The Man Who Pays His Way

"Have you seen this sock?" At least some of the people in Brighton this week are focusing on the important things in life. While Tony Blair gives his keynote speech to the Labour Party conference, I am 400 yards away in Brighton Backpackers in Middle Street, studying the noticeboard in search of travel matters of import.

"Belle will give a choccy bar to anyone who returns sock," exclaims an elaborately handwritten Post-It note, beside an even more intricate sketch of said garment.

Just up the road at the Traveller's Rest, the oft-repeated assertion that there's not a bed to be found in Brighton during party conferences is demolished; it has plenty of dormitory beds for £12. I'm sure my colleagues on The Independent's political desk will be delighted when I helpfully point this out ahead of the next conference season.

I cannot banter with the backpackers, though, as I have a date. At the Club Barcelona. With a man who, according to this news story I have saved since August, believes "Things can only get better".

He is tall, dark, handsome ­ and harassed. Richard Tobias is boss of the British Incoming Tour Operators Association, representing those who try to entice people to visit the UK. In the August edition of the British Tourist Authority magazine, he had assured everyone that things, indeed, were destined to become better. When I meet him in one of Brighton's more colourful clubs, and present him with a copy of said story, he shrugs. "That was then and this is now".

By his reckoning, "I'd be amazed if 2002 was any better than this year", which itself is proving pretty grim. "You're looking for a good news story?" he asks. "There isn't one. But we're not going to roll over and give up."

The reason we are meeting in the unusual surroundings of the Club Barcelona is because it is the venue for a fringe meeting organised by Gordon Marsden, MP for Blackpool South. The bash was originally planned to consider the challenges facing coastal resorts, but since the events of 11 September it has turned into something of a crisis summit about domestic tourism.

Ian Reynolds, chief executive of the Association of British Travel Agents, which is sponsoring the event, joins Messrs Marsden and Tobias on the platform. He cannot be accused of talking up the prospects for UK tourism: "We couldn't have done a better job at killing the industry than the way the foot-and-mouth crisis was handled earlier this year."

Ah well, there's always the fourth member of the panel, whose job is to be optimistic: the Welshman who now finds himself Minister for Tourism in England, Kim Howells. How's it going so far? "It's been hag-ridden with incidents since I came into this job," says the man left holding this week's poisoned chalice. "I was in resorts in the east of England this summer that were rotting from the ground up, and full of creepy pubs."

Dr Howells expands on his theme: "You go to a foreign country, and the waiters and waitresses and the people who run the front desk at the hotel are in a real and honourable profession. Not in this country. There are far too many examples of an industry that hasn't upped its game for too long."

I have all kinds of things I would like to ask Dr Howells, starting with "Which east of England resorts should we avoid, minister?" but he leaves for a gala dinner before any questions can be taken from the floor. I find out where he is staying (the Strawberry Fields in New Steine, £70 double, and very nice too), cycle round and leave a note asking him to call me.

I am still waiting. Eventually, I decide to head back to the hostel, to look for that stray sock and to think of 101 uses for a dead Swissair ticket.

¿ One piece of good news: Newcastle upon Tyne is the new Palma de Mallorca. As mentioned below, cheap flights are starting up in November, with planes switched from Palma. It's perhaps unfortunate that the picture on Newcastle airport's website home page shows a plane belonging to the bankrupt Belgian airline, Sabena.

¿ A myth that has been doing the rounds since 11 September is that only a tiny proportion of Americans have passports (5 per cent is the usual figure quoted). The assertion is used to support the contention that US citizens tend to be an inward-looking people.

In fact, the latest State Department figures show that almost 20 per cent have passports. And, the reason that four out of five don't have them, is not because they believe everything they could possibly want lies within their borders ­ it's because many Americans are able to travel to nearby countries, from Canada to the Caribbean, by showing only a driver's license to get through immigration.

Some Americans, no doubt, mistakenly believe that Beirut is just across the Channel from Dover, and Kabul is down the road from Cologne, in the same way that British travellers routinely confuse Budapest with Bucharest and Slovakia with Slovenia.

¿ Shoppers are already painfully aware of the approach of Christmas. But Robert Benzies of Perthshire welcomes the impending winter. He has been driving down to ski the Trois Vallées for 20 years now, and has the system down to such a fine art that he runs his car for four weeks on low-duty fuel, and buy three months' supply of Alsatian white wine into the bargain.

The secret, he says, is to take the Scandinavian Seaways from Newcastle to Amsterdam. From here, it is not difficult to avoid a chunk of French motorway tolls by driving through Belgium. A small detour takes him to Luxembourg for the cheapest fuel in Europe, which keeps him going to the Alps for a week of skiing. But it is on the return trip that the fun starts:

"Leave the motorway at Arlon in Belgium, and drive north to Bastogne. You drive through a small town called Martelange." One side of the street is in Luxembourg, the other in Belgium.

"In this street there are eight petrol stations, each with a warehouse attached." The main business of these places is "Wine, ready-boxed in half cases from all over the world at the best prices I have found. Refuelling here, with a top-up in Holland, lasts me another two weeks when I get home."