Joan Smith: Morecambe, dream on. Mexico here we come

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The Independent Online

Bon voyage to Tony and Cherie Blair, who are setting off on an official trip to Jamaica, Brazil and Mexico before being joined by their children for a holiday near the resort of Cancun. When the itinerary was announced earlier this month it caused raised eyebrows given that the Prime Minister is supposed to be supporting the beleaguered British tourist industry. He will be spending time here in August, so why all the fuss? I would far rather visit Cancun than Eastbourne, as would most sensible people who can afford to choose their holiday destination without worrying about the cost.

Thinking about the facilities it offers, I am amazed that the UK has a tourist trade at all. Hotels are wildly over-priced, food and service are awful, and the country's natural resources have been disfigured by burger bars, gambling arcades, shopping malls and theme parks. A couple of years ago I visited a pretty seaside town in north Devon, only to find its main street overwhelmed by the smell of frying fat while a group of women in cowboy costumes performed a half-hearted line dance in the August drizzle. Only someone who is certifiably bonkers, or a desperately ambitious politician, would choose a destination like that over a rainforest.

The same is true of Blackpool, a town whose natural beauty – the northern section has a wonderful coastline – has long been eclipsed by gimmicky tourist attractions. I can quite see why Mr Blair doesn't want to hold the Labour Party conference there, but he obviously feels obliged to pay lip-service to the idea that the UK is a great place to have a holiday. This seems to me unsatisfactory on several counts, being both a form of chauvinism and thoroughly unconvincing when you look at the Blairs' holiday destinations in recent years. Their preferences are very much like my own, and I can assure you that anyone whose idea of bliss is sitting in the Campo in Siena, enjoying a view of one of the most beautiful squares in Europe, is not going to be wildly enthused about two weeks in Morecambe.

This country has many things to be proud of, but many of its supposed "attractions" are not remotely attractive. No one is supposed to say this, because it damages morale in the holiday industry, but the result is the kind of self-delusion I heard in a radio interview last week, when a councillor from Stockport claimed that his town would attract more tourists if it was designated a city. The Government could declare it a planet, but a town on the southern fringes of Manchester is never going to become a tourist haven.

I know there is some beautiful landscape in Britain, but even that's not to everyone's taste; I think the countryside is fine, as long as I see it from a train. Nor do I understand why tramping across soggy English fields with a packet of sandwiches is more acceptable than looking at early Renaissance paintings and eating grilled porcini in a Tuscan trattoria. I say this as someone who did not leave the UK until the age of 19, having spent my childhood vainly trying to persuade my parents to go abroad – Belgium, Bali, I collected brochures randomly – instead of Bournemouth.

My relatives, like many working-class families, suffered from the kind of mild xenophobia common among people who have had little or no contact with other cultures. It used to surface, in the old days, among Labour MPs who declared they had never possessed a passport, as though it was something to boast about. Under Mr Blair, it has been transmuted into a ritual insistence by ministers that Britain is best at this, that and the other, whereas the truth is there are some things other countries do better. The miracle is that foreigners come here at all, not that the Prime Minister and his family have decided to spend a week in Mexico.