Why the British go mad for a place of their own

Could the surge in self-catering holidays spell the end for traditional hotels, asks Mark Rowe
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The Independent Travel

Type "self-catering holidays" into an internet search engine and you will get around 223,000 listings: the British love affair with self-catering holidays, forged in the 1970s when the floors were made of freezing slate, the beds were hard and the heating minimal, is still burning strong.

Type "self-catering holidays" into an internet search engine and you will get around 223,000 listings: the British love affair with self-catering holidays, forged in the 1970s when the floors were made of freezing slate, the beds were hard and the heating minimal, is still burning strong.

Not only is the pull of the self-catering holiday as powerful as ever but the industry has undergone an extraordinary expansion in the past 20 years.

VFB, the French tour operator, had 100 properties in 1974. More than 124,000 of us travel with Eurocamp each year. Ian Inwood, the marketing director of Canvass Holidays, estimates the market for tents and mobile homes is growing by 5 per cent a year, while the traditional hotel market is shrinking by a similar figure.

"Hotels are yesterday's news," he said. "Self-catering holidays are becoming more popular. It's economical and offers you freedom and flexibility. It has become more appealing in countries where you feel comfortable.

"France has always been popular and it's never really been a hotel-based destination. You won't find many large hotels along the French coast and their hotels have traditionally served French nationals. The market has changed. Twenty years ago the gîtes were pretty basic conversions that were used four weeks of the year. But now you can get a top-end villa with a pool."

Peter Jackson, a partner in the self-catering operator Heart of the Lakes, agrees that quality has dramatically transformed the self-catering industry. "The most significant change has been the perception that self-catering was a cheap and rather shoddy holiday," he said. "The quality of the product has risen enormously. There's been a demand for something better and the grading and inspection schemes have helped that. There's no excuse these days for offering something that isn't good value for money."

This desire for swish furnishings applies abroad, too, according to Jonathan Smith, a spokesman for English Country Cottages and French Country Cottages. "People are looking for standards that match their homes," he said. "They want washing machines, instant heating and microwaves in the cosiness of a cottage."

Other factors have come into play. "The low-cost airlines are driving the self-catering market," said Smith. "Instead of a long journey through France, it's now just a short flight. Areas around low-cost airports, such as Nice, have opened up markets that weren't there before."

The internet is also proving crucial, according to Marcelle Speller, a joint managing director of Holiday-Rentals.com: "One of the reasons for the increase in self-catering in France is that websites like ours have enabled owners of self-catering properties in France to advertise much more effectively and to a much wider audience."

Many companies report more last-minute bookings and shorter holidays, even in school holidays. This also applies to niche markets, such as the follies, castles and cottages managed by The Landmark Trust, which has acquired 30 properties in the past 10 years and now owns 180 across the UK.

"Our core market is getting younger," said Katie Arber, a spokeswoman for the trust. "Ten years ago, people booked for one or two weeks but now we offer three-day weekends and four-day breaks during the week, which we didn't before. Also, people tend to book at shorter notice than they did previously."

How far can this growth go? Peter Jackson believes the market in the UK is now pausing for breath. "It's certainly peaked for now and there's an oversupply," he said. "But there's still a demand to buy and no evidence that prices are dropping."

But while the market is saturated in some places, there is plenty of scope for expansion in others. Normandy, Brittany and Provence remain popular and Corsica is enjoying growth thanks to new British Airways flights to Bastia. Mountain retreats are becoming more popular. Langrange Holidays has expanded its programme to the Alps and Pyrenees to reflect a 30 per cent rise in bookings to mountain accommodation in 2004.

Smith believes eastern Europe is the future: "Croatia has got a great coast and is good value. I have no doubt that we will see decent-sized self-catering holiday companies there inside two years."

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