Has the sun set for ever on the package holiday?

This year, according to the tour operators, we've gone off sunny Spain. They blame 'destination fatigue'. But perhaps the reason is that we want a different kind of break. <i>Simon Calder </i>reports
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This year, according to the tour operators, we've gone off sunny Spain. They blame 'destination fatigue'. But perhaps the reason is that we want a different kind of break. Simon Calder reports

The Costa Brava is no longer fit for its purpose, says First Choice. The giant tour operator has announced it is to abandon the stretch of coast where the Spanish package holiday was pioneered half a century ago. The holiday company blamed "destination fatigue" among customers who have, frankly, seen quite enough of north-east Catalonia. Next summer's brochures will leave out Lloret de Mar, Blanes and Tossa del Mar. First Choice will concentrate on more profitable locations for 21st-century package tourism, such as Bulgaria, where the appalling rooms and terrible food under communism have been superseded by excellent Spanish-run hotels.

In the first Holy Week since the 11 March bombings in Madrid, Spain's tourist industry has received more bad news about its principal commodity: the package holiday. Cosmos is considering pulling out of the Costa Brava and Ibiza, because it feels these destinations no longer serve adequately its core family market.

Other big tour operators are concerned about the prices demanded by Spanish hoteliers. They are considering selling fewer holidays to Spain, and increasing the supply of packages to cheaper destinations such as Croatia, Tunisia and Turkey. And Benidorm has received the ultimate put-down from Club 18-30, which feels the resort is too unsophisticated for its clients.

The principal destination country for all the mass-market operators remains Spain. But its supremacy as provider of "fly-and-flop" fortnights for sun-starved northern Europeans is under threat.

This week's developments are merely symptomatic of profound changes in the way the British travel, and which are threatening to undermine the fundamentals of the package holiday. For evidence of our changing habits, I spent this week travelling along Spain's Mediterranean coast.

The initial package holidays from Britain to Spain were in the Costa Brava out of technical and geographical necessity. Propeller aircraft flying from the UK had limited range.

The first airport they reached after crossing the Spanish frontier was Girona, which is why it became Spain's original charter airport for companies such as Horizon and Gaytours. In addition, many early package holidaymakers travelled by coach.

The Spanish road network was so lousy in the 1960s that buses stopped as soon as they could after the long drive through France and the tiresome border crossing into Spain. Again, this meant the beautiful but corrugated coastline of the Costa Brava.

During the 1970s, the jet aircraft became the standard form of transport to the sun. Range was no longer an issue. Alicante and Malaga airports were only an extra 20 or 30 minutes' flying time from Gatwick or Manchester, and opened up regions with sunnier skies and more room for high-density development.

Accordingly, the Costa Blanca and Costa del Sol quickly eclipsed the Costa Brava as the leading package holiday destinations. Hotels and apartments were hurriedly erected at resorts such as Benidorm and Torremolinos to cater for the fast-growing tourism industry.

Today, anyone taking the Autovia del Mediterraneo along the Costa del Sol will see that a second construction frenzy is under way. The cranes that line the shore are not building hotels; they are assembling villas and apartments for sale as cheaply as £50,000. Instead of paying thousands to timeshare touts for an annual week or fortnight in a ghastly complex, British people can buy a permanent place in the sun for a fraction of UK property prices. Many of these little white boxes are bought as second homes.

But a growing number of retired people are selling up in Britain to move permanently to a land where the weather is benign and the price of everything from beer to beachside villas is low. Spain is changing from a holiday destination to a lifestyle choice. The scale of this transformation is evident to anyone arriving at the main resort airports. The hard sell begins as soon as you are off the plane.

At Alicante, for example, travellers step from the aircraft into a corridor lined with advertisements. Each is for property on the Costa Blanca, and each is in English. The displays are on rollers and can be changed instantly; after passengers from the easyJet flight from Luton have cleared, the language switches to German to welcome people just off the Hapag-Lloyd Express flight from Cologne.

In baggage reclaim, passengers are accosted by estate agents who have set up stands selling properties "off-plan". Spain's Mediterranean shoreline is becoming a near-continuous urbanizacion of villas and apartments stretching from Benidorm to the border with Gibraltar.

After a British family buys a property in Spain, those people have no further need for a package holiday. All they require is a no-frills flight from a nearby British airport to Alicante, Murcia or Malaga. And that is a commodity in plentiful supply. Last week, Thomsonfly became the latest low-cost airline to link the UK with Spain, and opened up another chapter in the astonishing no-frills revolution that has transformed the landscape of Europe in less than a decade.

The mass-market package industry was thoroughly wrong-footed by the low-cost airlines. Eight years ago, easyJet had no flights from Britain to Spain; this summer, it has 400 services each way, each week. That represents the equivalent of transporting the population of a town the size of Crawley en masse to the sun every week. Last month, First Choice, which is based in Crawley, said it was abandoning seat-only sales because of intense competition from no-frills airlines.

