Departure Lounge: Something new to declare

When it launches 'Departure Lounge' on Friday, the BBC hopes to transport travel TV into the 21st century. Simon Calder, travel editor of this paper and a presenter on the programme, charts five decades of the genre
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The Independent Online

Travel television as we know and (sometimes) love it began 47 years ago this month. In July 1958, the journalist Alan Whicker set off on the first of his televisual journeys around the world, taking in Thailand, Singapore, Hong Kong, Hawaii and Mexico.

In the 1950s, the chance of the average viewer ever venturing beyond the Channel, let alone outside Europe, was slim. But television ownership in Britain was growing rapidly, and Whicker soon became tour guide to the nation's vicarious travellers.

Whicker's insights and delivery were brilliant; so was his timing, in helping viewers to escape the austerity of post-war Britain. His globetrotting began as a strand within the BBC's current- affairs flagship, Tonight, but blossomed into a series that unlocked the planet: Whicker's World.

In the 21st century, the prospects for British travellers have improved by several orders of magnitude. A fortnight's work at the average national wage is quite enough to buy a round-the-world ticket. Want to experience America, Asia or Australasia? A few clicks with an online travel agency - as advertised by none other than Alan Whicker - will do the trick.

That gives the programme-makers a tricky challenge: to come up with travel television so compelling that viewers sit transfixed rather than heading straight for the nearest departure lounge.

BBC1's response is... Departure Lounge, which begins a 10-week prime-time run on Friday. It aims to take viewers to now-familiar parts of the world but with a different perspective. The presenter Nick Knowles reports from New Zealand, where he sought travel advice from the country's PM, and in Jamaica where a local family were his guides. Angellica Bell, who joins the programme from CBBC, sought glamour on the cheap aboard an easyCruise in the South of France, and searched for the soul of Germany's capital, Berlin. And I have a role to play as a travel troubleshooter, trying to turn an average holiday into a great experience.

The new programme is focussed less on "aspirational" travel of the sort that makes magazines like Condé Nast Traveller successful, and more on the constraints that real tourists face. One strand in the programme is called "Five-hundred-pound challenge", in which a celebrity sees how much they can squeeze out of a short break to a long-haul travel destination on a strict £500 budget.

In media terms, travel journalism has expanded far faster in print than in broadcast. Since 1995, The Independent's travel section has grown from four broadsheet pages to a compact 32-page magazine. But over the same decade, radio and television travel coverage has not increased substantially - despite the growth in other "lifestyle" programmes covering activities such as gardening and DIY. The BBC believes that a high-profile slot can tap into a national appetite for travel.

Departure Lounge is from the same stable as Holiday, but, contrary to some reports, the UK's longest-running travel programme will return in October. Since it began in the early 1970s, Holiday has become the "mother lode" for travel TV. Like the travel industry as a whole, Holiday has made a journey: from glossy reports on mainstream resorts to grittier films about destinations that are opening up to holidaymakers - Nicaragua and Siberia will feature in the next series.

The presentation style has evolved, too, from an avuncular Cliff Michelmore in 1974 to Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen in 2006. Like the perfect holiday, though, producers have been struggling to find the ideal format for travel television. Wish You Were Here? was a mainstay of the ITV schedules for decades, and turned Judith Chalmers into a glowing national treasure.

Rough Guides and Lonely Planet built on the leading guidebook brands to appeal to independent travellers - or viewers who preferred to experience Alaska or Vietnam from their armchairs. The Travel Show generated big audiences for BBC2 for 15 years. But other formats have proved less robust: Doors to Manual made only one run on Channel 4, as did Perfect Holiday - another offshoot of Holiday. There is a clear gap in the market for the gap-year generation, too, for whom a trip via South-East Asia to Australia and back via America is as de rigueur as National Service once was.

Above all, Departure Lounge needs to entertain. It is no longer enough merely to depict and describe the wonders and cultures of the world - people can see and experience them for themselves now. The challenge is to inform and inspire with enough passion to make it a Friday-night fixture.

Simon Calder is travel editor of 'The Independent'. 'Departure Lounge'begins on BBC1 on Friday at 7pm