Travel: It's a small world

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The Independent Travel
CAN YOU imagine just how tiny the world has really become? Well, this tiny: Thomson Holidays recently announced that it has run out of new feasible destinations to which to send its customers. The more recent package holiday destinations such as Cuba and Mexico may well be the last of their type to be developed.

As for Peru, Laos, Nicaragua, the Yemen, Angola, North Korea, Sudan et al - no matter how attractively cheap they may become, no matter how excellent their climates may be, Thomson is not planning on packaging them into mass-market resorts and no doubt some people will heave a sigh of relief at that news.

The people who really have something to laugh about, though, are the Spanish, who are busy consolidating the dominance they already exercise over our hearts and minds when it comes to summer holidays. Potential rivals such as Greece have fallen away, leaving Spain to hog nearly 50 per cent of the entire package market. And in future, confirms Thomson, the big plan is not to find new destinations, but to make the old ones more interesting.

How is it planning to do this? From what I hear, this is partly about simulating deeper Mediterranean cultural experiences for holiday-makers. Some Thomson customers will have the opportunity, for example, of attending (staged) Spanish weddings, and even of taking part in them. They will be taken through some of the local markets and be sold dodgy goods by an actor. They will experience ancient rituals around Dalt Vila in Ibiza. I would describe these as an advance, of sorts, on fish and chips.

Don't imagine that people won't be up for a spot of cultural interaction, by the way. Thomson's consumer research reveals the mind-boggling truth that people actually want to be touched by the countries they visit. In fact, people are always telling me that their best ever holiday happened after they got chatting to some bank teller in Spain and ended up spending the rest of the week with his or her family.

In tourist-infested countries such as Spain, it is just the initial contact that is so hard. In the case of bank tellers, it happens when you get long-changed by a substantial sum and decide to return the following day, after the teller has spent a sleepless night worrying about his error.

But contact can happen in the unlikeliest of circumstances. I once met a couple of scary thump-heads covered in tattoos travelling on a bus from Torremolinos to London. One of them said he had been jailed for fighting during his holiday. That sounded bad. Then the other bloke who had a tattoo inked on his forehead said: "Yeah but the best bit was going out into the country. It was like a white village nestling in the hills, mate. Beautiful."

It turned out that the two of them had spent their time being hosted by the family of a waiter they had met in the local bar back in Torremolinos. They spent the rest of the 40-hour trip telling me to avoid the Costa del Sol because all you could get there was greasy British fish and chips. In the village they had eaten interesting Spanish food; they got to know the family members; they saw the inside of the houses. It had been the seminal experience of their lives, something they would never, ever forget.

I doubt very much that themed "Thomson experiences" will ever amount to life-changing experiences such as this. At worst, they will end up promoting Spain as a flamenco and sangria theme park. But if it goes some way to helping people recognise the countries they visit, at least the world will not seem quite so miniscule.