Will the sun set on holiday romances?: Condoms are the last thing on your mind if what you feel like is really letting go, says Imogen Edwards-Jones

MY SKIN had that warm gingerbread feeling that comes from a day overdoing it in the sun on the beaches of the Costa del Sol. I had drunk a few too many glasses of sangria which, at the age of 16, had not taken long. The white waiter's jacket that I had bought from Oxfam was lying flat in the sand. It was 2am and I had been out disco dancing with a boy who could hardly speak my language. But he pronounced my name so sexily.

I felt fantastic and very grown up and thought that Paulo was really great. Yes, I was one of the thousands of young travellers who, each year, throw caution to the wind and end up losing their virginity to the first person to massage Hawaiian Tropic between their shoulders.

In the pre-Aids era, our main worry was pregnancy or that he would, a few months later, tip up on the doorstep to stay forever with a faded tan and mousy hair. These days it is a different story.

This week the Department of Health launched a pounds 250,000 campaign aimed at changing the behaviour of those leaving the country. A recent study by Professor Nicholas Day for the Public Health Laboratory Service estimated that, at the end of 1991, 28 per cent of HIV infection had been acquired by heterosexual contact; that people were three times more likely to contract HIV on their summer holidays than at home; and that women were four times more likely to contract the HIV virus heterosexually than men.

Called 'Follow the Travelsafe Code' the DoH initiative consists of a colourful leaflet and a 'Smart Card', a credit-card size reminder that advises people to avoid injecting drugs, tattoos, acupuncture and piercing, medical treatment and unprotected sex. At the same time it reminds them that alcohol and drugs affect their judgement.

But according to an ex-employee of Club 18-30, the leading young people's travel company now known as The Club, such a campaign will have little effect while sex and a good time are the things that attract young people abroad.

'The emphasis was to sell the clients trips that included as much cheap booze as possible. Then we would organise something like mud wrestling, and what with loads of girls running around drunk in bikinis, hitting each other, covered in mud, there was a fair amount of sex going on,' she said.

'But it wasn't so much the punters having sex with each other as the reps and the punters together. There were some who had a different girl every night as a matter of course. It was like a competition. I sat down in a meeting once and the men could not leave their crotches alone - it was disgusting.'

'The Spaniards and the Greeks weren't really into having sex with the English girls. They would just watch and think of the money they were making from us.

'Although The Club does now issue warnings and dish out free condoms, when I worked there in 1989, at the height of the Aids scare, I never even heard the word mentioned. It wasn't part of the fun atmosphere; it would have

put too much of damper on the holiday.'

Alison, who had unprotected sex with an Englishman while on holiday in Mexico, says the freedom and escapism of holidays tends to make people more promiscious. 'It's all about running away from your problems. Everything is suspended for two weeks. It's all about letting go: just like sex, really. But I think that's the problem. You don't plan to have a holiday romance when you leave. You may even take the condoms with you but you don't ever really intend to use them. You're in a dream place and it's all supposed to be like a dream: the last thing you want is to rustle around in the dark.'

'It's all very well for the older generation to tell us from their offices to use condoms, but when you are out discovering things that is the last thing on your mind.'

The ex-employee of Club 18-30 agreed. 'It's all very well handing out condoms to people, and asking them to use them, but once people have been drinking their behaviour becomes more and more irresponsible. But then, if the blokes have been drinking that much it doesn't really matter much anyway.'