Simon Calder: The Man Who Pays His Way

Tackling the language problems of international travel

The August bank holiday marks the end of the British summer - and the beginning of the campaign for the hearts and wallets of travellers. To get us to choose Marbella ahead of Mykonos, or Venice instead of Vienna, tourist boards come up with all kinds of tempting descriptions to seduce us. But some slogans are more seductive than others.

The August bank holiday marks the end of the British summer - and the beginning of the campaign for the hearts and wallets of travellers. To get us to choose Marbella ahead of Mykonos, or Venice instead of Vienna, tourist boards come up with all kinds of tempting descriptions to seduce us. But some slogans are more seductive than others.

Travel has a tendency to mangle the language, as anyone at Heathrow airport this week will testify. You check out of the airport hotel and check in for your flight, if you're lucky. If not, you may find your "confirmed reservation" is neither confirmed nor a reservation. You might be "overbooked", which actually means not booked at all. Should you be lucky enough to be accepted for travel, your unchecked luggage will be checked by security officials; your checked luggage, meanwhile may instead be "short-shipped", which means not shipped at all.

Once you overcome the first set of airport hurdles, you go "airside" only to find yourself still firmly on the ground. Should your flight be one of the hundreds of cancelled or delayed BA flights, "operational difficulties" are to blame. When you finally board that non-stop flight - well, don't you hope that it will stop at least once, at your destination?

Back to the brochures. In a competitive market, the words used in brochures to sell an island, city or country are crucial, but you sense sometimes that the brochure writers are struggling for positive messages. As soon as you reach foreign soil at Calais, you can "wonder at the talent of mankind", according to the local tourist board. The brochure writer does not enlarge upon this, so you are left wondering whether they mean the ferry port, the Channel Tunnel terminal, or what remains of the Sangatte refugee camp.

Go north-east from Calais, and you'll find yourself in the city where the Dutch queen resides. You may previously have known it as The Hague. Now, though, it has been reinvented as "Royal The Hague" - which has curious resonances of George V's deathbed pronouncement about Bognor Regis, and is doubly odd when you know that the Dutch form of The Hague, Den Haag, translates as "The Hedge".

Eastern Europe is the fastest-growing region for British tourists, with places just waiting to be discovered. For instance: a "well-developed agro-industrial sovereign state". That'll be Belarus, then, pinioned between Poland and Russia. Belarus tourism continues its heroic attempt to promote the most drab country in Europe by asserting that the former Soviet republic is "doomed to get into the focus of infinite wars". Tempted?

Communism still prevails, at least in name, in Vietnam, though it is rapidly being subverted by pragmatism. The top attraction, the War Crimes Museum, in Ho Chi Minh City, has changed its name. It's now the "War Remnants Museum", felt to be more acceptable to American tourists.

Vietnamese tourists are not exactly invading America, but with the dollar weak and the living cheap, the British are arriving by the million. Some may be tempted to find what lies beyond big attractions such as the Big Apple (New York), the Big Easy (New Orleans) and the Big Bend (er, a big bend in the Rio Grande). But some second-division destinations are not that tempting. When choosing between Midwestern cities, for example: "Indianapolis has always enjoyed the efficiency of a rigid street-grid pattern and the convenience of multiple freeways", while the largest city in Nebraska opts for the vague "whatever your expectations, Omaha will exceed them".

South America remains off the map for most British travellers, which might reflect a lack of imagination in national slogans. Colombia turned up at the World Travel Market in London proclaiming itself to be "A country of contrasts", and found its stand was beside Ecuador's, also "A country of contrasts". My favourite, though, is refreshingly honest: "Bangladesh - get here before the tourists."

Back at Heathrow: where's that plane going? Ah, yes, Northern Cyprus, "an unspoiled haven that is the perfect antidote to the rest of the Mediterranean". And there's a bonus - the plane will make a "courtesy stop" in Turkey. What the brochures don't tell you is that direct flights to the self-styled Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus can only come from Turkey. But fasten your seat belts, we'll be leaving "momentarily". With luck, the plane might stay aloft a little longer than that.

THE MAN WHO SPOKE TOO SOON...

Across Europe, the holiday season is winding down, with tour operators and travel agents counting the takings for the summer - unless they are the unfortunate staff of Travelscene. They are looking for new jobs, after the long-established firm went bust last week. Its online offering promises "a choice of exciting holidays to suit your individual requirements", but also reveals "this website is not operational". It seems the city-break operator could not cope with the competition from no-frills airlines and people deciding to become their own travel agents.

The collapse is a double personal tragedy for John Harding (right), the company's sales director. He is one of the most respected figures in the travel industry, a reputation confirmed when he was elected president of the Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA) last year. Once his firm went bust, that position became untenable; ABTA is now looking for a new leader, who will face the unhappy prospect of defending the travel trade body at its annual convention in Florida in November.

The association has had a difficult year: its head of legal affairs, Riccardo Nardi, was suspended in February and is awaiting trial in a fraud case. Some members are beginning to question the role and even the existence of ABTA.

The sad irony about Travelscene going into liquidation is a remark by Mr Harding that has returned to haunt him. Soon after the ABTA president took office, he sparked controversy by saying that what the industry needed was for a no-frills airline to go bust, to show customers what little protection they have.

Instead, the collapse of his company has exposed the inconsistency of consumer safeguards. Travelscene customers who had booked flights were able to continue their holidays after the intervention of the Civil Aviation Authority; those yet to travel get full refunds. Hundreds more travelling by Eurostar or ferry are protected under similar arrangements by the now president-less ABTA. But clients who booked room-only deals through Travelscene's Citybedz brand have contracts with a non-Abta-bonded offshoot of the firm, called Austro Tours, and could lose all their cash.

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