A wobbly pound won't get you very far today

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The Independent Online
TO AN unmusical soundtrack of British yobs chanting, "Ere we don't go, Ere we don't go, Ere we don't go", the French Tourist Office has just launched its first national television advertising campaign in Britain.

The message is that this is one place you can visit without meeting your less agreeable countrymen. But behind the campaign lies a growing French fear that you won't find any of your countrymen there, for the number of British tourists visiting France is slumping dramatically.

The early signs are that bookings this year will be between 10 and 15 per cent down on 1995 - a fall equivalent to about one million people, according to the Travel Office. Travel experts say ski holiday bookings to France this season are thought to be at least 20 per down.

The prime reason is not hard to find: the pound, which many Britons still fondly imagine should buy them 10 francs, today scarcely fetches Ffr7.50. A combination of weak sterling and a strong franc is putting France beyond the pockets of many British tourists.

France is the worst-hit of the European destinations. Even in Portugal, Spain and Greece, bookings are down because of the feeble pound.

In Spain, for example, the British traveller's pounds 500 is now worth pounds 53 less than in summer 1995. In Portugal it is worth pounds 49 less, and in France pounds 46 less.

"This year it just didn't happen. The bookings just didn't come," says Howard Carr, deputy editor of Travel Trade Gazette. "If you look at how individual countries are faring, the prime example being France, you see how tourism has plummeted, particularly with weekend breaks in Paris. You bet the operators are worried."

Nine million Britons took holidays in France last year, so the slump will hardly leave the country Brit-free, but the drop is still dramatic. Elizabeth Powell of the French Tourist Office says that even last year there was a growing trend among loyal francophiles to cut their holiday from two weeks to 10 days, or to take one holiday instead of two.

Rosie Gerrard of Eurocamp, which deals largely in French camping holidays, has watched the change. "Certainly I think there's a perception that it's expensive," she says.

The motorway toll for the 295 km (185 mile) trip from Calais to Paris is pounds 13. Petrol is around 78p a litre compared with about 56p here. Even what appeared cheap before is now less so; the great value prix fixe meal, which could be had for pounds 8 or pounds 9, now costs pounds 11 or pounds 12.

But the exchange rate is not the only cause of the slump. The French tourist industry is seeking to recover from the triple blow it received last year when anger about the French nuclear testing in the South Pacific, anxieties about a terrorist bombing campaign and public sector strikes at the end of the year combined to keep tourists away.

With the conclusion of the tests, the end of the bombing campaign and the restoration of industrial peace, the tourism authorities are hoping for a better 1996. But signs are not good.

Operators are gloomy. "We had fewer bookings from Britain in 1995 than the year before," said Mandy Bourne of Locaboat Plaisance, based in Burgundy, which hires out canal boats.

"The agencies we work with say there was a drop of 10 to 20 per cent in bookings at the end of last year, maybe more," says Remy Lassaigne of the Perigord Tourist office, which covers the Dordogne, a favourite with Britons. "This year we have had an increase in inquiries, but they don't always come to anything."