Travel: The Disaster Tourism club: a new fashion for 1998

LAST WEEK I talked about which places would be "in" this year, but this week it is the style of travel that interests me. So let me announce the new fashion which I have identified for 1998. It's called Disaster Tourism.

Judging by readers' responses to the two columns on the letters page of this section - Your Holiday Disaster and Your Holiday Romance - the art of the perfect disaster is a far more serious business than the art of love where holidays are concerned. By contrast to the thin trickle of holiday romances I receive (about one a week), the number of holiday disasters is nothing short of a torrent. Every day they pour in: tales of delayed flights, bad meals, surly officials, unexpected wars, smelly toilets, dishonest taxi drivers. The fact that Romantic Tourism is out does not mean that people are not enjoying themselves though. On the contrary, most of these disastrous tales seem to have been written not in bitterness but with enormous relish and relief that their trip had after all been worth talking about. It almost seems as though the worst kind of holiday might after all be those smooth, incident-free affairs that tour operators hope for.

Look at today's disaster (page 11) for example. It is hard to imagine that Gordon Parr regrets having been evacuated from Sierra Leone under shell fire. I have the impression in fact that his main interest in visiting such a dodgy place was to run the risk that something damn exciting was going to happen. And good on him, it did.

So don't be fooled by people who go to potential war zones and then act surprised when they get shot at. These people are just indulging in cool Disaster Tourism. I've recently received stories from people "holidaying" in Rwanda, Kurdistan and Angola, all of whom profess to be astonished at the difficulties they encountered but who obviously enjoyed every nasty bit of it. By the way, if you like the smell of tear gas you don't necessarily have to go as far as Rwanda - the highly salubrious Basque town of San Sebastian can offer almost guaranteed riots on Saturday afternoons, as can various towns on the West Bank.

But even people who don't quite have the stomach for that kind of aggro nevertheless manage to find their own disasters in Ibiza or the Caribbean. My favourite ever reader's disaster from a few months back made arrival in the Dominican Republic - one of Britain's favourite package destinations - sound more sinister than disembarking at the island of Dr Moreau. "Departing passengers threw us toilet rolls, with the words welcome to the island of Hell written on them", the reader wrote. She might as well have added that the tour rep's eyes, in certain lights after nightfall, could be seen to emit an eery glow. But talk about not going far - some people don't go anywhere at all to find their holiday nightmare.

One man recently wrote a fascinating tale about visa shenanigans in the Italian Consulate in London (they advised him to switch his holiday to France as French visas might be easier to obtain). A few people have written about holidays which were disastrous because they never happened: because their car got stuck in snow while reversing out of the garage.

On the other hand, some readers have sent stories that strike me as examples of wishful thinking rather than authentic disasters. These aspirational Disaster Tourists catalogue lists of minor events as if, in total, they could amount to a serious disaster (ignoring the fact that the rest of the holiday had been embarrassingly stress-free and short on disastrous qualities). So you had wine poured into your water glass? The man in front reclined his seat as you were having your dinner? The taxi driver took you on a circuitous route to your hotel? It rained? The local drivers were crazy? Huh. If only it could be so easy to join the 1998 club of Disaster Tourists.

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