Just think, for the price of 200 rides on the London Underground, you or I could be visiting the ice-fair at Harbin in north-eastern China, where enormous, intricate statues of carved ice are on display in the freezing fog of a Manchurian winter. Surely, in fact, that's what we should be doing. I realised this in the days when I had a 16-week summer holiday from university and pounds 3,000 a year to spend - if you refrained from going somewhere you could afford to go to, you ran the risk that you might die without ever seeing that place. Dying without having seen the Harbin ice-fair (among other places) is one of the nastiest aspects of living and even cheap travel doesn't help. The list of affordable travel destinations is so long that you'll never keep up, no matter how hard you try.
The trend towards cheaper air travel will have its blips, no doubt. Every means possible will be found to provide more sophisticated luxuries for wealthier holiday-makers, as reported on the front page of this section. Will there eventually come a time when no holiday will seem complete without helicopter sight-seeing tours and a transfer in a green Rolls-Royce?
No doubt the next century will see ultra-fast and horribly expensive aeroplanes being developed, and sophisticated travellers will gladly spend millions to cross the Atlantic in minutes. Today's style of aeroplane travel will be recalled in the same patronising terms as overcrowded trains in Asia are today, and my grandchildren will fall back open-mouthed at the idea that I once took 24 hours to get to Australia. This will then lead inexorably to a revival of the grand age of air travel and weepy romantics will pay ever larger sums to chug about the sky in renovated Boeing 747s complete with stewardesses in period costume. "The leisurely way to travel," the brochures will say, "when people had time to see the world on their travels."
Perhaps travel will never get ridiculously cheap then. Badly behaved passengers, for a start, are doing their best to push up prices. The antics of three drunkards last year caused one London-bound flight from Goa to be diverted to Vienna at huge expense, raising calls for airlines to be patrolled by specialist air marshals. And according to a recent Holiday Which? survey airport security also needs sorting out on a worldwide scale. Most airports are not yet capable of detecting the type of bomb that caused the Pan Am disaster at Lockerbie, while alarming numbers of unaccompanied bags are put on to flights all over the world everyday. Britain, in fact, was mentioned as one of the safest places in the world to fly out of but considering all the talk these days of air crashes and black boxes, security procedures are almost bound to become tighter and more expensive. This ought to please me, I suppose. Not only will I feet safer at 30,000 feet, but all those exotic destinations which recently came to seem so tantalisingly near might just recede out of reach again.
It won't help. How about Paris by coach for pounds 27 return from London? This is already reality. Cheap international travel for anyone at any time. Most employed people in Britain earn enough in a few hours to pay for journeys like this and in 20 years they'll probably be able to pop over to China and back on a day's wages, if they can bear the ignominy of flying on old-fashioned, clapped-out Boeing 747s. Will a trip to China then seem as trivial as buying a new duvet cover or going to the theatre? Perhaps it will. But what won't seem trivial is when the Chinese themselves start popping over to see us at the same rate that we would like to pop over to see them. I know of a billion Chinese who are already resolved to see Big Ben and the River Thames before they die, especially if the price dips below pounds 299 return.
The whole of Britain, even in darkest winter, is set to resemble Venice in August. Before long, presumably, those Chinese who are too busy to travel will be harking back to the good old days when they couldn't afford to come here anyway.