Travel: Simon Calder's Column

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The Independent Online
Does this sound like your most recent holiday? A 2am arrival at a military airfield that's been pressed into service as a charter airport; a reckless ride on a battered bus to some God-forsaken half-built hotel, where a distorted disco is in full swing until dawn. The beach is accessible only by negotiating a flight of steps that would give a goat vertigo, and by picking your way across an eight-lane highway to a shabby stretch of sand that resembles a builders' yard.

In 1988, possibly; in 1998, unlikely.

While Britain's mass market travel industry is characterised by economists as "mature", its behaviour is often plain immature. Original thinking is a rare commodity; when someone has a good idea, everyone tends to follow.

The current fad is for telling the truth. Now, most industries learned long ago that honesty is the best strategy; but the package tour business is behaving as though a bolt of enlightenment has just struck Britain's high-street travel agents, illuminating them in a glow of veracity.

Thomson, the UK's biggest tour operator, began the trend with its "telling it like it is" promise. This summer's brochures include the scores awarded to each location by holiday-makers who went there last summer. Take care when you're completing that inevitable questionnaire on the flight home: your comments will be used to rate each property for quality of accommodation, location and catering. Leafing through the brochures, you pick up pretty quickly the idea that the more expensive the holiday, the higher the score.

Now Co-op Travelcare has gone what it claims is one better by promising customers access to what is said to be the "truth book": the OAG Agents' Gazetteer.

All industries, whether second-hand cars or national newspapers, have their reference books. The Agents' Gazetteer is the one for the mass-market package holiday. It contains frank appraisals of mainstream holiday resorts, plus their hotels and apartment blocks. Most travel agents carry the book, but hitherto have rarely shared its contents with customers. Not surprisingly, they prefer to rely for on brochures complete with ultra- blue skies and swimming-pools to sell.

The Co-op seems to be saying that this amounts to concealment of an important consumer resource, and promises to bring it out from under the counter. Yet having waded through a publication that has the bulk and interest value of the collected London telephone directories, I'm not convinced.

To test the extent to which the Agents' Gazetteer dishes the dirt on resorts and accommodation, I checked out the descriptions for my last couple of package holidays in Spain. In these two cases the so-called "truth book" is benign, even when compared with the operators' brochures.

The current Skytours brochure describes the Las Piramides complex in Playa de las Americas, Tenerife, as "No-frills accommodation with a variety of excellent fun-filled activities on site. The main beach is a 15-minute walk away."

So long as you accept the view that playing table football and drinking copiously comprise "excellent fun-filled activities" (which most of my fellow guests seemed to), this strikes me as uncontentious. The Gazetteer concurs: "Surrounded by bars and supermarkets. Intended to look like a pyramid but not impressive. Plenty of amenities for families and younger people."

On the second test holiday, the Eva Mar apartments in Benidorm, I'd say the Gazetteer was rather too kind. "A pleasant 24-storey brick block, built 1987. Attractive open-plan layout though somewhat run down."

In my book, the words "pleasant" and "24-storey brick block, built 1987" are mutually incompatible, even when placed in the context of Benidorm. The Club Freestyle brochure takes a different tack: "If you're looking for a quiet night you've come to the wrong place! The Eva Mar is only 10 minutes' walk from the main centre of Benidorm and there are loads of restaurants, bars and shops nearby."

It's taken three decades and reams of new legislation, but holiday companies now have a strong incentive to tell the truth in brochures.

Anything that gives the consumer more ammunition in the battle to find a good-value holiday is to be commended, but I suspect that the Co-op's move comes about 10 years too late.