Purveyors of mass-market package holidays expect to lose money in the off-season, and offset it with high margins in the peak. This year, you and I (or at least our neighbours surfing the Teletext ads for last-minute deals) discovered that booking a week ahead, rather than a year, was the way to save money. The profits disappeared quicker than a paint-on sun tan.
This week the executives of Thomson, Airtours and First Choice warned they will cut capacity to make sure that late-bookers lose out next summer. So for those who want to reserve their place in the sun right now, what are the big three offering?
All are playing the family-value card, each offering thousands of "free" or heavily reduced child places, and "fun clubs" aimed at children from three to 15. Inevitably, the cost of these is built into the total package price, and each year the need for a calculator and a close eye on the small print increases. But a development in Thomson's Skytours brochure deserves applause: the recognition of the growing number of single-parent families, and their need for good-value holidays not designed exclusively for traditional families. Another development from the market leader is a return to France: the Cote d'Azur is making a comeback, with prices as low as pounds 149 for a week.
First Choice is pinning its hopes on the fully inclusive holiday, where everything in your compound - sorry, resort complex - is included. So you can drink from dawn until midnight every day, keep the kids quiet with non-stop ice-cream, and see nothing at all of the country that is your host.
Airtours is continuing its campaign to bring cheap travel to the masses - but will be trying to make holidays more cheerful, too. One way is to export a version of Britain: Sunclubs promise "good old family holidays the British way", and whisper that the chosen hotel will be "exclusive to British holidaymakers" and serve British tea. Complaints from previous holidaymakers that the sausages at breakfast were Spanish have been answered with the promise that next summer all the bangers will be imported from the UK. But for those who want something more exotic, Airtours' Tradewinds brochure will take you to Vietnam, where sausages of any description are hard to find.
The mechanics of the journey also get a bit easier next summer - if you are prepared to pay extra. For a fiver per adult, Airtours will guarantee that members of your party will sit together on the plane, and let you pick your meal in advance. For pounds 10, First Choice's Sovereign package tourists can buy their way into Delta Airlines' executive lounge at Gatwick, or Servisair's at Manchester. And for the ultimate in package chic, Thomson is offering helicopter transfers from Nice airport to Cannes.
The sorriest sight in London this week has been the lumbering procession of journalists hobbling from one brochure launch to the next with impossibly bulky consignments of marketing material - my bicycle gave up under the strain on Wednesday, and is presently at a repair shop. Now that we have got these megatons of gloss home, one problem remains: do they bear any relation to reality?
After a tough summer, tour operators' creative teams do what they are paid to do: create a whole new destination, a place known as Brochureland. In Brochureland, every whim is catered for, every dream can be fulfilled, and every view is beautiful. Everything is perfect, easy and masses of fun! Every couple is bronzed and in love, every family is happy, and every local is smiling.
In Brochureland, reality is suspended. Plastic bags are never seen: if anything is to be carried, it is done so on the head with great jollity, or on the back of a small donkey. In Brochureland, cultural stereotypes abound - wizened old crones sit in doorways, cheerful children (always cute and well fed) splash in the rivers, and men with weather-beaten faces pull in their fishing nets.
Brochureland's beaches are always white, clean and deserted, save for one beautiful, blonde-haired European woman (size 10) in a high-cut swimsuit, looking pensively out to sea or drinking from a coconut. And, of course, in Brochureland the sun always shines, except at the day's end, when the great orange orb dips gently over the horizon in front of young lovers.
"We're selling a dream - the hammock slung from a palm tree on the sea shore," says Steve Allen, sales director of Thomson. "That's what people aspire to."
A close look at Brochureland reveals some astonishing facts. For a start, everybody who goes on holiday seems to be white, while most locals in Brochureland are black or Asian. In "exotic" Third World countries, locals are snapped serving us drinks, entertaining us in "traditional" costume, or doing lots of things with fruit (making cocktails, carrying it on their heads, selling it in a "colourful local market").
For anyone remaining nostalgic for the days of empire, Brochureland is the perfect place. And if the picture doesn't tell the whole story, the tour operator is there with a helpful caption. "Local colour" is Kuoni's explanation of a picture of snake charmers in India.
One Filipino friend pointed out to me that brochures featuring Asia, which is battling problems of sex tourism and particularly child prostitution, are full of soft-focus photos of women and children looking demure or playful, while the women in African and Caribbean sections are big, bold and jolly. Such images, she feels, do little to help countries deter the sex tourist.
Brochures must also put people at ease. Travelling to an unknown country can be intimidating, so places need to look as safe and familiar as possible. Just try the Brochureland Challenge: open a brochure, squint so you can't see the place-names, and try to guess where in the world you are looking at. Marbella? Maurritius? Margate. It isn't easy.
Brochureland is also a place of plenty, where the proverbial swimming pool overfloweth, even though shortage of water is now a worldwide problem, often severely exacerbated by the amount used by tourist facilities (in Spain, Hawaii, India and The Gambia, among other places). A remarkably constant 60 per cent of photos used in summer-sun brochures are of swimming pools, all of them a uniform shade of ultra-cool blue.
"It goes back to maintaining expectations - people expect pools, so that's what we give them," explains Richard Carrick, marketing director of Airtours. And with page after page of brochures featuring swimming pools, we will undoubtedly continue to expect unlimited water wherever we are.
In the same way, poverty is cropped or air-brushed out of Brochureland's every picture. Agreed, social distress doesn't sell holidays, but isn't at least some guidance or indication of reality needed? Brochureland gloss does little to prepare you for the hard choice of whether to give money to the beggar outside your hotel, or the pangs of guilt as you tuck into a delicious barbecue in Cuba watched by locals who haven't eaten more than rice and beans for weeks.
Heavy-duty market research by Airtours has told the company that four out of five holidays are chosen by women, so the operator has designed all its brochures to look like women's magazines. Each front page has a picture of a woman "that could be you", often in native costume of the country it is selling. Only the problem page is missing from these glossy confections.
Unlike real magazines, though, the writers in Brochureland do not delve deep beneath the surface. British Airways Holidays, Kuoni and Airtours all feature Burma (which has officially been renamed Myanmar) as a new, exotic destination. Yet no prospective traveller lured by the scenic views and beautiful pagodas in the brochures will be told that hundreds of thousands of Burmese have been used as forced labour to build hotels, roads and railways for Visit Myanmar Year 1996 - or that people's homes have been destroyed to make way for the expected tourism boom.
In almost every destination, skimpy clothes and even skimpier swimwear are the norm, yet in many countries, particularly Moslem, Hindu and Buddhist, such dress (or lack of it) is considered outrageous. Thousands of Indians holiday in Goa specifically to watch the Westerners "naked" on the beach, and in Moslem countries, it is culturally unacceptable for women to wear sleeveless shirts.
In reality, many countries have poverty, shortages of the very resources we expect to have on holiday, and civil unrest. "I would never have gone to Kenya on my honeymoon," commented a colleague, "if I had known we would be accompanied by armed guards the whole time."
Brochureland sells us Paradise when Paradise rarely, if ever, exists. If telling the truth often hurts, hiding it completely is likely to hurt even more. Dreams don't always come true.
A selection of don'ts from the new brochures:
Thomson: Don't wear clothes with offensive decorations when you board your flight.
Airtours: Don't pack film in your checked-in luggage. Manchester airport's security machines are not film-safe.
First Choice: Don't take Scottish banknotes to pay your pounds 10 Turkish visa fee.Reuse content