See the world the Abta way

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Indy Lifestyle Online
PROFESSIONAL ASSOCIATIONS: if you happen to have a job that involves belonging to one, it probably stages a conference once a year. But I bet it doesn't hold the event 10,000 miles away, on the far north coast of Queensland.

For the past three years, the Association of British Travel Agents (Abta) has held its annual convention in relatively sensible, accessible places, such as Istanbul, Tenerife and Marbella. This trend ended abruptly for the last get-together of the Nineties, which began late last night, British time. Abta chose Cairns, in a distant corner of Australia.

Every profession enjoys some kind of perks, and you would expect an organisation that represents the travel industry to make the most of bargain deals from airlines.

However, to try to squeeze a couple of thousand British travel agents and hangers-on into a small town on the other side of the world for a long weekend is, I suggest, eccentric - especially when many agents would rather be trying to shift all those unsold Millennium holidays, or making sure their systems are secure against the Y2K bug. We would all have fitted in quite happily in Bournemouth, where the average rainfall for late November is considerably lower than that in Cairns.

"More social events than ever before," is the promise of Abta's convivial chairman, Steven Freudmann. By the time the working sessions began, some delegates were already tired and confused with the business of sorting out the Abta Watering Hole (sponsored by Airtours) from the Abba tribute band (sponsored by Bristol airport).

Many seem unusually grateful for the complimentary mineral water (sponsored by British Midland). The Northern Ireland Tourist Board traditionally sponsors the late-night Abta bar, with a suitable name for the locality; in Sun City, South Africa, in 1995, it was "O'Tutu's". This year, though, the Irish have been thwarted, as the announcement in the handbook explains: "From the NITB team that brought you O'Tutu's, O'Gecko's and O'Nellies, we are delighted to announce... O'Bugger, they've closed the pub down."

This could prove a wise move on the part of the pub. The usual "Learning the lingo" glossary in the Convention handbook lists 22 Australian expressions, from arvo ("afternoon") to yabber ("talk a lot"). No fewer than five refer to beer: coldie, quickie, slab, stubbie and tinnie. Who does this say more about: Australians, or Abta members?

One good thing about holding the event so far from Britain is the opportunity it presents for stopovers en route.Before arriving here, I spent a happy week meandering around southern India. This was a joy because of the people, culture and cuisine of Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Goa - and also because of the intrigue and entertainment attached to transport in India.

There can possibly be no jollier way to travel than in Second Sleeper on an overnight train through India. Seventy-two people fit comfortably into an open-plan carriage, where at 9pm precisely, a cleverly designed collection of bunks folds out. Everyone slumbers as the train trundles through the night, until 6am, when the seats are returned to the upright position, and the frenetic and delicious in-train catering resumes.

Ah yes, you may be thinking, but surely you have to queue for days beforehand to make a booking? Not now; the highly efficient computer reservations service meant that for three separate overnight journeys, covering 1,200 miles, I queued for 45 minutes in total.

Earlier this month, I spent longer than that waiting at Lille station to buy a ticket for the 40-minute ride to Brussels. And it cost the same for that one trip (pounds 9) as for all three trains around India.

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COMFORT IS not a feature of every rail journey in India though - especially around Mumbai, formerly named Bombay. The magnificence of the city's Victoria Terminus, described by Jan Morris as "the central building of the entire British Empire", is belied by the chaos aboard the local trains that serve it.

In David Collins' excellent new guidebook to the city (Lonely Planet, pounds 8.99), I was surprised to read that the fare on the suburban railway to the airport was 5 rupees in second class, 56 rupees in first. Surely an error? But no: the sensible traveller will indeed pay 11 times as much - the equivalent of 80p, rather than just 7p - for a seat on this 45-minute journey.

Conditions in second class are better if you are female, but only slightly. A sign on the guard's van reads: "Luggage compart-ment for Ladies, 3am- 1pm."

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MY COLLEAGUE Rhiannon Batten, I reported last week, was voted Young Travel Writer of the Year by Travel Trade Gazette (TTG).

Part of her prize was a trip to the Southern USA and, being a meticulously polite sort of person, she wrote a thank-you letter to the trade journal. Turning to the correspondence page of this week's TTG, I see that it has been printed as Letter of the Week, winning Rhiannon a second trip, this time to France.

Henceforth she will be known as the woman who does not need to pay her way.

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