It's official: the world is now more threatening. Last weekend, British travellers in even the most innocuous of nations were urged by the Foreign Office to be more vigilant. I was halfway through researching 48 hours in Barcelona when the news came through, in the form of about 100 emails from the FCO. It operates a usually excellent update service, which helps travellers keep tabs on events that could affect them.
But for a moment on Saturday I thought the system was throwing a digital wobbly, because so many new warnings to small, serene countries appeared – from Iceland to Malta, not forgetting plucky Liechtenstein and San Marino. Then it became clear that the terrorism section for each had been changed. The usual first line, "There is a low threat from terrorism", remained the same. But then a new paragraph had been inserted:
"There is considered to be a heightened threat of terrorist attack globally against UK interests and British nationals, from groups or individuals motivated by the conflict in Iraq and Syria. You should be vigilant at this time."
Judging from the tone of the government over the past months, travellers will be forgiven for thinking: if Ebola doesn't get you, Islamic State probably will. We have been told is that there is a heightened risk of attack against Brits around the world, presumably because of information that has been received from the intelligence services.
In Barcelona, I estimate I was in the company of between five and 10 thousand British holidaymakers. I suspect the number who acted more vigilantly as a result of the warning was zero. First, there is only a certain amount of vigilance that each of us can spare, and anyone who doesn't keep a close eye on their property in the city is likely to lose it. Next, where you find visitors from the UK, you tend also to find foreign tourists ( with the exception of vernacular resorts such as Skegness). So it's difficult to see what kind of target terrorists might have in mind that would aim squarely at Brits.
The only response I can honestly recommend to the latest volley of warnings is not to spend too long loitering in the lobby of big, Western-branded hotels in the Indian sub-continent, the Middle East, and North and East Africa. But those are exactly the places I suggest avoiding anyway, because of the pattern of past terrorist attacks.
I can sympathise with the UK authorities for the problem they face in spelling out a threat in a way that is not going to reveal the source of the intelligence behind it. And I shall resist the temptation to question the reliability of alerts about threats, given the warnings about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in 2003. But it seems to me that the Foreign Office, like the Department of Health, feels compelled to say something even if it is going to be ignored by everyone. As with Ebola, the authorities want to be seen to be doing something – anything – to show that they take our welfare seriously.
It would have been a lot more useful for the Government to say: "Be careful when crossing the road in foreign countries", or "Don't rent a scooter on a Greek island after you've had a couple of beers for lunch". Despite the spread of terrorism, traffic accidents remain by far the leading cause of death for British travellers abroad.
The big freeze
On the bus in from Barcelona airport I met a traveller called Leon from George (the city in South Africa, or was he George from Leon, the city in Spain?). He was about to turn 76, he told me, on a "repositioning cruise" from the Catalan capital to New Orleans.
Crikey, I said, I bet your insurance is expensive. He shook his head. "I don't bother."
Since Leon retired as a lecturer, he has stretched his pension and his horizons. He drove across the US in a beaten-up truck, in which he would sleep. He also had a trick for keeping food fresh on the road. "I'd park up for a night in a 24-hour supermarket's car park, which avoided campsite fees and provided all-night security," he told me. "Then I'd go into the supermarket and move fresh food into the ice-cream cabinet, and conceal it. Next morning, it would be frozen solid; I'd take it to the check-out, pay for it and know it would keep for days in the cool box. It surprised the check-out people, who couldn't understand how the stuff had frozen or why I wanted to buy it. But it worked."
For the travel industry, November has begun grimly. Just before the message went out last weekend that the world was a scarier place, the news came through about the tragic loss of Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo during a test flight at the outer limits of the tourism business.
November is not just a melancholy month, it is also the lowest of low seasons – with half-term ending for everyone and not even the prospect of skiing to boost winter sales. That is one reason for the timing of the biggest event of the year for Britain's industry of human happiness: World Travel Market, which took place in east London this week. It is also the best time to visit Barcelona, which is celebrating Catalan culture as never before and is the European city with the toughest competition from Britain. Five airlines compete from Gatwick alone; one of them, Norwegian, will fly you there on 22 November and back three days later for £51 return. Twenty years ago I paid three times as much.
Here's a Leon-like tip. Should you find yourself running short of time and money at the end of your stay, don't pay the €7 admission to the Museum of the History of Barcelona; just go to the exit, say you want to see the exhibition about democracy in Latvia, and wander freely into St Agatha's chapel, one of the secret treasures of the city.Reuse content