The first tour operator went into business in England in 1758, and is still in business today. In Europe, pleasure travel started in earnest during the 1840s, when Thomas Cook began conducting tours to Paris and later around Europe. By the 1850s, railroad tours were already in operation. Modern tour operators – companies that organize group tours and independent travel packages — date back to the mid-nineteenth century, and most likely have their roots as ticket agents for steamship lines and railroads. In addition to selling passage, the agents were eventually called upon to develop itineraries and secure accommodations for their wealthy clients. Out of this grew the organized business of selling planned tours to groups of travelers.
Through the 1930s tour wholesaling continued to grow, but that happened slowly, since comfortable and affordable means of passenger transportation were not widespread, and travel was costly. The post-World War II period, beginning with the late 1940s and early 1950s, marked a dramatic turning point for the tour operator industry. The introduction of modern long-range commercial aircraft and the development of the interstate highway system both opened long distance travel to millions of middle class travelers. Add to that the growth of low cost airlines, increased access to airports, and the ability to travel more cheaply, and the travel bug sent millions of people all over the planet.
The media have popularized aspects of touring and made them appear accessible to the public, which has helped to increase the number of tour travelers. The television program “The Love Boat” inspired middle class travelers to take a cruise. The 1969 film, “If it’s Tuesday, this must be Belgium,” based on Caravan Tours, popularized over-the-road bus travel.
Today there are over 600 tour operators in this country, plus hundreds in other countries. Most of them wholesale their tours, that is, sell them through travel agents, or sell them directly over the internet. Even in this day of the internet, where travelers can more readily create their own itineraries, tour operators still have the advantage of bulk purchases that reduce costs, and of inside knowledge of vendors and destinations.