Simon Calder: The loneliness of the long-distance tourist

The Man Who Pays His Way
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Solitude is (too) easy to find these days. This week alone, for example, you could have chosen one of the wide open spaces at the World Travel Market in London, which was destined to be a glum occasion even before Monday's awful plane crash in New York. The staff at the Bangladesh stand didn't even turn up at Earls Court until Wednesday.

Solitude is (too) easy to find these days. This week alone, for example, you could have chosen one of the wide open spaces at the World Travel Market in London, which was destined to be a glum occasion even before Monday's awful plane crash in New York. The staff at the Bangladesh stand didn't even turn up at Earls Court until Wednesday.

To reduce the risk of loneliness on your holiday, I have been calculating the most touristy place in the world.

The sums are fairly simple: divide the number of visitors by the resident population. Sydney is way down the list, with 4 million residents and the same number of visitors; so Australia's largest city scores a puny tourist saturation index of 1. Rome and Rio do better, each with three times as many tourists as inhabitants. Edinburgh and Tokyo both score 5. But none of these even make the top 10 (actually, it's top 11 because Florence and Paris tie for last place, each with an index of 7).

Reading up the list, the numbers jump quickly: York 25, San Francisco 34, Blackpool 80. This is a rare occasion when the Lancashire resort trounces the Californian city; perhaps the Blackpool tram is more of a draw than San Francisco's cable car, or maybe it's got something to do with the fact that four times as many people enjoy living on the Bay as on the Prom.

The shopkeepers of Stratford-upon-Avon do marginally better than the merchants of Venice, with their town scoring 152 against 143. Neither is half as quaint as Calais, with an impressive 346 times as many people visiting the French port as live there, no doubt to soak up the ambience rather than the cheap wine and cigarettes.

Third: Uluru (the resort serving Ayers Rock), where the locals are outnumbered 833 to one. Second: Grasmere, whose people individually welcome, or not, 1,278 outsiders annually. In peak position is Flaine in the French Alps: half-a-million skiers swamp the year-round residents 2,941- to-one. Not bad for a place voted worst ski resort in the world last month.

The top three locations owe their high scores to small population bases – other places with fewer residents may get more visitors. To qualify, though, (and to avoid the chance of a tourism saturation reading of infinity) it is necessary to have at least some semblance of human life. That is why I have excluded Stonehenge, Machu Picchu and Clacton-on-Sea.

* Before the people of Essex rise up to complain, I withdraw that wholly unwarranted slur on the resort. To compensate further, I bring some good news: British Airways has stopped flying planes containing depleted uranium over your heads.

Clacton is one of the busiest air-traffic control sectors in Britain. Inbound and outbound flights between London and northern Europe, India, Pakistan and the Far East are all funnelled over the resort.

Hitherto, many of these aircraft have been "classic" (ie elderly) Boeing 747s flown by BA, all of which contain depleted uranium. The heavy metal is used in counterweights that prevent the wings from wobbling too much. Modern aircraft use tungsten instead.

The airline had been planning to keep the old 747s in the air for another year or two. But all BA's elderly Jumbos have now been grounded as a result of the airline's route reductions. When circumstances improve, BA will not bring them out of retirement. "We're DU free," said a BA spokesman, with a note of triumph. The citizens of Clacton will be thankful.

* Other airlines are continuing to "park" old jets; in modern airline parlance, the definition of the verb "to park" is "to fly a plane to a desert location where it will not rust, in the almost certainly vain hope that secondhand aircraft values will improve before it is judged obsolete".

* Thank you for a surprising number of offers of secondhand folding bikes and dodgy mobile telephones of uncertain provenance. After returning from Lisbon last week with significantly fewer possessions than I had arrived with, matters have steadily improved. The telephone company eventually cut the busy link from Lisbon to the robbers' friends and relations in Brazil, using my (former) mobile.

Then there was a knock on the door at 11pm one night. Normally this would signify the arrival of the police, or someone to whom I owe money. But on this occasion it was a man with an airline van containing my bike, which returned from its post-Abta convention globetrotting with nothing more serious than a missing rear light.

* It arrived home at around the same time as Stephen Mason, one of the legal profession's leading travel experts. He travelled by train all the way from Leeds to Lisbon and back. Going south, every connection was on time apart from the first – the GNER train from Leeds to London.

Coming back, the TGV train that was supposed to be taking him through France went missing from Hendaye, just on the French side of the border with Spain. When the express finally turned up, it failed to make his connection in Paris. All told, the trip home took 30 hours, but Mr Mason says it was worthwhile.

"You get a sense of what the land is like and see areas that other tourists do not. France looks like a wide open country, completely unpopulated."

* Christopher Ondaatje has achieved much in his life: a millionaire financier, cultural benefactor, explorer – and, last week, travel writer for The Independent. Those sorts of exploits deserve a knighthood, you might think. So did we, especially when a normally reliable source told us he was Sir Christopher. Our report of his elevation to Knight Bachelor was, I hope, merely premature rather than mistaken.

Simon.Calder@independent.co.uk

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