ACROSS THE BOARD

TRIED & TESTED: When it comes to going on holiday, we all need a little help. But just how useful are those tourist boards?
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The Independent Culture
Shopping for a holiday? Specialised travel agents can be helpful, but they have their commercial interests to protect. Traveller's tales from friends may be the best recommendations, but they seldom remember the exact address of that marvellous little hotel they stayed in. Tourist boards, on the other hand, have the promise of being staffed by knowledgeable nationals, who can offer a plethora of information and give a foretaste of what a visit to a given country might be like.

THE TEST

We made both telephone and in person enquiries at a selection of British- based foreign tourist offices. Our requests for information ranged from honeymoon venues through horse riding to hot-air ballooning. Most boards made some attempt to offer appropriate information. Other factors considered were charges made for postage and telephone time, presentation of printed material and accessibility of office staff.

**POLISH NATIONAL TOURIST OFFICE

1st floor, Remo House, 310-312 Regent Street, London W1B 5AJ, 0171 580 8811

Like many (presumably understaffed) tourist offices, the Polish telephone reception consists of a recorded message telling you the opening hours, address ("in case you want to receive printed information"), and asks you to "Press 1" if you want to leave a message to that effect. It's too bad if you don't have a touch-tone phone, as you are quickly caught in a loop, being asked to wait for a receptionist who is not available, then asked to "Press 1" again.

In response to a letter stating that I would like to visit Warsaw, but also stay in the countryside, perhaps on a working farm, I received the small, unillustrated Tourist Guidebook which gives factual information about Poland and makes much of Chopin's haunts. Other big attractions seem to be the spas, the 700-year-old Wleliczca salt mine and the Bialowieza Forest - habitat of the European bison and origin of bison-grass vodka. Also in the envelope was a thin magazine, Discover Poland, which contained useful travel ads; and a grainy brochure titled Interhome, which carried snapshots of nakedly modern chalets in rural areas, punctuated by family portraits of people in headscarves. A sincere attempt to offer a countryside holiday, I thought.

**CZECH CENTRE

95 Great Portland Street, London W1N 5RA, 0171 291 9922

A sub-Peter Sellers conversation blighted my introduction to the Czech tourist office. Not having understood the telephonist's greeting, I began hesitantly, "Hallo, are you the Czech Tourist Board?" Silence. Then, "Erm, could you wait a minute." My interlocutor put me on hold. On her return she asked suspiciously "Did you want information about Czech Republic?" "Well, yes." "So. Please send an envelope with stamps for 80p with a list of the stuff you want." "I see. What stuff do you have?" "You write if you have something on your mind and we'll send it."

The "stuff" never arrived, a pity since I found when I visited in person that I'd been talking to the new Czech Culture Centre which holds official brochures featuring stunning photographs of Romanesque architecture, fairy- tale castles and unspoiled grasslands. In fact the sales job is so slick, you wouldn't think there was a single modern building in the Czech Republic. Only the odd sentence in Basic Information for Tourists gives away the country's communist past. Under car rental, for example, we are told, "You are free to rent a luxurious car as well as a commercial model."

***MAISON DE LA FRANCE

178 Piccadilly, London W1V 0AL, 0891 244123 (36p a minute cheap-rate, 48p a minute at all other times)

It certainly concentrates the mind to be told at the start of a conversation that your call is costing 50p per minute, but at least my French respondent was cheerful, she even had a sense of humour, but she couldn't satisfy my demand for information about hot- air ballooning. Instead, I was offered the 90-page Reference Guide, which arrived by return of post. With clear layout, arty photographs and endless lists of everything from specialist tour operators (try paragliding, windsurfing, canoeing, painting) to guide books, maps and a brochure service. It was the only offi-cial brochure which gave information for disabled travellers.

**MEXICAN MINISTRY OF TOURISM

60-61 Trafalgar Square, London WC2N 5DS, 0171 734 1058

Mexico, the only Latin American country with a tourism office in Britain, welcomes callers with a long, friendly recorded message offering information on business, weather or flights. Hold on long enough and you may get to speak to a receptionist. The one I spoke to struggled valiantly with my enquiries about "quiet and characterful" accommodation and suggested "somewhere south of Cancun". Despite my pounds 2 stamped addressed envelope, none of the information ever arrived, another example of possible linguistic difficulties or haphazard administration. A visit to the brightly painted offices yielded a Hotels and Services catalogue for Mexico's colonial cities and a modest collection of official brochures. Warm, Latin culture, as depicted in sun-drenched pueblos and pretty haciendas, make the effort seem worthwhile.

*****MALAYSIA TOURISM PROMOTION BOARD

57 Trafalgar Square, London WC2N 5DU, 0171 930 7932

Whether you are interested in that part of the world or not, you have to admire Malaysia's sophisticated, yet sincere, attitude towards tourism. We voted their board the winner in our survey because the high-quality information they produce is all mailed out free, telephone reception consists of immediate contact with a human being who speaks perfect English and is unfailingly helpful. In addition, its office enjoys one of the best sites in London - with a shop front clearly visible at a distance, comfortable sofas for browsers, racks and racks of brochures. Stylishly written pamphlets with lavish photographs focus on hill resorts, underwater havens, islands, crafts and culture - every facet of a country putting its best foot forward.

**SOUTH AFRICAN TOURISM BOARD

0541 550044, 30p for 3 minutes

With no public office or person to speak to, some of the joys of an encounter with the national culture are lost in contacting the tourist office of the new South Africa. But at least any sort of telephone will do to respond to the pre-recorded questions, which seek to determine your level of knowledge and areas of interest, as well as offering you homilies on such subjects as "entry requirements" and "driving in South Africa". It all seems splendidly efficient, if robotic. I was mortified to be pigeonholed, at 36, in the 35-55 age group.

A brochure, the Explore South Africa Factfiler, is mailed out free on request. Surprisingly, after so much high-tech communication, the dreary Factfiler's stuffed with old archive photographs and reveals that, despite prompt renaming of most towns and regions and a mania for exact statistics on population, languages spoken and the like, which seems more schoolbook than travel brochure, the Rainbow Nation has yet to get to grips with the simplest aspects of desktop publishing. Still, tourists will be reassured by the accompanying letter, which states: "despite some reports, South Africa is basically a safe place for international visitors."

****VISIT CANADA CENTRE

62-65 Trafalgar Square, London WC2N 5DD, 0891 715000 (36p a minute cheap- rate, 48p a minute at all other times)

With no linguistic barriers to overcome, perhaps it is easier for the receptionists at the Visit Canada Centre to sound friendly and helpful over the phone; but a visit to their office shows that they have plenty to be proud of. Most enquiries are met with a quiet, cordial, "You sure can." A 100-page brochure containing general information, plus the 1997 Travel Planner is mailed out free with a form inviting further requests, for which a pounds 3 postage fee is charged. This would be a worthwhile investment to obtain regional brochures which deliver - via pictures of blue skies, grizzly bears, fishing trips, and snowmobiles - the overwhelming impression of a country that is clean, vital and refreshing.

In Tried and Tested on Sunday 23 February, we referred to a lamp as an "anglepoise", in fact it was made by another company. Angleposie is a trademark of Anglepoise Ltd of Redditch.

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