The first casualty of war may be truth, but the first casualty of potential war is tourism – especially for the countries that are lined up either to administer or receive a good kicking. Tony Wheeler, founder of Lonely Planet, says that he would happily catch "the next plane to Iraq, to see the place before it gets bombed to bits", but he is the exception. Dozens of anxious readers, whose travel plans include locations other than the birthplace of civilisation, have called or written to ask if it is safe to travel to America, India or East Africa. Yes, I reply, so long as you minimise any travel by road in the last two countries; traffic accidents are by far the highest risk. Indeed, anyone with a bit of time and money to spare should be heading abroad at the earliest opportunity. An unwitting consequence of the US and UK governments' sprint towards war is that you can pick up bargains from those countries to almost anywhere on earth.
Virgin Atlantic and Lunn Poly have joined British Airways in saying to wary travellers, "give us your money now, and we'll let you change your mind later". And the entire UK outbound travel industry, in an unprecedented show of unity, has called on Tony Blair to consider the effect on jobs of the present instability.
If Iraqi civilians' lives are considered acceptable collateral damage by the Prime Minister, then it is unlikely that Mr Blair will call an end to hostilities for the sake of the livelihoods of a few thousand travel agency and airline employees in the UK. But once you widen the focus to the two million British workers whose jobs depend on travel and tourism, it begins to look as though the Government is compounding the damage to tourism caused by the foot-and-mouth epidemic of 2001.
The most lucrative market for British tourism is US citizens. In 2001, half a million fewer Americans visited compared with the previous year. Last year, the numbers crept up by two per cent. But Jo Leslie of the British Tourist Authority tells me that, "Enquiries to the contact centre about safety have increased, while enquiries generally have decreased".
Meanwhile, the chant from the hoteliers of Britain is that, "It's all gone quiet over here". When two leading central-London five-star hotels such as the Westbury and the Grange Holborn are selling double rooms at below £100 per night, rather than the normal rate of nearly £300, it indicates that the lodging trade as a whole would like to hide under the duvet for a few months until things pick up.
The British tourist authority's projections for this year assume a 3 or 4 per cent increase in tourism. "We haven't yet revised our forecasts down for the year," says Jo Leslie of the BTA – note the "yet". Some hoteliers I talked to report that bookings are not at all bad; Bob Field, who runs the Cae'r Blaidd Country House Hotel in North Wales, says: "So far, this year has been very quiet from overseas, but we're doing well with British clients."
John Walsh has been busy this week. Besides the onerous (or should that be oenerous?) task of enrolling at Rome's Wine Academy (see opposite), my prodigious colleague found time on Wednesday to relate the tale of how Ernest Hemingway is to be franchised as a hotel brand, with themed accommodation all over Europe and North America. But the writer's name has already been taken in vain by Cuba's tourist authorities, who have not been over-concerned about getting all the right permissions to capitalise on Hemingway's fondness for the Caribbean's largest island (and, in particular, its cocktails of bell-tolling potency).
Ernest's room in the Ambos Mundos Hotel, in the middle of Old Havana, has been turned into a shrine; his former home in a suburb of the Cuban capital is a museum; and even his habitual bar-crawl has become an established ritual for tourists in Havana: "My mojito in La Bodeguita, my daiquiri in El Floridita." The opportunities were seized upon by individuals, as well as the state: for years, an elderly gentleman in the fishing port of Cojimar made a very healthy living from entertaining tourists, claiming that he was Gregorio Fuentes, the former skipper of Hemingway's boat, Pilar.
The tourism industry loves associations with authors. The trouble is, great literature is about anguish and suffering, which most hotels try to avoid. In California, the misery depicted by John Steinbeck is unlikely to entice guests to a hotel in his honour, even if the in-house wine bar is called The Grapes of Wrath. In New Orleans, A Hotel Named Desire could be more successful in attracting Tennessee Williams fans by the streetcar-load.
In Europe, THE Kafka Hotel in Prague could be a long time in the making; if it finally opens, guests will no doubt face an interrogation before they're allowed in. Across in Paris, the management of the Victor Hugo Hotel should not find it difficult to sign up staff who live up to the label Les Misérables. Anyone who reads George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London will be horrified by the goings-on below stairs at luxury hotels, and may decide instead to find an isolated holiday cottage in the Western Isles of Scotland. On Jura, you can rent out Barnhill, where Orwell wrote 1984.
The concept has been picked up all over the world; on page 4 of this section, indeed, you can find The Idiot – the name of the trendiest café in St Petersburg, and the title of a Dostoevsky novel. The top nightspot in the town of Motala in central Sweden invokes the name of a late British comedian: the Benny Hill Pub and Restaurang [ sic]. But plenty of UK hotels are missing out on the chance to capitalise on literary credentials. In the week that Bob Dylan bared his soul, surely the writer who some say inspired Robert Zimmerman's name-change must honoured by a hotel in his home city. Dylan Thomas was born in Swansea, and tributes to him can be found across the city, including a statue in the maritime quarter ( inset). Just along the road is Swansea's first five-star hotel, the last bastion of upmarketry on the westbound M4.
So, what is it called? Dylan's Hotel, featuring the DTs Bar and offering rooms where guests go gently into that dark night? Or perhaps Catherine Zeta Jones has lent her name to her birthplace's top lodgings? No: the name is Morgans, after the self-made millionaire who self-made parts of the hotel: Martin Morgan was a welder before he moved into the travel industry, and applied his metalworking skills during the refurbishment of the century-old port office into a hotel. One bedroom has been named "Zeta", after a Swansea ship of that name. But, to invoke the name of the town featured in Under Milk Wood, there is Llareggub evidence of Dylan Thomas in the new hotel. In order to attract US fans of either Dylan, perhaps Mr Morgan will reverse that.
The increasingly rare American visitor to these shores may well wish to phone home during these turbulent times. If they decide to forgo the five-star rates charged by the Westbury and Grange Holborn hotels (both £3 per minute), they could find themselves in one of London's famous red telephone boxes. "Easy International Calling", promises the official British Telecom notice that has sprung up in the capital's telephone booths. Calling the US from a BT payphone is certainly easy: the caller need only insert a credit card and dial, for a fee of 80p per minute. But the notice recommends a different course of action: dialling 0800 028 8585, which gets you through to an American operator working for the company BBG, "in association with BT". That one-minute call suddenly costs £4.
At the opposite end of the value spectrum, I commend Manchester BackPackers Hostel in Stretford. Joan Haggas, the proprietor of this no-stars-but-good-company location charges the very reasonable rate of £12 a night, enabling low-budget travellers to stay within boot-kicking distance of the dressing-rooms at Old Trafford.
Ms Haggas spent 20 years travelling the world, then returned to her home city to turn an ordinary dwelling into a high-density, low-cost place to stay. But after 10 years of boosting tourism to Manchester, she says: "The local council is forcing me out of business. As one councillor put it, 'We don't want transients in a residential area'. At the time, my 'transient' guests were a doctor and a vet." Today's "transient" is tomorrow's high-spending tourist, but from this summer, when the hostel will be obliged to close, they will avoid Manchester. The first casualty of bureaucracy is cheap sleep.
For a double room at the five-star Westbury in Mayfair for £99 (normally £282) and the five-star Grange Holborn for £95 (normally £280), check on www.laterooms.com
Morgans Hotel: Somerset Place, Swansea (01792 484848; www.morganshotel.co.uk)
Manchester BackPackers Hostel: 64 Cromwell Road, Stretford (0161-865 9296; www.manchesterbackpackershostel.co.ukReuse content