Channel-hopping shoppers make the tills ring in France

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The Independent Online

Amid the crush on Britain's high streets today, traders will be watching anxiously for signs that Christmas trade has finally taken off.

Also today, at the Carrefour hypermarche on the outskirts of Calais, the aisles will be heaving with British buyers. The same story is repeated elsewhere in north-east France and southern Belgium: this weekend the hotels are almost full and the fromageries and boutiques will be enjoying a sales surge. And all despite the fact that prices are no longer as low as they once were.

All the signs are that, this year, business in towns such as Boulogne and Arras in France and Bruges, in western Belgium, will be up by between 15 and 20 per cent over last year. Towns easily accessible via the Channel Tunnel or Dover ferries, are competing for the British consumers, laying on special events, such as Christmas Markets, ice rinks and fairs.

"We are confident this is going to be a very good year indeed, with trade up as much as 20 per cent over last year," said Nick Stephens, spokesman for the Chamber of Commerce in Boulogne. Boulogne boasts dozens of small, interesting shops in its Old Town, food markets and good restaurants, as well as an out-of-town hypermarket for bulk wine-buying, which makes it a plausible alternative to Bluewater or Brent Cross for shoppers from London.

Diana Hounslow, from the tourism office for Calais agreed: "It is a bit too early for figures yet, but everything suggests it is going to be a very good season. Last weekend, Arras, which was holding its Christmas market and is only about an hour from Calais, and Le Touquet, were both very busy, despite heavy rain." In the Belgian town of Bruges, easily accessible via Eurostar or by road, Michel Maertens, a spokesman for the local hotels, said he expected a 10 to 15 per cent rise in room bookings over the next two weeks. "I aim to be fully booked each weekend, although it is difficult to predict, because everyone leaves it until the last minute."

According to both Eurotunnel and P&O, bookings are holding up well this season. P&O confirmed that many shoppers were now venturing further afield from Calais. "The duty-free thing has obviously tailed off a bit, but people still come because they find more interesting specialist shops and good prices," said a spokesman.

But while Cite d'Europe is still booming, Calaisis slightly depressed, with trade only around the same levels as last year. Iris Crespo, owner of the Maison du Fromage cheese and wine shop, said business was just holding up. "Some of the British people are coming here less than they used to, because they are going to other towns. The novelty of Calais has worn off. But we have good local customers, so we can't complain."

Many of those who do venture further afield into France and Belgium still pause at Cite d'Europe on the way back because of its proximity to the Channel Tunnel and ferries. Geoff Searis, 58, an engineer from Oxford, was returning from a weekend in Bruges. He said: "We've had a great time. We must have spent hundreds of pounds in the Christmas market, and we've all eaten well. Now we are going to buy the wine and beer for Christmas."

Inside Carrefour, Andrew and Maria Young, both in their thirties from Gloucestershire, were in the middle of a very long day. "We came over on the 8.15am ferry, we've done the wine and beer and bought some clothes for us both and now we are doing the food," said Mr Young.

Chantelle St John, from Ashford, said: "The prices aren't startlingly cheap anymore, but it's a change of scenery and the clothes are better value. It is much less congested than anywhere in Britain - the English high streets are so depressing by comparison."

Everyone The Independent spoke to stressed the welcoming nature of local people. "I know it is in their interests to welcome the Brits here, but they have a totally different attitude: they are always pleased to see you, " said Ralph Collins, 53, a car salesman from Surrey. It was a feeling echoed by Emilie Naderi, 22, daughter of the owner of a gift shop in the centre: "We hope the British will keep coming ... tell them to come, because we love you!"

France vs Britain: The price challenge

By Karl Mansfield

* At Calais' Carrefour a 1 litre bottle of Huile D'Olive costs 3.99euros, (£2.70),

Tesco's Olive Oil costs £2.98.

* Carrefour's 75cl bottle of Cotes Du Rhone costs 1.15euros, (77 pence),

Tesco's Cotes Du Rhone costs £2.79.

* Carrefour's Camenbert President, 250g, , 1.6euros (£1).

Tesco's Camenbert, 250g, costs £1.08.

* Carrefour's 1 litre bottle of Bacardi costs 15.3 euros (£10.30).

Tesco's bottle of Bacardi costs £12.88.

* A 1litre bottle of Smirnoff Vodka red costs 14.95euros (£10.07)

Tesco's bottle of Vodka costs £12.48.

* Bargain hunters can travel to Calais from Dover every 45 minutes around the clock on a Saturday with P&O ferries. The cheapest fare is £10 each way for a car and up to nine people.