Simon Calder: The Man Who Pays His Way

The true cost of being an international traveller

Say what you like about the problems caused by tourists, but for many parts of the world we represent economic salvation. Spain was rescued from the moribund decades under a fascist dictator by millions of us going on holiday to the Costas. Poor countries recovering from war, such as Vietnam and Nicaragua, find tourism an excellent labour-intensive, low-investment source of foreign exchange. Almost every country benefits from visitor spending, and finance ministers collect a small fortune in sales tax paid by travellers on almost everything we buy.

Say what you like about the problems caused by tourists, but for many parts of the world we represent economic salvation. Spain was rescued from the moribund decades under a fascist dictator by millions of us going on holiday to the Costas. Poor countries recovering from war, such as Vietnam and Nicaragua, find tourism an excellent labour-intensive, low-investment source of foreign exchange. Almost every country benefits from visitor spending, and finance ministers collect a small fortune in sales tax paid by travellers on almost everything we buy.

Even when in holiday mood, though, there are limits to our generosity. If countries or cities regard us as a soft touch for tax, we may take our spending money elsewhere.

The Canadians, being friendly and positive, put a friendly and positive spin on the departure tax levied at every major airport. The practice of charging visitors for the privilege of leaving the country is described as an "Airport Improvement Fee". Most of us are in favour of improving airports. But standard practice when trying to lure tourists is to invest in infrastructure before they arrive. In Canada, the traveller is obliged pay for the privilege of visiting a building site.

This week the country's busiest and most chaotic airport, Toronto, announced a 25 per cent increase in the fee, the second in a year. Worse yet, the airport says: "Fees are in Canadian dollars and are exclusive of applicable taxes." So you may have to pay tax on the tax. Alternatively, stay at home and read our Complete Guide to East Coast Canada, starting on page 16, for no additional fee.

Visitors to Kansas City are about to start paying what I can only describe as a mayoral improvement fee. This week voters in the city on the Missouri river approved Mayor Kay Barnes's plan to build a $250m sports arena in a derelict downtown location - to be funded largely by tourists. A tax of $1.50 a night will be added to hotel bills, while anyone renting a car will pay an extra $4 a day as an arena add-on.

These non-optional extras could deter tourists who prefer not to bankroll Kansas City's version of Wembley stadium.

One of America's biggest car-rental companies, Enterprise, fought an expensive campaign against the project, fearing the impact of higher prices on its business. But Kansas Citians (yes, that is what they call themselves) say the rental giant is merely stirring up yet more intra-state rivalry. Enterprise is based 250 miles away in St Louis, which has long had the upper hand. Mayor Barnes expects the quarter-billion-dollar project to reverse those positions. And guess what: the arena is due to open in 2007, shortly before she leaves office.

With luck building the arena will proceed more peaceably than another ambitious infrastructure project: to create Albania's second airport. In case you have not heard of Zayed International, it promises to be one of the most dramatic airports in Europe, at the foot of an 8,000ft mountain, and should open up a dramatic landscape to independent travellers. The United Arab Emirates is funding the £10m project in the poorest quarter of Europe's most backward nation.

Disputes over land ownership and compensation have escalated to a level that make Swampy - the celebrated protester against a second runway at Manchester - look amateur. When the builders moved in to start preparing the ground, they came under fire from angry locals well armed with automatic weapons. You could wait a long time for the first flight. When it arrives you may wish to take a good look at your fellow passengers before you board. Perhaps travel agency e-bookers had the new airport in mind when it e-mailed customers on Thursday with what it called a special "SAS fights [sic] offer".

PITCH IN TO EASE LONDON'S BUDGET ROOM SHORTAGE

Commuters walking from London's Waterloo station to work one morning last week saw a curious ritual unfold, or rather fold. Shortly before 8am, a pair of young women carefully gathered their two-person tent. They neatly rolled up their sleeping bags and packed everything into a couple of rucksacks that, had they been any more voluminous, would have comprised sought-after office space for the capital.

The precise location for this strange performance was a patch of parkland in London SE1 called Millennium Green - so named because it was dreamed up some time in the last decade, and finally finished about a week ago. The temporary (and unofficial) campsite stands at the foot of the approach road to Waterloo station, Britain's rail terminus for Europe.

For inbound travellers who arrive on the last train from Paris, shortly before 11pm, Millennium Green must be a tempting prospect. It is closer to the station than the Marriott County Hall, and £241 cheaper - that being the "rack rate" for a double room at Waterloo's fanciest hotel. Best of all, it is well placed for some of the capital's leading tourist attractions, with Tate Modern and the London Eye just a short walk away.

Pitching a tent amid the shrubs breaks local by-laws, and Lambeth Council no doubt intends to crack down on free camping. But cut-price accommodation for impecunious visitors to the capital is vanishing: Tent City is no more.

This camping commune in west London used to be the best budget option for shoestring travellers. Its location was Wormwood Scrubs: on the far side of this vast open space from Her Majesty's Prison. The interiors of some tents were even less palatable than a prison cell, but at least the occupants could come and go as they pleased - and, much to the annoyance of prison inmates, attend noisy open-air parties each evening.

Not a single patch of canvas remains at Wormwood Scrubs, though mementoes of Tent City can still be found: a rotting sleeping bag in the bushes, and a carpet of broken glass from the parties.

London still has a campsite but it is located at Crystal Palace, in the far south of the capital. Sleeping in stations is no longer allowed. So urban camping will become de rigueur as summer goes on.

Old guidebooks like The Hitch-hiker's Guide to Europe offer assessments of the wisdom of camping in city parks such as the Borghese Gardens in Rome and the Tiergarten in Berlin. I have done my fair share of city camping, with mixed results. Late one night in Galway City, I nipped over a fence and pitched a tent on a tempting open space. After a comfortable night, I awoke to find a school caretaker unzipping the flap and suggesting forcefully that I move on from his playing field - with dozens of amused pupils offering advice on how to dismantle a tent in a hurry.

With budget rooms in London scarce, the propensity of people to pitch tents in public places can only increase. The solution: press the world's biggest and most expensive tent into service, and at last find a purpose for the Millennium Dome.

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