Holidays made in heaven ... and hell

School's out, the bags are packed and Britain is off on its hols. Where we choose to go reveals something important about ourselves
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Travel Editor

With the end of term yesterday, the holiday Olympiad has truly left the starting blocks. About 2 million people will leave the country this weekend, and many more will travel within the UK. Cars will be choking the M5 to the West Country, while queues for Le Shuttle will back up for miles from the Channel Tunnel, and Gatwick will be bursting at the seams with the great charter-flight exodus

The world that we visit in such numbers is, as the illustration below shows, a gross distortion of geography. Start in Britain, which is still our favourite destination by a mile. Among domestic tourists, England, Scotland and Wales are evenly matched, with the principality taking gold medal position. But Northern Ireland remains a poor relation, the upsurge in violence having wiped out the tourist gains of 1995 - the first peaceful season for a quarter-century. Among British regions, the West Country is easily the favourite; one in six domestic tourists chooses to take a break in Devon or Cornwall.

Information about foreign holidays is infuriatingly imprecise. Neither the Government nor the Association of British Travel Agents will know the precise numbers for 1995 until November this year. In an industry where tour operators are already trying to sell holidays for September next year, this statistical lag seems extraordinary. Yet from informed sources, it is possible to produce a map of the world from the package tourist's perspective.

Forget the bad press that Spain has received ever since the Costa Brava package tour was invented 30 summers ago (28 guineas for 10 days, flying from Southend with Gaytours). Five million people will fly to Majorca, Malaga and beyond. The Balearics, in particular, attract numbers far disproportionate to their size. The offer of keen prices and clean beaches seems infallible.

France is not faring nearly so well. More than 2 million of us travel there on organised packages, and, in total, a staggering 9 million made it across to France (many staggering under the weight of those duty-frees). But the strong French franc has meant visitors are now trading down - camping rather than staying in a gite, taking the Eurostar train to Paris for the day (pounds 49 from Ashford), rather than flying to the French capital for a weekend.

Other destinations that are feeling the pinch are a couple of ex-colonial islands in the Mediterranean: Malta and Cyprus. Their pounds are much stronger than the puny British version, so local hoteliers are having a tough summer. Much of the tourist trade has moved on to Turkey, one of the star performers this summer. Its tourism potential has hardly been touched so far - the gorgeous stretch of coast between Alanya and Adana holds hardly a hotel. But with low prices and a mass of charter flights, Britons will undoubtedly soon start encroaching here, on one of the Mediterranean's still unspoilt shores.

Those countries with borders on the Adriatic have had mixed fortunes. While Italy simmers along nicely, Greece is having another poor season. But that country's set-back is nothing compared with the catastrophe facing Croatia. This summer a few thousand brave souls may enjoy the Dalmatian coast, compared with more than half a million visitors in 1990. This figure places Croatia in the same league as the Scandinavian nations, which have recently priced themselves out of the main body of the market.

Politics and money apart, a lot of countries are fretting about the fastest- growing sector of the travel industry: the cruise. The number of people who prefer a night on the ocean wave to an onshore hotel rose by 40 per cent last year, and a similar increase is expected for 1996 when more mass-market ships come onstream.

The shrinking market for summer package holidays may also be a reflection of the resurgence of the British summer. As they enjoy a nationwide heatwave this weekend, many families may conclude that the best move is to make the most of the clement climate on their doorstep - and, at the same time, save the cash for a good winter holiday somewhere trendier than Torremolinos.

The trend-setters' guide to where's hot - and where's not

A trendy trip around the world:

Kaliningrad: if the Baltic is truly the new Mediterranean, then this sliver of Russian shore possesses its own Costa del Sol.

Iran: one-time hippy truck-stop (see Weekend, page 19), now encouraging mainstream tourism.

Bhutan: small country for big budgets.

Samoa: forget the Edinburgh Fringe - the South Pacific Festival is the place to be in September.

Cuba: the only place in the Western hemisphere where US tourists are notable by their absence.

Passe places - and how to disparage them:

Vietnam: "You mean you didn't fly Aeroflot? When I was there, that was the only way in."

Lebanon: "Of course, it was much cheaper when the Hizbollah were in charge."

El Salvador: "It just doesn't seem the same without rifle-toting 14- year-olds everywhere."

Uganda: "Much nicer with just the aid workers."

Burma: Just say "No". There is nothing to joke about in the first country to employ slavery to develop its tourism infrastructure.

Ralph Steadman: We've been on our holiday early this year - to Puglia, in the heel of Italy, in April. It's gorgeous, absolutely wonderful. We stayed in a 13th-century fortified farmhouse. I was fascinated by the idea of the heel and toe of Italy, you know, what's down there?

Rose Tremain: We went to a little Ionian island called Paxos and had a shack in an olive grove. It's the greenest of the Greek islands. It's very small so we didn't have a car. Communication was severed - just what a writer needs.

Ben Okri: I'll just get on a train and get away from so many things that have been troubling me. I'll travel across Europe, maybe end up by the fjords. I want to go right through France too; I want to ride bikes, read Plutarch, drink wine. At the moment, it seems just a dream.

Jilly Cooper: I'm getting myself into a new book, trying to work out the plot, so I don't think we'll have time to go on holiday. But Cassis, a small fishing village in the south of France, was our favourite place. That was where we went in 1961 after we got married.

John McVicar: I'm going to the bloody Orkneys. Will Self has booked a big house. My dog is friends with his kids. I've never been there before and I won't be going there again. Nothing atrracts me to the place - it's the bloody Orkneys isn't it.

Henry Kelly: We've been on holiday twice to the West of Ireland this year: Co Clare, Co Galway and Co Mayo. Connemara is marvellous too; but go in the next two years, before it's spoilt by the killer bungalow.