Travel agents go mad in Palma

Itchy feet. And arms, and neck. Yesterday I woke up in the Hostal Ritzi, in the middle of Palma's Old Town, covered in bites, in remarkably similar places to the nips I sustained exactly a year ago. The mosquito that eluded my attempts to shorten its bloody career in the Magic Hotel in Cairo has evidently returned to haunt me. It must be the Abta Convention again.

In any year ending in three, the Association of British Travel Agents moves en masse to Mallorca, the favourite holiday island for UK travellers. Abta first dipped a toe overseas in 1970. With the entire world at its feet, the association chose... Rotterdam. By 1973, Abta had realised that it might be a good plan to select somewhere people actually go on holiday, and headed for Palma. The convention returned in 1983 and 1993. The island's government enjoyed the experience so much that this year it is spending another couple of million pounds on enticing a couple of thousand travel agents, tour operators and hangers-on to this annual get-together.

In his opening remarks yesterday, Abta's president, John Harding, said, "The British love affair with Mallorca goes on and on." The speeches at the welcome party from the Spanish dignitaries, who are bankrolling the event, certainly did. The only time the audience livened up during the interminable orations was when the director-general of tourism promotion for the Balearic islands announced the scrapping of the controversial eco-tax. Eduardo Gamero called the levy, "A real disgrace for this island". Or was it? The radical plan involved a small tax on accommodation on Mallorca, Menorca and Ibiza, with the proceeds used for repairing the damage caused by tourism. Yet the tax irritated the travel trade as much as a mozzie bite on a big toe. Many delegates cheered its extermination.

IT'S OFFICIAL: British Airways has been overcharging the travelling public for years. "We used to have incredibly high fares," Tiffany Hall told delegates yesterday, "until the low-cost carriers came in with incredibly low fares." Ms Hall is head of UK sales for BA, which - judging by the hard time she was given by delegates - is the travel trade's least-favourite airline. She also revealed that a month from today, the fee for British Airways telephone bookings, as opposed to internet bookings, is to go up from £10 to £15.

These days, BA boasts about its small prices using incredibly big type. As I plodded through Gatwick airport towards my delayed Air Europea flight to Palma, the proposition was unavoidable. "Geneva return from £85", yelled an ad twice the size of the hopefully-soon-to-be-mosquito-spattered wall in my room at the Ritzi. "In-flight food and drink included."

Yet if you happen to fly on many BA flights to Switzerland from Heathrow, catering is far from free. This week, British Airways entered a "code-share" arrangement with Swiss, the national airline of Switzerland, to Geneva and Zürich. All Swiss flights on those routes now carry BA flight numbers. But they do not carry free food for economy passengers - who even have to cough up for coffee.

BA customers who had enjoyed PJ O'Rourke's television commercials for the airline, promising free refreshments, will be surprised to find cash being demanded for everything from sandwiches to Scotch. With easyJet's Swiss routes now featuring the latest Airbus jets, and British Airways charging for on-board snacks, passengers may find it increasingly difficult to tell the two airlines apart.

SOMEONE WHO will never confuse the two is Barbara Cassani, former chief executive of Go, whose account of the short-lived no-frills airline is published today. Go: an Airline Adventure charts the extraordinary story of British Airways' venture into low-cost aviation. Passengers who were aboard Go's pioneering flights, to Milan, Rome and Copenhagen, may be surprised to learn that the initial pair of aircraft formerly flew for Philippine Airlines.

Ms Cassani also reveals how close Go came to a merger with KLM's loss-making no-frills subsidiary, Buzz. This carrier was a commercial catastrophe, undoubtedly because its name resonated with the maddening noise made a malevolent mosquito.

Instead, Go was sold to venture capitalists, who quickly cashed in their chips and made £250m selling it on to easyJet - even though Ray Webster, easyJet's chief executive, "clearly had major reservations" about the deal, says the author. Ms Cassani also reveals her airline preference. "As there is now no Go, I'll be flying whenever I can on my second-favourite airline." Given that hundreds of her former staff are now working for easyJet, which airline would that be, then?

"British Airways."

Bill Rammell, the Foreign Office minister, is in Palma to promote the Government's involvement in the Travel Foundation, which aims to help destinations achieve sustainable tourism. He was well received, but when John Stapleton, the moderator, asked delegates how many could name the current tourism minister, only two out of 2,000 knew the answer: Richard Caborn. As Mr Stapleton said, "That's a staggering response."

The Spanish Tourist Office has sponsored a book full of handy hints. "You can get everything you need in Mallorca, although if you like a cuppa," it warns, "you may want to pack some PG Tips." Useful translations to Catalan are provided, beginning with "Two beers please", and ending "My room number is...".

Members of the press have thoughtfully been provided with a survival kit comprising a bar of chocolate, a packet of Polos and a dozen Anadin tablets. A well-balanced diet, then; but with room service not a feature of the Hostal Ritzi, it's the best I can expect.

IF YOU think British travellers behave badly abroad, you should see how their travel agents cavort. At the welcome party, some jet-lagged and emotional delegates volubly expressed bewilderment at the event's troubadours. The band were crooning "Viva España" in Spanish, which caused consternation for monolingual members of the travel trade who tried to sing along.

Just in case the city's three existing Irish pubs are insufficient, Tourism Ireland is sponsoring another, called O'Lé's. But when delegates were given the opportunity to discuss the terrible behaviour of British tourists at Faliraki on the Greek island of Rhodes this summer, they voted instead to talk about brochures. Much safer.

Conventional wisdom: quotes from the travel trade at the Abta Convention yesterday

* "Air Passenger Duty is a cynical ploy to raise money in the guise of an environmental tax."

Andy Cooper, director-general, Federation of Tour Operators

* "You must have had a good night if you can't tell I'm not a lady." A male delegate at the back of the hall who was misidentified by the moderator, John Stapleton

* "A silly old television presenter with half a brain." John Stapleton, on himself

* "Thirty years ago the package was pretty much the only way you could go on holiday." Terry Williamson, managing director, Cosmos

* "Even a dyslexic dinosaur like me can book a flight online." John Stapleton

* "My worst nightmare is waking up and finding out that there's been another terrorist attack." Sandy McPherson, Abta

* "Strange as it may sound, we actually like travel agents." Paul Dickenson, Virgin Atlantic

* "Your airline pollutes my garden in Twickenham." John Stapleton to Paul Dickenson

* "We would love to produce a brochure without prices." Andy Cooper, Federation of Tour Operators

* "Passport, ticket, money, Alka Seltzers, preservativos." Advice to delegates on packing from 'Travel Trade Gazette'

'Go: an Airline Adventure' (Time Warner, £12.99) will be reviewed in 'The Independent' next Tuesday, 4 November