Tour operators (tour-opérateurs or voyagistes in French) are tourism professionals who develop products or services for their customers. The French word “voyagistes” is less commonly used than its gallicised equivalent “tour-opérateurs”. In French, the plural only applies to the second word, since the first word is a complement to the second. The origin of tour operators dates back to the middle of the 19th century. Today they are important, if not essential, players.
TOs are intermediaries that individuals call upon when the otherness of the destination catches their eyes. They therefore allow people who do not have the necessary aptitude or skills, or who consider that they have limited aptitude and skills (Guibert, 2016) to access experiences and places that would not have been possible for them without a tour operator’s intervention. Often criticised for confining people, they in fact offer gateways to the world. The first TOs appeared in Europe in the middle of the 19th century, the most notable being Thomas Cook, who invented the package travel and the catalogue (Tissot, 2000). For those who have equal skills, recourse to TOs can still be a choice. The search for greater security or the lack of time, or even the search for sociability, may also justify going through a tour operator.
This role gave rise to a specific feature of the tourism industry. Indeed, vertical integration is to their advantage, whereas typically, it is to the advantage of the segment located downstream of the chain, close to consumers (Cuvelier, 1998). However, it is necessary to qualify this argument. According to Claude Pelloquin, in the United States, it is indeed companies specialising in sales, i.e., travel agencies, that are in control.
Highly variable degrees of integration
There are TOs of all sizes, from TPEs (very small businesses) to giants, including the giant TUI which is reckoned to be the world leader. Multinationals in the sector are both vertically integrated, in control of all segments of the chain, from agencies that sell exclusively their services, to clubs and comptoirs (exclusive resorts) that receive tourists, and airlines, and horizontally integrated.
These giants have gradually developed through external growth by absorbing smaller competitors. In 2002, TUI absorbed the French company Nouvelles Frontières created by Jacques Maillot in 1970, then in 2007 it acquired Marmara, founded in 1965, when the German leader absorbed First choice, including the brand since 2000. The giant has tried to streamline the numerous brands (more than 200 around 2015) as that hinders economies of scale. However, this desire to impose the group’s acronym TUI met with resistance from customers who were still attached to the name of the operator which had served them. Thus, the storefront of TUI agencies still contains the names of Nouvelles Frontières and Marmara, although less prominently (Ill. 1).
Conversely, small TOs thrive by specialising in specific destinations or practices. Marmara was set up as a Turkey specialist, then positioned itself in mid-market tours and stays, and since the choice of a lower margin implies large volumes of customers, on the southern Mediterranean destinations. The advent of digital technologies has facilitated the emergence of very small enterprises which can market their offers via the Internet.
This technological development was also a game changer that led to the disappearance of some historical giants, such as Kuoni, which had just celebrated its centenary in 2008 when it was swept away by bankruptcy. With a portfolio of more than 200 brands, it failed to embrace the internet innovation and went downhill. Thomas Cook suffered the same fate in 2019.
- Cuvelier Pascal, 1998, Anciennes et nouvelles formes de tourisme: une approche socio-économique. Paris, L’Harmattan, coll. «Tourismes et sociétés».
- Guibert Christophe, 2016, «Les déterminants dispositionnels du “touriste pluriel”. Expériences, socialisations et contextes», SociologieS. en ligne.
- Pelloquin Claude, 2010, «Regard sur les grands changements du “tour-operating” mondial«, Réseau de veille en tourisme, Chaire de tourisme Transat, École des sciences de la gestion, UQAM. 2007, en ligne, consulté le 16 juillet 2010.
- Tissot Laurent, 2000, Naissance d’une industrie touristique, Les Anglais et la Suisse au XIXe siècle. Lausanne, Éditions Payot, 302 p.