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A teetotaller transforms Swiss tourism

Cook's package tours opened up Switzerland to thousands of British professionals Centre d'iconographie genevoise

Visitors to Switzerland notched 37 million overnight stays in the past year, but the roots of mass tourism go back 200 years to the birth of an English teetotaller.

Many an hotelier and restaurateur could raise a glass on Saturday to travel pioneer Thomas Cook who transformed Switzerland’s tourist industry by introducing package tours to the country.

Born in Derbyshire on November 22, 1808, Cook started his business by organising local transport for members of the temperance society – a movement that viewed alcohol as the root cause of social evils.

The success of this enterprise convinced Cook to branch out into arranging holidays with the new concept of all-inclusive package tours. The first foreign tours went to Paris, via Germany and Belgium, but in 1863 Cook conducted his first organised visit of Switzerland.

Martino Froelicher, of Switzerland’s Centre of Transport History (ViaStoria), said the first intrepid group of travellers – dubbed the Junior Alpine Club – encountered markedly different conditions from today.

“They travelled on foot with mules and local guides because areas like Chamonix, Sion and the Bernese Oberland were poor and had no train links or cable cars,” he told swissinfo. “The Swiss could not understand why these strangers were travelling through rough mountains.”

Local wasps

The first contacts between tourists and locals were also interesting, as documented by one traveller, Jemima Morrell. Froelicher described an encounter on the shores of Lake Lucerne.

“Dozens of people were waiting for them at the pier, insisting that they bought their food or guiding services. They fought amongst themselves and Morrell described them as ‘wasps’,” he said. “The descriptions are similar to travelling through third world countries today.”

“In the end the police had to intervene and the state had to make rules that locals were forbidden to get close to clients on steam boats.”

But despite the odd discomfort, the visit to the “playground of Europe” was deemed a great success and was followed up by larger package tours later in 1863 and in the following years as the venture took off.

Travelling to Switzerland used to be the exclusive reserve of the rich, but Cook’s package tours opened up the country to thousands of British professionals – and later to anyone.

Enormous impact

The new source of income revitalised the economies of struggling rural cantons and led to improvements in infrastructure, according to Froelicher.

“From that moment [1863] it became economically feasible to construct hotels, build more railway routes and increase post carriages with better timetables,” he said. “Cook also helped to professionalise the Swiss tourist industry that now has an enormous economic impact.”

“It also made Swiss people themselves start to realise the beauty of their own country and they started to take vacations themselves,” he added.

swissinfo, Matthew Allen

Thomas Cook was born in 1808 into a strict Baptist family. He started work as a cabinet maker and joined the anti-alcohol Temperance Society before becoming a Baptist minister.

His first venture into travel occurred in 1841 when he arranged the transport by train of 570 temperance campaigners to a rally. After transporting 150,000 people from the north of England to the 1851 Great Exhibition in London, Cook embarked on his first European trip – to the international exhibition in Paris four years later.

The 1863 Swiss tour was followed by trips to Italy, the Middle East, Egypt, the United States and finally a round the world tour. Cook also developed hotel coupons, holiday brochures and the earliest system of travellers cheques. The Thomas Cook business is today one of the world’s largest international tour operators.

Miss Jemima’s Swiss Journal

This book, about the first conducted tour of Switzerland, was published in 1863 and reprinted in 1963 to mark the 100th anniversary of the tour after what the publishers describe as “a century of obscurity”. The sleeve notes tell the story:

“On the 26th June 1863, sixty-four excited ladies and gentlemen left London Bridge Station on the very first tour of Switzerland arranged by Thomas Cook, the excursionist.”

“Miss Jemima was commissioned by the Junior United Alpine Club… to write an account of their adventures, to be published at her own expense.”

“Hardy folk, these tourists were: mule-back journeys, departures at crack of dawn, mountaineering in crinolines – no tourist today would be expected to endure so much! Yet they enjoyed themselves enormously…”

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR