The eclipse: a good omen for travel agents

Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
THE GREATEST moment of your life is either a dozen days or five months away, according to which camp in the travel industry you believe (personally, I would side with neither; an industry whose business is selling dreams is not one in which unswerving faith is likely to be rewarded).

Depending on your circumstances, you may have thought that an event such as getting married, surviving a Cabinet reshuffle or your team winning the treble was of supreme significance. But the travel trade would like to persuade you otherwise.

The 12-day wonders think you should travel somewhere to observe the last total eclipse of the millennium, which takes place on 11 August. I have been fortunate enough to witness a total eclipse, in India, and can confirm that to witness the light draining from a cloudless sky is a truly, er, cosmic experience worth travelling a long way to see.

The significant word there is "cloudless". There is still time to make plans for being in Romania, Turkey or Iran on 11 August. These are locations on the path of totality where the weather is likely to be fine enough for you to see the hole in the sky.

Most of us, though, will stay closer to home, in the far south west of England or northern France. (Page 11 of next week's travel section will preview the French options.) But do not be taken in by Ealing Council's promotion: "Total Eclipse of the Park, a unique event to celebrate the solar eclipse from one of the most beautiful vantage points in London". There will be no total eclipse in London, or anywhere in the UK apart from south-west Cornwall, south Devon and Alderney.

Wherever you are on the day, if there should happen to be a break in the clouds, do not look directly at the sun. The eclipse glasses that are being sold for spectators along the line of totality are even more essential for people in the rest of Britain, who will be able to witness a partial eclipse (about as much fun, I imagine, as only partially surviving a Cabinet reshuffle). Deep in the retina there are no pain receptors to give an early warning, and infrared rays from the sun can cause permanent eye damage. Advertisements for protective eyewear in the travel trade press are selling the protective eyewear for 50 pence a pair, and suggesting that travel agents retail them to customers for pounds 1.99, turning a 300 per cent profit. I wonder whether any will be enlightened enough to sell them at cost price?

The five-month merchants wish to remind you that 31 December is going to be the biggest New Year's Eve celebration ever, and that you had better have something good to tell the grandchildren about where you were when the world turned 2000. Travel industry hopes are pinned on the travelling public paying "superpeak" prices that are way out of line even for the usual Christmas/ New Year hike. Airlines and hotels have been charging two or three times the going rate to people who want to ensure that they can celebrate in their chosen location. But the bargains are beginning to appear. The natural inclination to celebrate at home with friends and family, combined with concerns about the Millennium Bug, means demand is drooping. As noted in Something to Declare, below, cheap new flights via Sri Lanka will get you to Sydney for much less than other one-stop airlines are charging.

If you are inspired by page 6 of this week's Traveller, and would prefer to head to Lapland instead, you may be interested in an ad that appeared in the Travel Weekly business-to-business section: "Due to flight seat imbalance, we can offer between 50 and 55 seats Gatwick-Rovaniemi 30 Dec, Rovaniemi-Gatwick 2 Jan. Price inclusive all taxes pounds 245 per seat". So stand by for some short-notice holidays to the north of Finland; it will be interesting to see by what margin prices are marked up.

A MONTH has elapsed since the end of duty-frees for journeys within the European Union, and the world has not come to an end. There are bureaucratic ruffles still to be ironed out, and travellers can benefit from some bargains. Thankfully the vast majority of the 160,000 workers who the duty-free consortium of airports-to-distillers warned would lose their jobs, are still gainfully employed. Air and ferry fares have barely registered an increase, and not a single regional airport has closed. The most significant effect has been to allow us to see what staggering profits duty-free outlets have been making - and continue to earn on sales for trips outside the EU. Consider Dixons stores at Heathrow. You can buy a Sharp Minidisc for pounds 145, saving pounds 25 on the high-street price.

This represents the VAT element of the cost. Yet the company is prepared to sell to you at the same price even if you are flying within Europe, which makes you (or, more accurately, Dixons) liable for tax. Two things follow from this policy: the traveller flying outside the EU could demand a discount equivalent to the tax that Dixons would have to pay for a customer on an intra-European journey; and the high-street customer might ask why, if Dixons can absorb the VAT in a store on the most expensive retail territory in Britain, it should not offer the same deal to customers in Hounslow as well as Heathrow.

A MONTH from now, one more airline stubs out smoking. Iberia, which has long championed the right to light up at altitude, falls in with standard practice among European and North American airlines. Another blow for smokers, with whom I sympathise. But some of the goodwill vaporised when I read the summer edition of Free Choice, the magazine put out by the smokers' pressure group, Forest. Besides listing the top 10 celebrity and fictional smokers (headed by Jeremy Clarkson and Sherlock Holmes respectively), it tells of a breathless day-trip to Paris. The plan was to head across the Channel by Eurostar to avoid national no-smoking day. "Forest's day trip to Paris was a breath of fresh air," reports Jenny Sharkey.

Not if you happened to be a passenger on the last train home of the day: "We were booked on the 7.19pm because the smoking carriage had already been filled on the last train. However, some of us were enjoying ourselves so much that we missed it and ended up on the later train anyway, which meant we had to walk up and down the train trying to find a place to light up. We all said our goodbyes at Waterloo and can't wait to do it all again next year." You have been warned.

HAS ALL the glamour gone out of long-haul air travel? Not so long ago, airlines gave certificates for "achievements" such as crossing the Equator. On the first flight I took on KLM to Brazil, passengers were given a document, signed by the captain, marking the feat. (KLM could afford to do so since it charged 50 per cent more than current fares.) On American Airlines' long-haul flights, the pilot used to prepare a map, to be passed around the passengers so that they might marvel at the challenge. What achievements these days deserve a certificate? Perhaps flying in and out Milan's Malpensa airport without a delay; the chance of this is worse than one in three.

Comments