Simon Calder: The Man Who Pays His Way

The decline and fall of the holiday empire?
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The Independent Travel

Sometimes it is easy to forget the good fortune of the British traveller in the 21st century. As my delayed flight dawdled in the drizzle on Thursday while awaiting a take-off slot, the nation's biggest holiday company was announcing 800 job cuts. A fortnight ago, a raft of directors from TUI UK (Thomson to you and me) was cast adrift; this week it was the turn of the workers. This is terrible news for those whose posts are "consolidated" out of existence, as the conglomerate seeks to rationalise the separate businesses it owns - including Austravel, Tropical Places and Crystal Ski. And with P&O Ferries shedding 1,200 surplus staff, and cutting four routes, you might imagine that the travel industry is going into decline, with reduced competition and consequently higher prices.

Yet the cost-cutting at Thomson and P&O, both huge and hitherto successful enterprises, is a consequence of the rapid rise in the range of travel options and the fall in the prices we pay.

"The market has changed significantly over the last few years," says Peter Rothwell, managing director of TUI UK. The surprise is that the giant tour operator has been dozing for so long; after all, Thomson wrote the book on allowing people to travel cheaply and decently.

Its charter airline, Britannia, began no-frills flights from Luton to Belfast in the 1980s, while Stelios (founder of easyJet - see the back page) was still at school. But the company saw no future in giving travellers an alternative to high-fare airlines, and closed the route down. Until very recently, Thomson was insisting it would not and could not tamper with the standard package: one week or two weeks in the sun, take it or leave it.

This summer, we have been leaving it in droves. Numbers of package tourists to our favourite beach destination, Spain, have slumped by almost one fifth. Yet more of us are taking Spanish holidays than ever before. Partly this is because property ownership on the Costas is rocketing: once you have your place in the sun, all you (and your family, friends and friends-of-friends) need is a cheap flight to get you there. We are also much more sophisticated travellers. We demand good-value flights on the days we want to travel, and know that we can find plenty of choices online, along with hundreds of places to sleep. Your travelling experience, and awareness of the travel and accommodation options, may be greater than that of the poorly paid, inexperienced clerk behind the desk of a High Street travel agency.

Thomson is to close some branches of its Lunn Poly travel agencies, and also reduce the number of reps abroad. At long last: in the average Mediterrean resort, the holiday rep is an anachronism. In the 1970s, when we first started going to the Med en masse, Abroad was still scary and difficult, and a helping hand was appreciated. These days, most clients know the country, its culture and its cuisine at least as well as the tour operator's representative. Some reps are highly professional and knowledgable; but others see their role as flogging excursions and behaving badly in front of the latest docu-soap cameras.

The package holiday is far from dead; it still provides excellent quality at competitive prices for people who need a traditional fortnight on a foreign beach. Travel agents whose expertise adds worth will continue to flourish. But as travellers, we can revel in the range of opportunities that have come our way over the past decade.

For a good-value holiday, the best place in the world from which to start is Britain. But you won't be flying for much longer on the UK's leading charter airline. Britannia Airways is one of the strongest brands in aviation. For four decades, Thomson's in-house has provided top-quality flights for millions of holidaymakers. I find it hard to believe that this prestigious name is to vanish. But in a curious kind of reverse takeover, Britannia's aircraft are to be repainted in the colours of Thomsonfly - the company's too-little, too-late no-frills airline, based in Coventry.

Every week, it seems, a travel giant blames no-frills airlines for its woes. After expanding its routes from Portsmouth to France this summer, P&O Ferries is to close all of them. This is the first rational move to deal with the huge over-capacity on the Channel, where plenty of previously loyal customers are waving goodbye to sea areas Dover, Wight and Portland.

Cheap flights to France and beyond are now available from two dozen British airports. Instead of the dreary drive down the M3 or the A34 to Hampshire, a long voyage and a day and/or a night crossing France, many of us prefer to fly and rent a car on arrival.

Low-cost aviation is now trespassing on the ferry ports' hinterland, with plenty of flights from Manston (near Dover) and Southampton. Within 24 hours of the news that Cherbourg was dropping off P&O's radar, FlyBE announced a new route from Southampton airport to the French port.

I am not convinced the new air link will pay its way. But with no apparent end to the number of travel entrepreneurs with cash to burn on the next big idea, it is the best of times to be a traveller.

WHO WILL BE THE FIRST SPACE VIRGINS?

You must have spent a week on the moon to be unaware that Sir Richard Branson wants to take you into space - providing you have £115,000 to touch the edge of the unknown. His no-frills space flight works out at almost £40,000 for every hour spent off the ground, or £640 for each of the 180 seconds of weightlessness you will enjoy as you spin 100km above the earth (though be warned, zero gravity does not suit everyone's system). As a means of soaking up excessive wealth, the Virgin Galactic scheme has some merit. The venture brings mass space tourism one step closer; perhaps a century from now, visiting the moon will be commonplace. It will suit the breed of travellers who enjoy ticking off countries as though they comprised a laundry list. But the ultimate joy-ride fails to address any of the reasons that make travel a joy: meeting lots of interesting people, experiencing amazing cultures and seeing wonderful things.

When I learned of Branson's plan, my reaction was much the same as when I first visited Nashville and saw the full-size replica of the Parthenon: technologically you can do it, but why exactly would you want to? Vanity space travel is the ultimate waste of space.

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