Top of the charts for '96

Vietnam is vieux jeu, Phuket passe, Burma's the next big adventure. Holidays, too, are subject to fashion's whims.
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BANGKOK or Burma, Alaska or Zanzibar? A weekend in Muscat or a family fortnight in Majorca? In this period of post-Christmas torpor, armchair travellers are bombarded with brochures promising "island paradises" and "lands of contrasts" - but which of these thousands of ideas and destinations will it be in 1996? It's hard to know which are new, which are up and coming, which are overcrowded, which simply passe.

As in everything else, there are fashions in holidays. Cruising is in this year, for example, and skiing is out. Wildlife tours and city breaks are on the way up, sunshine packages on the way down. Vietnam, a country absent from the holiday map a couple of years ago, is now firmly on the package-tour beat. This year, backpackers (who pioneer new destinations) are heading instead for Burma or central Asia, untouched Indochina, Ethiopia or Indonesia. Meanwhile, the Chinese tourist authorities have been to Benidorm, seeking inspiration for their package-holiday resorts of the future.

In a year when the cost of holidays is likely to soar by 10 per cent or more, exchange rates will dictate where both independent travellers and package tourists go. How many pesetas, lats or escudos will our beleaguered pound buy?

Spain, Italy, the USA, the Caribbean and the Far East aren't too bad. Turkey was the exchange-rate chart topper in 1995, with visitors getting 65,000 lira to the pound compared to 47,000 the previous year. With only minor price rises there, 1996 looks set to lure even dedicated island- hoppers away from Greece, where they will have to fork out 8-10 per cent more for their tavernas, moussakas and ouzos.

France is still our No1 destination, attracting nine million British visitors each year. Most of them are day-trippers, campers, caravanners and self-caterers - not the high-spending rosbifs who contribute most to the French economy. To address that problem, the French are planning a multi-million-pound campaign to lure more holidaymakers to the chateaux of the Loire, the beaches of Brittany, the vineyards of Bordeaux and the fleshpots of the Cote d'Azur. With an exchange rate of fewer than eight francs to the pound, though, this will be a challenge.

The French must look enviously over their shoulders at their Iberian neighbour, Spain, expected to attract at least half of Britain's sun-seekers in 1996. Together they will spend pounds 2.5bn, compared to pounds 1.9bn in France.

But Spain, too, has had its problems. In 1987 the country welcomed 3.8m British visitors, which plummeted to 2.3m in 199l, as Spanish holidays became synonymous with rising prices and falling standards, hooligans and chips. Consecutive devaluations of the peseta, together with Herculean efforts and investment, have helped Spain clean up its Costas and present a more acceptable face of tourism. The aim now is to persuade visitors to move beyond the beaches and stay in Paradors and village houses in lesser-known parts of Andalusia and Asturias, Catalonia and Galicia.

There are few holiday surprises around the Mediterranean, and with numbers falling new destinations are being marketed with a vengeance. Croatia has been re-introduced, with the emphasis on its coastline and islands. Developers have also been casting covetous eyes at the empty, golden beaches of Albania.

Another newcomer is the Lebanon, with its 65 miles of Mediterranean coastline. In Beirut, bikini-clad women are now sunbathing within a stone's-throw of the shelled-out Holiday Inn. Jasmine Tours, who specialise in the Middle East, say its typical customers, already familiar with the sites of Greece and Turkey, are turning their attention to Baalbek in the Lebanon. Palmyra in Syria, Oman and the United Arab Emirates are also likely to be popular in 1996.

For a combination of Arab culture, vast red desert and evocative walled cities (Sana'a being the most spectacular), why not try the Yemen? The independent travel specialist STA now lists it as a top destination, along with other Middle East countries that have until recently been out in the cold. Peace is still tenuous there, however, and group travel only is recommended outside Sana'a and Aden, a shoppers' paradise.

The continuing success story, though, is Jordan. The opening of the border with Israel means visitors can combine beach holidays in Aqaba and Eilat with the fascinating Crusader forts and the Zealot stronghold of Masada. A health holiday on the Dead Sea can be topped with diving in the Red Sea, a trip to the oasis of Wadi Rum, and a visit to Petra (though whether a site that attracted only 3,000 visitors annually a couple of years ago can cope with as many per day is questionable).

There are no such problems in Egypt, well geared-up to become the bargain destination of '96. A prime attraction is Luxor - site of Thebes, once the Pharaonic capital of Upper Egypt - which lays claim to more than half the world's antiquities. The opening of Nefertari's tombs has stimulated further interest among those happy to wander the sites or cruise the Nile in 100F summer temperatures, as long as the price is right. This year, it certainly is. Thomson, the largest tour firm, says Egyptian packages are among the cheapest in its brochures.

Long-haul sunshine destinations look set to flourish in 1996 at the expense of the Med, as charter flights and cheaper accommodation narrow the price gap. Sri Lanka is the most keenly priced, and heavily tipped to rise in the holiday charts despite civil war in the north. Its combination of beautiful, relaxing beaches and exciting and varied interior attracts beach lovers and backpackers alike.

India looks set to make a comeback as a popular long-haul destination - as long as natural disasters and civil strife don't blight its huge holiday potential. Goa and Kerala are already served by cheap charters; new routes to Agra will be introduced later in the year. Thailand, similarly blighted in the past by stories of child prostitution, sleaze and drug dealing, will nevertheless be up among the 1996 bestsellers. Phuket and Ko Samui are now considered mainstream, featured in the long-haul package brochures; the more adventurous can opt for Jeep tours and visits to tribal villages around northern Chiang Mai, booked through independent travel specialists.

