My heaven may be your tourist trap

The Man Who Pays His Way
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Indy Lifestyle Online
THE TRICKLE of rejection of would-be customers I reported last week has become a flood. Hot on the heels of Exodus Travels ousting over- 40s from its overland trips through Africa, and Stena Line refusing to give customers information unless they pay upfront, the travel guide publisher Lonely Planet is withdrawing the books it publishes to some of our most popular tourist destinations.

"We don't want to produce guides to places where people just create their own little Englands," says the publisher's Jennifer Cox. So no more Gran Canaria. As for the Mexican resort of Cancun: "It's a complete hell-hole, like Blackpool on steroids."

Someone's tourist trap is another person's holiday heaven. Each year, more people visit the Canary Islands, and indeed Blackpool, than buy Lonely Planet books.

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CATHERINE DENEUVE: where are you now? Not where you were in the wonderful film, Indochine, that's for sure. But fortunately for British travellers, the immaculate confection that represented her mansion in Vietnam turns out to be a lot easier to reach than I had imagined.

For my final outing for BBC2's Travel Show this summer (to be shown at 8.30pm on Monday), I ended up on the island of Penang. Malaysia's fairest isle feels (to continue the drug- related imagery) like Hong Kong on Prozac - an example of collusion, not collision, between Asia and Europe. Whatever itch you have, you can scratch it here, though it helps if your idea of fun is to plunge into a tide of humanity in full flood.

Which is how I came to be lunching in a place that Prince Philip might find hellish, but would probably strike you as heavenly: an Indian restaurant in a Malay building with a Scottish address (Leith Street), pondering the words of the Chinese guide who had just provided a first-rate tour of a breathtaking monument.

"There is no building like this in the entire world," she had said as she led us past the ultramarine facade into unabridged opulence.

Cheong Fatt Tze was a labourer who moved to Penang from rural China with nothing. Eight wives and much business success later, he died, leaving a mansion without equal and causing the British Empire to fly flags at half mast for the passing of an adventurer.

Cheong could afford the best - which, in those days, meant cast iron from Macfarlane of Glasgow and floor tiles from Stoke-on-Trent. Four days a week, you can pay pounds 2 for a tour that make you feel you have stumbled into a film set.

And you have. Some scenes in the forthcoming remake of The King and I were shot here, after the authorities refused permission to film Anna and the King in Thailand. Countless commercials and fashion shoots have used the supremely overengineered architecture as a backdrop, too.

A fleet (flock? flurry?) of rickshaws imported from Ho Chi Minh City for Indochine stands outside the door. Of Catherine Deneuve, there is not a trace, but the place takes you straight back to the dazzling sequence of romance, betrayal and revolution (even if you have not seen the film, you can imagine the plot).

And it reminds you of one nagging question: what on earth Gerard Depardieu was on when he said of Ms Deneuve "She is the man I always wanted to be"?

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A COUPLE of men I wouldn't mind emulating are Bharat Parmar and Gurdev Singh, a pair of British adventurers I first met in a cheap hotel in Thessalonika three years ago. They effortlessly trumped my, "I'm cycling to Istanbul" with "We're going overland from Barking to Amritsar".

For what they describe as their "millennium pilgrimage", they are planning a jaunt from Moscow to Tashkent ("or Bishkek", adds Bharat blithely) and cross into China via the Togurt pass. Then comes the easy bit, on to Kashgar, "before carrying on the Karakorum Highway to Islamabad".

The tricky bit is getting from Kyrgystan into China. No guidebook they (or I) can find reveals the best way to cross the frontier. "We have to convince our families we are not taking undue risks." Can you help?

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THE CONTINUING strength of sterling means Britain needs to do everything it can to try to woo tourists, and to delight them while they are here. One easy and obvious way to do this is to extend the courtesy of translating key pieces of information into foreign languages. I have been investigating how well we do at making life easier for visitors.

The notice boards at Buckingham Palace, which opened to the public last week, offer just two choices, English and Japanese.

Most other tourist attractions, such as the Tower of London, have an additional core of French, German, Italian and Spanish. But there are some strange blips. The official British Museum guide is also available in Korean and Chinese, while the the Tower of London's handbook appears in Russian. The Original Sightseeing Tour offers a Hebrew soundtrack on tour buses.

Clear winner is the Anglican cathedral in Liverpool, where a poster welcomes visitors in 22 languages from Polish to Persian. And a handy Post-It note attached to it adds a salutation in nine more tongues.

Most holidaymakers to Britain would be well advised to bring some supplemental material to try to make sense of us all, such as the Berlitz Guide de Conversation et Lexique par le voyage.

The striking image on the front cover is of a woman not in the first flush of youth. Not the Queen (or her mum), nor any of the minor royals. Not a dramatic individual such as Diana Rigg or Judi Dench. Instead, the figure that represents us to the Francophone community is, in full regalia, a traffic warden.

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