globe), its founders’ contribution — and the commercial behaviour it later inspired — should be remembered. This contribution was, after all, an important factor in the State of Israel from 1948 onwards being able to build a major tourist industry.

Dr Myers is an organisational psychologist and director of Psychonomics

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