Travel: How will Slobodan Cerovic promote his cause as Minister of Tourism for Serbia?

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MUCH IN the travel industry is faintly ridiculous, which makes it such fun to work in. The coming week will see madness erupt in Earls Court, in west London, when the annual World Travel Market takes place.

Among the imponderables at this year's frenzy of multinational networking: how the Gulf island state of Qatar, a new exhibitor, proposes to sell itself to the travelling public ("It's really not all that bad" is as enthusiastic as Lonely Planet gets). It will also be interesting to learn how the Chilean tourist board will counter the current Foreign Office advice that travellers should avoid the country "unless on essential business". But most importantly, I want to hear what Slobodan Cerovic will be saying to promote his cause as Minister of Tourism for Serbia.

Many of us have happy memories of visiting the republic before the collapse of Yugoslavia. Mr Cerovic is leading a delegation of senior tourism figures seeking to reawaken our interest in Serbia - "despite the problems affecting UK tourism this year due to the crisis in Kosovo", according to the press release put out by the PR company that has been hired for the event.

I look forward to asking Mr Cerovic and his colleagues if it is appropriate to promote tourism in a country which, even by the normally unchallenging standards of international diplomacy, is a pariah because of its actions against its neighbours and minorities.

THE OTHER big travel event on Monday is the flattening of the lumpy travel-agency playing field. For years, many travel agents' windows have been filled with posters offering discounts of 10 per cent or more on holidays. From next week, all that could change. The Government has ordered travel agents to end the practice of tying discounts to the purchase of overpriced insurance.

The Department of Trade and Industry promised cheaper holidays as a result of this new rule. For the average package, that is unlikely to happen; most customers will end up paying the same for the holiday-plus- insurance package. The big travel agents are planning to give insurance away with holidays, instead of offering a big discount.

The benefit for consumers is that they will be able to compare prices without having to take convoluted insurance calculations into consideration.

Those who are likely to be worse off are the same group who found the "discount only with insurance" position so irritating: holders of annual policies. Before, they had to get double insurance cover in order to get a discount; now, they will likely be offered free insurance even if they don't want it. There is plenty of room for an agent who is prepared to offer a straight discount with no strings attached and no unwanted add- ons.

WE MAY also get to benefit from less comprehensive travel insurance policies. Less cover, not more, can be a blessing for travellers who are not inclined to make fraudulent claims. Some industry estimates suggest that six of every 10 claims for lost or stolen possessions are bogus (I was appalled to meet a traveller on the road who proudly told me that his rucksack had "been `stolen' three times so far").

In the absence of a box on policy application forms saying "Do you intend to make any fraudulent claims? Tick yes or no", all we can do is opt out of that part of the insurance policy altogether; there is a cogent argument that the real value of travel insurance resides solely with emergency medical treatment and repatriation costs. So which brave broker or travel agent will sell me (or give away) such a no-frills policy?

NEXT TIME you fly from Heathrow Terminal Four, look for a sign opposite check-in desk 54. "British Airways Recovery Unit" it says, beside a kind of sentry box. Is it for passengers who have drunk too much or is it something to do with the next economic downturn?