Simon Calder: The Man Who Pays His Way
France faces US backlash
Saturday 22 March 2003
Go away. When the world descends into war, most of us are inclined to stay at home, switch on the news and watch the awfulness unfold. Who would choose to travel during armed conflict and global uncertainty? You should. You have the chance to make the most of the extraordinary deals that will imminently become available to persuade people to travel. You have the duty to spend generously for the benefit of some of the millions who depend on tourism to feed their families. And you really should meet as many people from different backgrounds as you can. It is harder to hate people when you have shared a beach, a meal or a hike with them.
In the past decade, cheap trains, boats and planes have vastly expanded the range of opportunities for brief encounters with diverse cultures. Within Europe, you can fly to Bohemia or sail to the Basque country for next to nothing. This morning I shall fly to Dortmund in the Ruhr; but unlike previous generations, it will be a peaceable journey to Germany aboard Air Berlin. Cut-price flights have done more to integrate Europe and the world than any amount of treaties. Do mankind a favour: go away, make friends and influence people.
"There's definitely been a rise in business in the past two weeks". At last: someone is reporting an upsurge in sun-seeking customers. Unfortunately Adele Sicka, who gave me the cheerful news, cannot be counted as a travel industry executive. She runs the Sun Room, a tanning centre in central London. It appears that people are swapping natural beaches for artificial rays.
What makes Ms Sicka's thriving business especially interesting is that it is located in Newman Street, across the road from the Association of British Travel Agents. With the Government warning of a heightened risk at tourist sites during the conflict, the UK's travel trade is having a miserable time. Tour operators and airlines depend on forward bookings to keep their cash-flow looking healthy. But a story common to many travel enterprises is that the phones stopped ringing on Thursday, save for people phoning to cancel. As the hotel beds empty, Adele Sicka's sun beds are filling. An Abta survey says that one in six holidaymakers have decided to wait and see what happens in the world, while 13 per cent say they will definitely not take a trip abroad this year because of war and terrorism.
In the long stretches of idleness that many in the travel industry must now learn to endure, there is at least the consolation that business is probably not as bad as it is for the French. Since Jacques Chirac's spirited condemnation of a US-led attack on Iraq, which induced some Americans to deride the French as "cheese-eating surrender monkeys", France has not been the destination of choice for every US citizen. Expect to see some good deals for Paris, Provence and the Loire soon, since these are the favourite French destinations for Americans.
"The number of contacts we get are down 50 per cent for March," says Marion Fourestier, spokeswoman for the French Government Tourist Office in New York. The bureau has also been receiving hostile e-mails – 700 since the end of January – "ranging from serious people saying they're changing their travel plans to people who we don't think would have gone anyway".
David Bielby e-mailed from Normal, Illinois, to say, "It will be a long time before I make another trip to France, based on Chirac's comments and actions this year to ignore the danger Saddam has posed to Americans. All of my friends who are in a position to travel to Europe feel the exact same way: we're amazed at the lack of understanding for how we feel about terrorist threats being linked with nations like Iraq."
With some understatement, Ms Fourestier says, "We think the next month or two will be difficult, that's for sure."
According to Abta, one in 50 of the people who would normally take an overseas holiday will now take a British vacation, which should mean a boost of around half a million people to the UK tourist trade. The city that should be best placed to capitalise is Bath, because of its new Millennium attraction, Thermae Bath Spa. "Thermae" was the Roman term for a public bathing area, but the chances of the public taking a bath in Bath any time soon are not good. At least four target dates for the opening of the city's rejuvenated spa have been missed already. The latest date for completion of the building is 30 April, though this should be taken with a large dose of saline solution. Perhaps the Millennium in question is the year 3000.
The millennium bug was big as the year 2000 began, but the perceived risk that the travel industry's computer networks would blow a collective fuse as they ticked over to midnight failed to materialise. One nation snubbed its nose at the rest of the world's concerns, and invested a grand total of about four-and-a-half pesos in its preventative programme: Cuba.
While much of the world is regarded as off-limits on the grounds that if Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome doesn't get you, al-Qa'ida probably will, the Caribbean's largest island looks increasingly attractive. All the terrorist attacks that Cuba has suffered since the 1959 Revolution have originated in the US, which currently has its attention elsewhere. Despite Fidel Castro's failures in important areas such as democracy, human rights and the economy, the Communists' focus on preventative health care means that Cuba is safer than almost anywhere else in Latin America – so long as you don't fly around it. Wednesday's hi-jack to Florida of a domestic flight bound for Havana ended safely, but the fact that the aircraft involved was a DC-3, a type that first flew in 1935, shows the parlous state of Cuban air travel.
The world is beating a path to Fidel's door. The specialist agency South American Experience (020-7976 5511) reports an unprecedented number of "stop sell" messages from hotels in Havana. These are sent out when bookings hit 100 per cent; already, many hotels in the Cuban capital are sold out for Easter.
The best flight deal that South American Experience can offer is aboard Air Europa, for a fare of £461 return. The airline is first cousin of Air Europe, a casualty of the first Gulf War.
People of almost all nations except gastronomically challenged Cuba express disdain for food in Britain. Our nearest neighbours are particularly sniffy. But one London eatery is constantly busy with French and Belgian customers: Marie's Cafe, in Lower Marsh, in the shadow of Waterloo station. A large chunk of the clientele comprises Eurostar train staff on their meal breaks between arriving in London and returning to Brussels or Paris. The main attraction is superb, fresh Thai dishes at low prices. Another draw is the perfectly preserved Fifties interior, barely changed since the Festival of Britain was staged nearby half a century ago. But demand from train crews, in-the-know travellers and stray tourists from the London Eye now exceeds the available space. So the proprietor has chosen to renovate the café to accommodate more diners.
Like the no-frills airline, Buzz, Marie's will close for the month of April and emerge in May transformed. It will reopen bigger and brighter, but some of the ambience is sure to be lost in the process. You have until 3pm next Saturday to sample London's most atmospheric place to eat. And if you wish to venture no further than the South Bank rather than the South China Sea, The Oasis tanning centre is five doors along.
Marie's Cafe is at 90 Lower Marsh, London SE1
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