The man who pays his way

UKOK is an interesting slogan for the British Tourist Authority to choose to try to attract visitors to our shores. The word, if that is what you take it to be, may be pronounced uck-ock or you-cock. Even when it is correctly parsed as "UK, OK", American visitors may infer it to be a small town in the state of Oklahoma, whose official abbreviation is OK.

Leaving aside the scope for misinterpretation, the choice of slogan is curious. "OK" hardly conveys the sense of wonder and excitement that the prospect of travel is supposed to engender. Small towns in Oklahoma are OK, but you wouldn't want to spend a whole hour in many of them.

The other problem is that UK is manifestly not OK, at least for anyone who wants to get around the country – or the world.

On Monday, British Airways revealed that for the third quarter of last year it might as well have deployed staff at Heathrow to hand out a £20 note to each passenger and direct them to other airlines. Meanwhile, a Virgin train driver was getting lost north of Birmingham and having to reverse to ask directions.

By Tuesday, attention had switched to that familiar old misnomer, the Stansted Express. Hundreds of passengers missed their morning flights because the trains could not be extricated from the depot and brought to Liverpool Street station in London.

Anyone who, despite creaking old infrastructure, reached the Essex airport in time was likely to be delayed by creaking new infrastructure. For the past two weeks, flights at busy times have been delayed by up to an hour because of cuts in capacity dictated by the new Air Traffic Control centre at Swanwick in Hampshire. The restrictions will continue until Easter.

By now, you will have realised that this is a thinly veiled grumble about a trip I took to Germany this week. We spent longer on the ground at Stansted than we did in the air. The plane finally landed at the former US air force base at Hahn, high above the Moselle Valley (which this week gets connected to Bournemouth; see story on right).

From Hahn airport, there is a bus to Frankfurt. But the journey took a turn for the worse a few miles on. In an ambitious piece of motoring choreography, the coach was overtaking a truck while itself being passed by an Audi, all on a road barely wider than a country lane.

Luckily, no one was hurt in the ensuing prang. It was instructive to see how different nationalities coped with the problem once we stopped to assess the damage. A young German passenger jumped off the bus to direct traffic safely past the dented vehicles. In contrast, a British traveller shared his opinion about the delay, littered with expletives, with fellow passengers.

A new bus and driver arrived 10 minutes later. Off we went to Frankfurt – the location for the most intriguing tourist innovation of the year.

The venue is the Euro Information Centre & Bookshop, a combination of travel-guide store, propaganda hub for the single currency and vendor of obsolete notes. Frankfurt, the home of the European Central Bank has long been a city synonymous with cash, but now you can buy minced money by the DM100,000-load.

We're not talking the kind of hyperinflation that prevailed during the inter-war years, when you needed a wheelbarrow full of Marks to buy a single frankfurter – these are notes that have been freshly shredded, à la Enron, bundled up and sold at €9 (£5.50) for half a kilo. An accompanying certificate confirms that the package comprises Deutschmarks to a value of 100,000 (£30,000). But efforts to cash in on this advantageous rate of exchange by sticking the "legacy currency" back together will prove about as successful as repairing Humpty Dumpty.

Just along Kaiserstrasse stands the only coffee bar I know that doubles as a Mercedes showroom – capuccino €2, croissant €1, SLK convertible €50,000.

Further down the street is a jeweller's store that I deduce is named for the reaction of male customers when they see the prices: "Christ." (A similar response, incidentally, to that of some senior figures in UK tourism this week when apprised of last year's catastrophic fall in visitor numbers.)

"Come to our magic life." As an invitation to buy a holiday, that ranks only slightly above UKOK. But perhaps it sounds more enticing if you are German. That's what the Prussian Mining, Iron and Steel Company hopes. The firm owns the tour operator TUI, as well as our (formerly) very own Thomson – Britain's biggest holiday company. Preussag, as the Prussian combine contracts itself, has thousands of Alles Immer holidays to shift. It believes German consumers will be more attracted by the English equivalent, "all-inclusive", together with that promise of a magic life.

In Britain, the company has no plans to advertise holidays with the German equivalent "Kommen Sie zu unserem zauberhasten Leben". I fear it might meet consumer resistance among people who believe the myth that Germans place their towels on the poolside sunbeds first.

UK travel agents are not all OK about geography. The trade journal Travel Weekly despatched a "mystery shopper" to test out four travel agencies in Banstead in Surrey. She purported to be seeking information on a motorhome holiday in Canada. At a branch that is ultimately Prussian owned, she was offered a brochure for escorted tours around New England.

Even by the standards of the travel industry, this reveals a new order of switch-selling. The journal politely offers a "Top Tip" to agents: "If a client asks for Canada, don't hand over brochures for the US. It shows a distinct lack of knowledge."

www.trailfinders.co.ukSimon.Calder@independent.co.uk

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