Forget the foie gras, we'd rather have fish and chips and lager

Did you know that one in four Britons has been to the Canary Islands? Did you know that 1.4 million Britons go to Tenerife each year? Did you indeed know that last weekend the entire British travel industry decamped to the Canary Islands to hold its annual conference? I happen to know all of these things because I was there, attending the ABTA convention.

In case you haven't been reading the small print in your brochures by the way, ABTA (Association of British Travel Agents) is that kindly organisation which makes sure you get your money back if your tour operator goes bust. It also holds its annual convention in exotic holiday resorts such as the Canary Islands, though I am assured that the cost of flying 2,500 people into the sun for four days and feeding them on tuna steaks and red wine works out far cheaper than trying to do the same thing in Blackpool.

This is because places like Tenerife (or Acapulco or Istanbul or Cairns) are more eager to host conventions of travel agents than conventions of, say, machine-tool makers. So eager, in fact, in this instance that they were willing to contribute pounds 1.3 million to the event (around pounds 500 per delegate).

All that hospitality and publicity, precisely targeted at the people who count! And with an opening ceremony to put the Olympic Games to shame and free bottles of wine to every delegate, who could possibly complain.

Well, you might possibly complain if you thought that Tenerife was already an exceptionally well-established part of the British holiday scene and didn't need promoting. But you would be slightly wrong. It is an exceptionally well-established part of the down-market holiday scene. And what Tenerife wanted was to overturn this perception; they wanted the travel agents and tour operators of Great Britain to go back and spread the glad tidings that Tenerife was, after all, an elegant up-market destination something along the lines of Tuscany or the Dordogne.

Which I found pretty odd. I had always thought that the strong point about Tenerife was its winter sunshine - rather than its churches, its Michelangelos, its foie gras, its clarets, its verdant hillsides, its medieval cities or its unobtrusive tourists.

And the snag in bringing everybody out to Tenerife was that it gave the delegates the chance to confirm what they always suspected but had never quite been sure about. Namely that Tenerife was certainly a cheap, sunny and warm place to spend a week or two in winter, but that for verdant hillsides, foie gras and claret you would go elsewhere (Well all right, it does have a massive volcano in the middle of the island. It also has some surprisingly old towns as well as green hills on the north-facing coast. Ideal material for excursions. But I can't really see the Blairs renting a villa there).

The interesting question is why Tenerife is so keen on attracting more up-market tourists, as if 1.4 million Brits on a small, barren island weren't enough already. I think it is because they can't bear the thought of being a downmarket destination. Which is not really surprising. After all, who wants to be described as "downmarket"? If you were a city, would you rather be Bognor or Venice? Tenerife or Toledo? If you could swap 1.4 million people spending pounds 250 a week, for 100,000 spending pounds 1,000 a week, wouldn't you do it?

Not on purely financial grounds you wouldn't. But today's Spain obviously isn't thinking too much about money. It just prefers to think of itself as the land of, say, Velzquez and Picasso rather than silly waiters, drinking games and wet T-shirt contests. And who can blame them.

But driving away mass tourism from Tenerife does not strike me as a brilliant idea. By all means, let Spain have its Tuscany - but let it be Castilla and Andalusia, not the Canary Islands. The next time Tenerife tries to sell itself to the British travel industry I suggest they serve fish and chips and lager. We'll quite understand.

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