Can we still afford to laze on a beach?

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The Independent Online
OFF ON hols yet? There is something inherently odd in the fact that each weekend this summer several hundred thousand Britons head off for a foreign holiday, while a different and slightly smaller group arrives for a foreign holiday in Britain. Odd, maybe, but as the travel trade reminds us, tourism is the largest industry in the world, with Britain the fifth-largest earner.

More interesting, though, than the growth of foreign holidays - a function very much of the fall in the real cost of air travel - is the changing nature of the holiday itself: how long people take off work, whether they take it in batches or in one chunk, and the way in which people in different countries have quite different attitudes to the relationship between work and leisure.

Britain is something of a social leader here for we have, by European standards at least, flexible work practices.

In both North America and Japan formal holidays for people in jobs are much shorter than in Europe - in the US two weeks, maybe three, in Japan two weeks - whereas throughout Europe four weeks is the normal minimum, and six weeks quite common.

True, Americans have invented devices that give them more time off, such as the convention, where everyone gathers with their 'significant others' in a Florida hotel for a long weekend, and attendance at plenary sessions is thin indeed.

But the Japanese have invented ways of giving themselves even less time off: three days of compulsory jollity in Hawaii on the corporate equivalent of the school outing. While the bill is picked up by the employer, those three days come out of the annual holiday allowance - which the dutiful employee dares not take anyway.

It is Europeans who are the world's serious holiday-makers. We get more official time off (allowing for bank holidays as well as annual leave): 40 days in Germany, typically 35 days in Britain, against 25 in Japan and only 23 in the US. We also spend a lot when we are on holiday: in 1990, 54 per cent, ( Source: 'European Tourism 1992', Euromonitor), of the world's total of tourist spending came from Europeans.

This raises a competitive issue, of which more later: can Europeans continue to take as long holidays and remain effective competitors against North America and Japan, not to mention the newly industrialised nations of the Far East? Or will those countries follow the European pattern?

But what the figures do not show is the sheer diversity of British holiday arrangements. Most other countries have their two, four or six weeks and that is that. In Britain there is much less of a national pattern.

According to market researchers Mintel (Source: 'Holidays 1993', Mintel International), nearly 10 per cent of Britons took three or more holidays last year, yet one-third did not have a holiday at all. What these figures do not pick up is the extent to which the whole idea of a holiday is changing. No longer do all the factories or a town shut down for a particular two weeks, the 'fair fortnight'. Only a fifth of the country works in manufacturing anyway.

Instead, there are several groups of people for whom the distinction between holiday and work has become blurred. For a start, a much larger proportion of the population is now in higher education. Are students at work when they are studying? Or are they at work during the vacation, when they take a holiday job?

Next, an increasing proportion of British workers is either self-employed or on short-term contracts. For these people the amount of time spent on holiday is not the result of a contractual arrangement with an employer or a legal requirement of the Government: it is what he or she can afford - in time and money.

Another group of people, formally in full-time jobs, use holiday for some kind of career end: they go on training courses, they research books, they help friends or relations with their businesses. While not actually working at their jobs, they do something that is related to work rather than lie on a beach. The distinction between what is work and what is not has softened.

Then there is the rapidly growing group of the young- retired and those who have accepted redundancy payments. Both groups are often able to supplement their income by carrying out some kind of part- time job, while many also do unpaid voluntary work.

Looking ahead, our holiday patterns seem likely to change in two main ways, possibly three. First, the actual time taken as holiday will vary even more widely. Not only will some people have much more leisure than others, but people will expect to have different amounts of leisure at different times of their working life. There will be periods when people are in full-time jobs and their holidays are set as part of a contractual arrangement. But there will also be periods when they are in part-time work, or retraining for different work, and they will have much more freedom to choose whether or not to take time as holiday.

The second concerns what people do with their holiday. Here, our holiday habits are likely to become even more diverse. Many people will still choose the sand-and-sea holidays of the post-war generation - the escape to a different world, and, for northern Europeans, different weather. (Only 11 million French go abroad for a holiday, against 22 million Britons*, but they have the Mediterranean and we don't) But in future, holiday time will be less an escape from normal life and more the pursuit of it by other means. Those means might be a study course, some special interest holiday, or a combined business and holiday trip. The central point is that as the job contract becomes more flexible, so the holiday contract will become more flexible, too.

In that sense, Britain is fortunate: we can perhaps adjust to international competition more easily than our EC partners. Continental Europeans have earned their long holiday entitlements over more than 40 years of post-war prosperity. Yet European productivity is at best no higher and in many cases lower than productivity in North America and Japan. It simply may not be possible to retain Europe's present official holiday entitlements, pay present European wages, and produce competitive products.

For Continental Europeans there are two possibilities. One is that people in full-time jobs will find the four to six weeks' holiday they have at present being shrunk closer to American levels as the price of their secure employment. A generation from now Europeans, with a large number of elderly people to support and even stronger competition from the rest of the world, may have to put up with less. The alternative is that they accept more flexible work patterns to preserve their leisure time. Either way, it seems, the high tide of paid holidays may have passed.