The package holiday: good for you, and great for the world

How best to travel

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"Travelling is bad, tourism is disastrous" - so asserted John Rentoul in this space yesterday. But going on holiday can do the world some good, as well as doing you a power of good, too. The real surprise is why so few of us take advantage of the world's best travel bargains: only 14.5 million of us - one in four of the UK population - will this year take a package holiday. For my money (and you don't need much of it) a place in the sun is a product that Britain makes better than any other country.

Consider: anyone earning the average UK wage can buy a seven-day Mediterranean holiday for a week's pay; pounds 350 will buy you an excellent package in Benidorm. You will fly from a convenient airport on a state-of-the-art charter aircraft, enjoying food and entertainment of higher quality than you would find on most scheduled airlines (or, for that matter, John Rentoul's train to Bournemouth).

Upon arriving at the bright, stylish airport at Alicante, you could set out to explore the inland treasures of one of Spain's least-known provinces. Or you might simply climb aboard the holiday company's coach and head down the autopista to Benidorm, where you sprawl out on the beach for a week of well-deserved indulgence lubricated by tea like Mum makes it, lager like San Miguel makes it or paella like Pedro makes it.

That was my summer holiday, anyway, which I shared with about half-a- million other Brits. Benidorm does tourism better than any other resort on earth, and has ploughed back the profits into self-improvement.

Padding softly along the broad arcs of fine sand lapped by a brochure- blue sea, you may recall that the town was, allegedly, an unspoilt fishing village until the advent of mass tourism three decades ago. Were it ever such, you could expect to find the tangled streets of the old town filled with dispossessed fisherfolk bemoaning the way that mass tourism has massacred their heritage.

You will search in vain, partly because so many Spanish people have done so well from tourism (the industry that fuelled the magnificent post-Franco national resurgence) but mostly because the location appears singularly ill-suited as a base for fishing. (A serious harbour can be found just along the coast at Villajoyosa, and jolly unspoilt it is too.)

Natural resources in Benidorm, as in so many other resorts, are so scant that the only industry that could sustain itself there is tourism. The same goes for our other favourites: were it not for people like me, Tenerife would be just a barren volcanic outcrop. Instead, it is a barren volcanic outcrop with tens of thousands of tourists aboard, having the times of their lives to the detriment of none. Pile the apartment blocks high, sell the holidays cheap, and Europe's weary workingfolk will beat a flightpath to your prom.

And who has the right to deprive us?

The environmental lobby, you could respond. "We pack into large metal boxes which burn unimaginable quantities of fossil fuels to transport us thousands of miles," writes John Rentoul. Yes, we do, because a combination of well-run tour operators (those mass-market companies that have survived have had to be good and cheap) and government subsidy makes it worth our while.

I welcome the efficient utilisation of aircraft that keeps fares so low. And from self-interest, I am delighted by the duty-free allowances that represent a hidden subsidy from government to traveller. But as a European citizen, I recognise the absurdity that means we pack into large metal boxes clutching plastic bags bursting with unimaginable quantities of booze and cigarettes. This, though, is the last summer when travellers who happen to travel from one EU country to another by air rather than by car or train will get a duty-free entitlement.

When, on 1 July 1999, the duty-free shops close their doors to intra- EU flyers, the price of a package holiday could climb by pounds 5 or pounds 10. Airport charges may rise to compensate for lost shopping revenue, and air fares could increase when airlines lose the right to sell duty-free goods at huge profit margins. It's been fun while it's lasted, but there is no ethical way to justify shuttling thousands of gallons of spirits and millions of cigarettes across Europe because of some arcane, pre-jet age taxation anomaly.

And don't stop there, urges John Rentoul: "One measure the Conservative government should have been congratulated on, rather than pilloried for, was imposing an airport tax. The only trouble was that it was not enough." We travellers are not unreasonable. It is hard to argue that air travel should be immune from taxation: what Ken Clarke was, rightly, pilloried for was creating a poll tax with wings. Air Passenger Duty hits you for the same pounds 20 whether you are flying economy to Zurich (pounds 99 return before the tax kicks in) or travelling on the world's most environmentally indefensible form of transport, the pounds 7,000 round-trip to New York on Concorde. Lebanon is not usually noted for its enlightened fiscal policy, but the way first- and business-class passengers pay more tax at Beirut airport appeals to us packaged proles, prone on the beach at Benidorm.

Enclave tourism, as practised so effectively on the Costa Blanca, is one thing; independent travel is quite another. If you contend that the main purpose of travel is to meet people, then excellent ways to do it include boarding the bus from Phnom Penh to Saigon or taking the train from Varanasi to Calcutta. But would I be making a contribution to international understanding, or just taking the seat of a more deserving but less well- off local? That depends upon whether I put time, energy and thought into the process of travelling: acting affirmatively by buying sustenance and accommodation from people who will benefit most, avoiding spending cash on imported goods, and above all listening to the hopes and fears of the people - not least, on the subject of tourism.

Your hosts will more readily forgive your clumsy trampling around their communities if you demonstrate generosity of both spirit and hard cash. Some travellers decry the system of dual-pricing, where it costs a tourist much more than a resident to, say, visit a museum or stay in a hotel, but in reality such market segmentation is as easy to defend as the fact that a holiday in Benidorm next week will cost about a quarter of the same product in August.

I use the word "product" advisedly. After 30 years of half-baked, half- built mistakes that you expect from any growing concern, mass travel is now maturing into an industry fit for the new millennium. Seize the day, grab your passport, and join me on the beach.

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