Sure, the sale of Thomson will provoke endless jokes involving Germans and sun-loungers, but will there be the familiar anguished editorials bemoaning the foreign purchase of this mighty symbol of a once-proud British industry? I doubt it. And the reason is clear: the package-tour, in all its shell-suited, lager-swilling, knicker-dropping glory represents everything the English middle-class - irrespective of political allegiance - despises, loathes and fears about the inhabitants of their own nation.
It's 30 years since Monty Python's travel-agent sketch first itemised everything that nice, university-educated folk find both hilarious and despicable about mass-market tourism, but the sketch's image of "sweaty, mindless oafs from Kettering and Coventry" drinking far too much beer, complaining about the local food and "squirting Timothy White's suncream all over their puffy, raw, swollen, purulent flesh because they overdid it on the first day" still holds good. The difference since then, of course, is that it's all got much, much worse. The Pythons didn't know about lager louts, Club 18-30, or Ibiza Uncovered. They could not have imagined that British vice-consuls like Michael Birkett (Our Man in Ibiza till 1998) would quit in disgust at the behaviour of their fellow-countrymen.
To see the British abroad - particularly young British - is to be reminded of the statistical truth of our decadence. When Thomas Cook, the founder of the British package tour, organised his first railway-trip from Leicester to Loughborough in 1841, it was a drink-free temperance outing. How times have changed. If there is one thing for which British holidaymakers are known, and by which they shock the natives of the countries they visit, it is the unrestrained debauchery with which they now behave - a way of life that is unparalleled in any of the countries they are ever likely to visit.
According to figures released by the European Centre for Monitoring Drugs and Drug Abuse, 42 per cent of 15- to 16-year-old Britons have used drugs, giving the UK Europe's most serious narcotics problem. A 1998 survey of 400,000 pupils by Exeter University's School Health Education Unit reported that teenagers are drinking on average three more units of alcohol per week than in 1993: an increase of 40 per cent in five years.
So Brits are more drunk and more stoned than anyone else on the beach. They're also flabbier. Department of Health figures show that 29 per cent of teenage boys and 44 per cent of girls take less than half-an-hour's exercise a week: only one girl in 10 exercises every day. Well, not during the daytime, anyway. An analysis of 53 countries by the Alan Guttmacher Institute in New York, published in July last year, showed that British teenage girls are, by some margin, the most sexually active in the world: 86 per cent of unmarried young women in this country have had sex by the age of 19, and our teenage pregnancy rate is yet another statistic in which Britain leads Europe. A British girl is 10 times more likely to get pregnant than her Dutch peers.
When they aren't snorting, sniffing, boozing or shagging, Brits are starting a fight. The Englishman's ability to cause trouble in foreign parts is an enduring shame on our nation. But we shouldn't be surprised, given the trouble they cause at home. Violence is now more common among young people, and its perpetrators are getting younger. Official criminal statistics show that since 1987, the rate of offending has risen by 52 per cent among 10- to13-year-old boys, and 29 per cent among 14- to 17-year-olds. In 1995 (the last year for which figures are available) there were 10,800 convictions or cautions for violence against the person by boys aged 10 to 17. By the time they hit their late teens, they're ready to export their aggravation.
It is, of course, unfair to blame tour operators for the squalor of their customers. Nor is it reasonable to lump the vast majority of decent, peaceful, moderately sober holidaymakers in with the feckless minority. The trouble is that the image sticks as tenaciously as beach-tar.
It's only 50 years since the modern package tour was created by Vladimir Raitz, whose Horizon Holidays introduced the idea of a single-price trip, including airfares and hotel accommodation. That same year, two French socialists called Gerard Blitz and Gilbert Trigano created the first Club Med, thereby giving the world the concept of an all-inclusive holiday in which food and drink were included (devised because the two men wanted a vacation in which money was never present). Thomson Holidays was the creation of the Canadian newspaper magnate Lord Thomson, who realised that the combination of an in-house fleet of aircraft and long-term hotel contracts could make travel cheap enough for the mass-market to afford.
Commercially, at least, the package holiday was a brilliant idea. In the past half-century since, hundreds of millions of people have bought into the idea - three million took Thomson holidays in 1999 alone. But in the industry, people are beginning to ask: will they continue to do so?
As travellers have become more sophisticated, so the desire for independence has spread downwards through the market. These days, it seems that more and more people want individually tailored holidays, and they are increasingly able to assemble their own holiday ingredients via the internet. Americans spent almost $8bn (£5bn) on travel online this year, making it by far the most valuable form of e-commerce (computer prducts came a distant second). In fact, almost 50 per cent of all online spending was travel-related. "We see travel being one of the major growth areas in online retail," says Chris Savage, head of External Communications at the internet consultants Forrester UK, who recently used the Net to plan a whistle-stop vacation trip to three US cities, logging on to local community sites to check out the neighbourhoods where hotels were located to see which were the nicest, the safest, and which had the best amenities.
Savage foresees a near-future in which internet-adapted mobile-phones will enable people to move spontaneously from one holiday-spot to another, picking up instant bargains from sites like lastminute.com. You could set off for a fortnight's vacation with just the first weekend booked, and take it from there.
And if you can do that, why worry about the World According to Thomson? Why bother with the package-tour universe in which, as the Pythons put it, "Your plane is still in Iceland waiting to take some Swedes to Yugoslavia before it can pick you up on the tarmac at 3am in the bloody morning because of 'unforeseen difficulties' - ie the permanent strike of Air Traffic Control in Paris - and when you finally get to the hotel there's no water in the taps, there's no water in the pool, there's no water in the bog and there's only a bleeding lizard in the bidet."
Well, when you put it like that, the Germans are welcome to it.Reuse content