Are we really being stitched up - or are we just paranoid?

IS THE HOLIDAY industry really stricken by anti-competitive practices? Even in a world containing hundreds of countries, thousands of planes, and a million miles of beaches?

It may seem unlikely but it transpires that where British holiday makers are concerned, the Monopolies and Mergers Commission has a job to do. Currently under investigation are the big tour operators such as Thomson Holidays, Airtours and Thomas Cook, whose very own High Street chains of holiday shops - it is alleged - do not always offer the impartial advice they pretend to offer.

In other words, when you stroll into your local holiday shop you may be under the mistaken impression that the world is your oyster and that of all the vast numbers of brochures detailing every resort on earth, your sales consultant is about to show you an unbiased sample.

In fact , so you are to believe, your holiday shop is probably in thrall to the tour operator which owns it. A Lunn Poly shop owned by Thomson's is bound to try to flog you a Thomson's holiday.

Isn't it? Natural human cynicism might indeed suggest that if you were (for example) a Lunn Poly sales consultant you would be tempted to offer customers a Thomson's brochure before anybody else's.

Tempting though it is to fall in with this assumption, statistics do not actually support it. Again, in the case of Lunn Poly, two thirds of the holidays they sell are not Thompson's at all. Their sales consultants are not offered extra incentives to sell Thompson Holidays in particular. Their main interest, unsurprisingly, is just to sell as many holidays as they possibly can.

The other complaint under investigation by the Monopolies and Mergers Commission - that of travel shops tying unnecessarily expensive insurance policies to their holidays - is a more legitimate one. But sticking to the subject of anti-competitive practices, I find the idea that the travel industry could seriously be stitched up by a few large operators quite laughable.

It is impossible to think of any other market in which the product is so various. Unlike cars or brands of mouthwash, different holidays do not look remotely the same. The difference between an elephant tour of India and a beach holiday at Benidorm is not (yet) just a marketing job.

In fact I often receive "Top Ten" hit parades of the current most popular holiday destinations, into which resorts regularly drop in and out at the whim of merciless consumer trends.

Let me give you a flavour of this, according to the latest list of short break European cities issued by Travelscene. First, the losers: In the last ten years, the biggest of these has been sad old Berlin, crashing from ninth place to 27th, a post-Wall decline that not even Thomson Holidays could have done anything about. Other cities to have disappeared from the top ten include old classics like Vienna and Florence.

Replacing these, ten years on, are the new, young and hip destinations: In at number 10 comes Dublin, at seven comes Prague and straight in at number five zooms Barcelona. Some of the people who are visiting these cities do so no doubt because they have already been to Vienna and Florence. Others do so because they want to visit trendy bars rather than galleries and concert halls. Either way they have an interesting and very real choice to make.

Madrid, Venice and Rome linger lower down in the top ten, but at positions three and four are the two Belgian cities of Bruges and Brussels respectively, both up from nowhere ten years ago. Who would have bothered to visit Belgium before the Channel Tunnel?

Finally, the top two are both unchanged from ten years ago. Number two is Amsterdam and number one is Paris - as I imagine they have been every year since the Battle of Waterloo. You might say that the French and Dutch have got us stitched up, but I don't think this is a job for the Monopolies and Mergers Commission.

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