Michelangelo's secret Middlesbrough

Simon Calder: The Man Who Pays His Way

The holiday war has broken out. Like the January sales that now precede Christmas, Britain's travel agents are already bursting with bargains that seek to show that there has never been a better time to go abroad. In your local high street the opening shots have been fired in what promises to be a bruising conflict for the hearts, wallets and passports of the 18 million British people expected to take a package holiday in 2001.

The holiday war has broken out. Like the January sales that now precede Christmas, Britain's travel agents are already bursting with bargains that seek to show that there has never been a better time to go abroad. In your local high street the opening shots have been fired in what promises to be a bruising conflict for the hearts, wallets and passports of the 18 million British people expected to take a package holiday in 2001.

If the discount posters get any larger than last winter, they will occupy every square inch of travel agencies' windows. If the discounts themselves get any bigger, the public's suspension of disbelief will cease. It will become clear to everyone that the prices in brochures are entirely made up. As with anything on sale at the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, only a fool would pay full price.

"People will be paying a bit more than they did last year," is the succinct appraisal from the boss of one of the larger tour operators. He would, he says, be delighted to quote straightforward prices in brochures, but cannot do that until his competitors do the same.

If you prefer to cut out the intermediaries and arrange your own travels, there is no shortage of bargains to be had. Expect British Airways to despatch a squadron of price cuts shortly after Christmas, and its rivals to match or beat those fares. As soon as the New Year rush is over, the no-frills boys will be battling it out once more with silly fares to Europe.

All of which spells dire news for Britain, which will wave a sad farewell to more holidaymakers than ever. The UK's domestic tourist industry faces another difficult year persuading the British to holiday at home when there are plenty of places where life is cheaper and warmer. Enticing tourists to a cool, damp country will be tough.

The omens for inbound visitor numbers point to a third year of decline. And 2002 could be even worse, because of the "Euro effect" - once the single currency's notes and coins are in circulation, there will be a disincentive to travel to countries, like Britain, that are outside the Euro area.

So British towns and cities are battling with each other and with Abroad to lure tourists with catchy slogans. I went along to the British Travel Centre in London to see how places are trying to improve on the sad old Dome's "One Amazing Day".

"England's best historic city" is York's claim, though Chester and Bath might take issue with the definition of "best". Bath boasts it has been "welcoming visitors for 2,000 years", easily beating New Lanark World Heritage Village, which promises a paltry "200 years of fun in a day". Both are trounced for longevity by Orkney and Shetland: "5,000 years of island history". Manchester looks forward, and says it is "The city of the 21st century". But only one British town is bold enough to use the ubiquitous slogan "Absolutely fabulous".

This fab destination demands to know "Who needs Italy, India or the good old US of A? In two square miles we can show you the Sistine Chapel, the Statue of Liberty and more award-winning restaurants than you can visit in a ...".

I rushed breathlessly for the end of that sentence like a desperate shopper running out of Advent. Would it finish "in a lifetime", or just "in a year". In fact, the sentence is completed with the word "weekend".

A couple more clues to the identity of the Absolutely Fabulous town; its local airport is served by the rarest train in Britain (only one departure a week); and Terry Venables has just moved there.

The answer, of course, is Middlesbrough, and the Sistine Chapel referred to in the town's publicity is at Huxter's, a "pub, eating out and entertainment spot complete with Sistene [sic] Chapel dome".

If the practice of town-twinning was carried out with any sense of fairness, then Novgorod in Russia and Auxerre in Burgundy would have ended up with more stylish British partners. They are coupled, respectively, with Watford ("way ahead") and Redditch ("a better place to be", though some French visitors might dissent). And Cleveland in Ohio, capital of the US Rust Belt, should be linked with Middlesbrough in the county of Cleveland.

Shoppers from the Midwest could enjoy themselves in England's Northeast, as this extract shows: "If you thought Triads referred to ancient eastern beliefs, think again." No risk of getting caught up in Chinese gangland warfare on Teesside - Triads is the name of a boutique in Middlesbrough.

"And there was me thinking that really was the Empire State Building that King Kong was climbing," writes David McNickle. He expresses surprise that "someone as sophisticated as a Londoner can expect everything he sees on the screen to be real." (A fortnight ago, I reported how the makers of 102 Dalmatians had mangled the capital.)

Mr McNickle turns out to be from Cleveland, Ohio, and reports that many liberties have been taken by film-makers on his home turf.

"Parts of The Deer Hunter, which supposedly took place in Pittsburgh, were filmed in Cleveland. Some of A Christmas Story, which was supposed to be in Indiana, was filmed in Cleveland, and parts of another film that was supposed to be in Cleveland was filmed in Gary, Indiana because they said that it "looked more like Forties Cleveland than Cleveland".

Last week The Independent's travel section won a couple of prizes. This week, Bob Lugg of north London said we should be ashamed of ourselves:

"I'm impressed that you pursue a no-freebies policy. So why do you choose to bask in the handing out of a dubious 'award' by the German tourist office? Presumably if you had written anything about them that they didn't like, you wouldn't have been awarded it. Your job is to tell the truth, not to boast about meaningless trophies."

Back at the British Travel Centre, my favourite slogan is for the quartet of attractions operated by the Imperial War Museum: Duxford airfield in Cambridgeshire, and, in London, HMS Belfast, the Cabinet War Rooms and the museum itself. The official-looking flyer bears the simple but insistent message "VISIT COMPULSORY".

Wherever you are, I hope that 25 December turns out to be, er, One Amazing Day.

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