Vietnam, too, is no longer the intrepid destination it once was. In 1996 any holidaymaker can buy a "Vietnam add-on" from Bangkok or, from Kuoni, a complete "Vietnam Experience" package comprising a stamina-sapping five nights in Bangkok, two in Saigon, two in Hue, one in Da Nang, two in Hanoi and four in Thai Beach (optional), with a price-tag of pounds l,700.

Among true backpackers, Burma is now the buzz destination, with Indonesia a close second. There, the message has finally got through that there is life beyond Bali. For the adventurous tourist there are tiger trails in the jungles and forests of Sumatra, dolphin and monkey watching in Borneo, diving off rugged Sulawesi and an almost untouched wilderness in Irian Jaya. Indonesia probably offers more variety than anywhere on the globe: 17,000 islands in the world's largest archipelago, sultans' palaces, volcanoes, coral reefs spanning the seven seas, and the dusty footprints left by generations of Portuguese, Dutch and British traders.

Heading west, Costa Rica - the most peaceful of central American countries - is beginning to attract a connoisseur clientele in love with its scenery and people. A land bridge between two oceans and the two halves of the American continent, it has an amazing variety of habitat for birds, and botanical species. In South America, Colombia is the destination for independent travellers in 1996. Using Bogot as a base, they can explore Cartagena and move from there via an efficient bus network to the lost city of Santa Marta, which was discovered only 20 years ago.

If it's sun and sand you're after, there's a choice of economical charter packages to Mexico - particularly Puerto Vallarta on the west coast. In the Caribbean, the large Spanish-speaking island of the Dominican Republic looks set to become the flavour of the year, though nearly all holidays are of the "all-inclusive" variety, where you pay one price not only for bed and board, but all the rum punches you can drink, limbo evenings and pirate nights, snorkelling and sailing, without having to fork out an extra dollar.

Next year, this American-style concept will be seen increasingly in the Mediterranean, too. Holidaymakers like it because it simplifies budgeting, but a tour operator puts it more bluntly: "They think they can drink for nothing, day and night". One serious objection to all-inclusive packages is that they create tourist ghettoes, which leads to resentment among locals.

The United States is tipped to be a big player in 1996, and Florida looks set for a revival. Europeans deserted the state in their thousands two years ago, after some highly publicised tourist muggings and killings, but the authorities reacted swiftly. Routes from airports are now well marked and signposted, self-drive cars can no longer be identified by their numberplates, and police patrols have been stepped up in tourist areas.

Most of the major airlines, with more than one million Brits on board, will be cutting a groove for Florida next year. There will be more flights, from more British regional airports, to more Florida destinations, including a new scheduled Virgin service from Manchester, and a Britannia charter landing at Palm Beach (opening up the glitzy Gold Coast resorts of Boca Raton, Fort Lauderdale, Palm Beach and - no relation - Hollywood).

With so much choice available, the pattern of holiday-taking in Britain also looks set to change. Instead of taking just one main holiday a year, the trend will be towards several shorter ones. Despite the continuing recession, short stays, weekend breaks and city samplers will prove popular.

In addition to hardy perennials such as Paris (particularly by Eurostar), Amsterdam, Rome, Florence, Vienna and Madrid, there will be more recent successes such as Prague and Budapest. Real city enthusiasts will be able to travel further afield, too, to Jerusalem, Istanbul and Beirut; Muscat, Toronto, Montreal and Las Vegas; Riga, Vilnius and Tallinn. Be warned, though, that choice isn't everything. There's also the question of expense, especially where city breaks are concerned. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, Zurich, Oslo, Geneva, Paris and Vienna are Europe's most costly cities. If you want bargains, head for Prague, Lisbon, Budapest, Warsaw or Istanbul. They, this study points out, are the cheapest.

Budgeting is clearly the last thing on the minds of the 1,500 or so passengers signed up with Cunard's much-beset QE2. The liner is about to embark on her 20th round-the-world cruise - which costs around pounds 13,000 for the three- month voyage. Passengers can expect to eat their way through six miles of sausages, 22 tons of chicken, 550 brace of pheasant, 1,260 brace of partridge and a bottle each of HP and tomato sauce (all this served on two million doilies, or wrapped in 277 miles of clingfilm: enough to enclose the whole ship 731 times).

In other words, the message for 1996 is that cruising is buoyant again - up from a mere 96,000 passengers in 1986, to 360,000 in 1995, with 700,000 expected by the year 2000.

Thomson Holidays is introducing a new "package" cruiser in April - the 12,000-ton refitted Sapphire - sailing from Palma and Limassol with a pounds 399 starting price and an average cost of pounds 600-pounds 700. Swan Hellenic's new 12,000-ton Minerva takes over on the 29 April from the much-loved Orpheus (a refitted Irish cattle ferry) and heads for new waters around the Baltic, Britain, Scandinavia and the Red Sea, as well as the Mediterranean. The company specialises in cultural cruises, so carries a complement of professors, bishops and lecturers - and some contemporary luxuries, such as gym, sauna and massage room. Prices start at around pounds l,700, including all meals, lectures, visits and entrance fees.

So, should you book your 1996 holiday now, or do what has become the Nineties norm - wait until the last minute and look for late bargains and discounts? Travel companies claim there might be a shortage of holidays next year, but this seems unlikely. World travel is running inexorably onward and upward; over the next five years airline passengers alone will increase by 5 per cent. By 1999 there will be 1.5bn of us circling the globe within a single year.

Tourism is the world's fastest growing industry, and is set to reach its peak growth by the year 2000. By then, Burma will be passe - but what about Benidorm? !


A Traveller's Calendar: a month-by-month guide to the seasons, events, weather systems and price incentives that make up the holiday year