The imminent demise of the package holiday has been predicted for at least a decade. Until this year, the figures have always confounded the doom-merchants: sales of Mediterranean packages stand at around 15 million annually. But package travel is indisputably declining relative to the rest of the travel market, in particular, independent long-haul adventures and short breaks on low-cost airlines.

The economics of travel mean that anyone seeking exactly a week or a fortnight on a Mediterranean beach will probably continue to get the best value from a package holiday. Tour operators run an extremely cost-effective process, managing aircraft seats and hotel beds at maximum occupancy, keeping the cost-per-head to a minimum. The problem with this model is that it depends on customers fitting in with fixed departure and return flights seven or 14 days apart.

For the first four decades of the package holiday, consumers had no choice; arranging a Mediterranean stay using scheduled airlines would have been ludicrously expensive. But now British Airways and Iberia, as well as easyJet and the other no-frills rivals, are selling cheap tickets with no minimum or maximum stay. With accommodation borrowed from friends or family, or found on the internet, holidays can be custom-made rather than bought off-the-peg.

The big tour operators could easily respond in kind by allowing customers more flexibility in duration, but they have hesitated to do so. They fear that tampering with a business model that has served them well for so long could fatally weaken the economies of scale, which depend on filling almost every flight seat and hotel bed through the summer. As the building boom along the coast continues, their aircraft leases and hotel contracts look less like assets and more like liabilities.

A couple of holidaymakers from Bristol I met at Malaga airport complained that Torremolinos had become "too tacky"; instead of their usual week on the Costa del Sol, next year they intend to look east to the less-developed Costa Tropical, and possibly buy a villa there.

But the Costa Brava is looking forward to an excellent summer, despite First Choice's plan to pull out, and the memory of terrorist activities in Spain. Girona, the main airport for the region, was Ryanair's first destination in Spain. The Irish airline sells the airport as "Barcelona", but its flights from Britain and Germany have done wonders for Girona.

This year, 1.5 million travellers will arrive at the airport where Spanish mass tourism began. They have little in common with the holidaymakers of half a century ago. They are predominantly well-heeled, independent travellers intent on enjoying the city, the Pyrenees and the region's culture, in particular the heritage of Salvador Dali, the surrealist who was born at nearby Figueres exactly 100 years ago. But for Britain's tour operators, the future is looking increasingly surreal, and scary.

WHAT'S IN

Bulgaria

The appalling rooms and terrible food that typfied Bulgarian resorts under communism have been superseded by excellent Spanish-run hotels.

Croatia

In the 1980s, one million Britons visited the Adriatic coast each year. This summer, they're back.

Tunisia

Sun, sea and sand in abundance at much lower prices than Spain can offer.

Turkey

Terrorist attacks in Istanbul have not deterred British visitors from resorts on the south and west coasts.

Girona

The Catalan city is attracting more than a million well-heeled travellers thanks to new scheduled flights.

WHAT'S OUT

Lloret de Mar

Enhancements in hotel quality have not kept pace with elsewhere in Europe, says the leisure travel company First Choice

Benidorm

It is "like Blackpool", according to Club 18-30, which is distancing itself from kiss-me-quick resorts

Ibiza

Not ideal for the 21st-century family holiday, says the tour operator Cosmos

Torremolinos

"Too tacky" for changing British tastes; some are looking further east, to Spain's Costa Tropical

Malaga

Thomas Cook is dropping its daily flights because of competition from no-frills airlines.

And finally, if you're going away this weekend ...

Traffic jams and squally rain greeted travellers at the start of the Easter weekend yesterday, with further misery predicted on the trains.

But 110,000 Britons escaped the gloom and headed abroad, the first of a record 2.1 million travellers expected to leave the country during the bank holiday weekend.

Tailbacks were building yesterday afternoon on the motorways, with bad weather hampering motorists trying to beat the traffic.

The AA said that about 18 million drivers were likely to take to the roads over the four-day holiday and warned of hazardous driving conditions.

Rail travellers were also expecting delays after Network Rail announced a major engineering programme that will close St Pancras station in London on Saturday and Easter Sunday and affect lines including the West Coast Main Line. But despite the usual setbacks, there was better news for those staying in Britain, with conditions expected to be warmer and drier than first predicted.

A PA WeatherCentre spokesman said: "It's going to be a typical Easter weekend, with unsettled spring weather and average temperatures."

For those flying out of the country, the Canary Islands, mainland Spain, the Balearics, Cyprus and Turkey were popular destinations, with others taking city breaks in New York, Dublin and Amsterdam.

A further half a million travellers were expected to cross the Channel to France, the Netherlands and Spain.

The Association of British Travel Agents said that holiday parks in Florida were almost sold out, with tourism boosted by the weak dollar.

Peter Woodman

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