Travel: A tropical paradise - on the M4

Why risk life and limb abroad when there's sun and sea in Wiltshire? Simon Calder takes a trip - virtually
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The Independent Travel
The world, you do not need to be reminded, can be a terrifying place. On an average day, four British travellers will die abroad. Many perish in road accidents, but others will drown, die in air accidents or be murdered.

In popular perception, the risks start rocketing the moment you check in at the airport. They increase rapidly once you reach a faraway shore, replete with a wide range of diseases and a full complement of villains.

So if you believe that travel is not worth dying for, then you may be among the increasing numbers who are turning to "virtual" travel. This does not mean visiting a solarium, buying a bottle of tequila and some cocktail umbrellas and watching endless Wish You Were Here? re-runs (though, no doubt, some will be content with this); rather, in virtual travel you visit a safe, sanitised representation of the real world.

"World" points to the epitome of meta-tourism: Walt Disney World, the acceptable face of Florida. The mighty Mouse is dropping clones of pre- packaged fun across the world, notably at the site 30 miles east of Paris. In a few minutes, you can travel from the eerie Marne-la-Vallee (Milton Keynes meets Clockwork Orange) to the high-security, low-risk compound of Disneyland Paris. French maps mark the site as Royaume Enchante; within the walls, the Magic Kingdom transports you to the Wild West or the Moon, all within three hours of Waterloo.

Yet why bother leaving the country? Since Billy Butlin first opened the gates of his Skegness holiday camp in 1936, the British have been smitten with inclusive tourism. The camps have shrugged off the regimentation that earned "Colditz" jibes and smartened up the chalets, but the idea remains the same. From your early morning Budget Breakfast to the dying echoes of the cabaret in the hangar-like show lounge, you can relax in the knowledge that everything is paid for - except the lager.

In the fastest-growing sector of the package holiday market, all-inclusives, even the beer is free. The best-value destination of all is the Dominican Republic. The low cost of living combined with cheap charter flights means that a fortnight in the Caribbean is yours for a guaranteed pounds 599. You need not spend a peso more - you need never even be aware that the local currency is the peso, nor that the people speak Spanish. Indeed, there is a strong financial disincentive to step outside the compound. Travel has been reduced to the level of a commodity where the cultural and physical environment is irrelevant; all that counts is the amount of sun, sea, sand and free sangria in a Paradise you buy by the pound.

It could never happen here, of course - if only because British weather can't compete with Caribbean or the Med. But some companies, notably Center Parcs, have cashed in with some localised climatic modification. A portion of the normally blustery Sherwood Forest in Nottinghamshire has been enclosed by a dome that shuts out the breeze but lets in any sunshine that happens to be around. The result: happy families, who can revel in a version of Britain after a severe attack of global warming. And the Butlin's-with-attitude idea has even caught on with young professionals; some of the cars heading west on the M4 from London on Friday nights are full of City types heading off for a weekend at the Longleat Center Parc, where an "Executive" chalet, complete with maid service, costs pounds 88 per person - less than a Eurostar weekend in Paris.

This year, Rank bongs back. In May, the company will open the first Oasis Forest Holiday Village outside Penrith in Cumbria. The basic concept seems to be to freshen up the slightly Seventies Center Parcs approach, while retaining the policy of keeping the children entertained, the adults amused and the climate out.

Safe and sound, at least when you get there. But as you drive to the site along the M6, try to remember that the average British motorist is 10 times more at risk than the charter plane passengers who have just taken off from Manchester Airport, destination Paradise.

VIRTUAL HOLIDAYS

Walt Disney World: call 0990 000000 for a free video.

Butlin's: 0345 700700.

All-inclusive holidays are offered by, among others: Thomson (0990 673310), Airtours (01706 260000) and First Choice (0161 745 7000).

Center Parcs: 0990 200300.

Oasis Forest Holiday Villages: 0990 086000.

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