The Origins of the Modern Package Tour? British Motor-Coach Tours in Europe, 1930-70

By Walton, John K. | The Journal of Transport History, December 2011 | Go to article overview

The Origins of the Modern Package Tour? British Motor-Coach Tours in Europe, 1930-70


Walton, John K., The Journal of Transport History


This article proposes a revision of the implicitly accepted chronology of twentieth-century travel and tourism history in Europe, by recovering the role of the road motor coach in the development of international package tourism before and after the Second World War and during the succeeding generation, between the 1930s and the 1970s. It builds on recent work on the role of coach travel in the development of the international package tour from northern Europe (especially Germany and Sweden), bringing the British experience into the centre of the picture, while treating the coach tour explicitly as a phenomenon in its own right rather than merely an ephemeral episode in the transition to budget air travel.1

The article is necessarily speculative. It opens out a theme whose neglect must be ascribed to the scattered and fragmentary nature of the sources, the lack of dedicated archives and the absence of relevant, comparable historical statistics for the period under review. The thin and scattered nature of the material has necessitated a qualitative methodology, verging on bricolage, making creative use of whatever relevant material comes to hand. Lack of visibility has been exacerbated by the diffuse nature of the activity, the use of existing infrastructure in new but unobtrusive ways, the limited nature of national or international regulation, and the prevalence of small firms which have not left archives.2 But the development of international coach tourism during this period adds up to an important set of innovations in the organisation and process of holiday travel. These include the development of new ways of seeing and experiencing new landscapes and other cultures in relation to the framing and direction of the gaze, whether 'collective', 'romantic' or 'anthropological', as imagined by John Urry; the emergence of new forms of group dynamics within the 'coach party' whose members were brought together for the duration of their journey; and the nature of the interaction between such tourists and the cultures through which, and to which, their journey took them, and the ways in which this was mediated through the coach driver and tour guide.3 This article does not pretend to be the last word on this elusive but important theme: it should be read as an introduction to its subject, and as an exercise in staking out the ground for future projects.

The plausibility of the suggestion that the 'origins of the modern package tour' can be found in European coach tourism depends on they way this term is interpreted. In many respects it may be argued that Thomas Cook and other Victorian international travel companies pioneered the concept, and within Britain the holiday camps that emerged during the inter-war years also developed a version of it. But Cook and his Victorian coevals gave their customers a great deal of choice and agency within their frameworks of provision, not least through the use of hotel coupons. Conversely, the domestic holiday camps lacked the agenda of protecting customers against a potentially challenging foreign culture to which the European tours responded.4

There is a case to be made that, in Britain if not elsewhere, the combination of austerity and desire for novelty in the years after the Second World War created a conducive environment for new kinds of foreign recreational travel. At first this was based on a fuller articulation of the pre-war coach tour, and later on the airborne 'sun and sea' destination holiday. The coach tour emerged earlier than, and overlapped with, the rise of the airborne tour operator and Mediterranean coastal development model, and was probably both more up-market and directed to an older and more conventional clientele. Whether it also appealed to Plog's 'psychocentric' tourists, inhibited, nervous and anxious for security, as opposed to the 'allocentric' innovators and explorers of new frontiers, is impossible to establish. Nevertheless, this model has proved so resistant to empirical testing, and so United Statescentred in its assumptions, as to offer limited analytical assistance. …

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