You are thinking of going to Miami, or Maastricht, or Milan: what's the first stop on your trip? The national tourist office. In London there is a whole world of them, accessible to anyone with a two-zone Travelcard; if you live outside the capital, all you need is a 100-unit Phonecard.
But do the tourist offices actually give the prospective traveller what he or she wants? I set out to judge their performance. My survey was divided into three parts: a series of telephone inquiries; a personal visit; and a phone request for information by post.
If you chose your foreign holiday destination on the basis of how well the tourist office responds by phone, you would never visit the Netherlands. Instead, you'd probably end up in the United States. Select your destination on the basis of user-friendliness at the tourist office, however, and Greece would come out on top - with the Netherlands in second place. The United States would be nowhere.
I began by telephoning the tourist offices surveyed: Australia, the Czech Republic, France, Greece, the Netherlands, Hong Kong, India, Ireland, Italy, Spain, Turkey and the United States. The first test was how long each took to answer the phone.
Turkey went into an early lead by replying almost as soon as I hit the last digit. The French tourist office switchboard, in contrast, has barely improved since Frank Barrett's famous expose of its shortcomings in these pages, and a 10-minute stint of repeated redialling was necessary to obtain a reply.
The United States is one of a growing number of nations that dispenses tourist advice on a premium-rate telephone line, costing the caller 36p a minute. But both the quality of the information and the speed at which it was delivered were impressively high; I felt I got my pounds 3-worth.
The Netherlands was a shockingly expensive contrast: dial 0891 200277, and you have to listen to an endless message recorded at Linguaphone pace. You are supposed to interact with the recording by yelling 'yes' at appropriate moments (don't try this at the office), but 10 minutes, several shrieks and pounds 3.60 bought me only the hardly earth-shattering information that Dutch airlines fly from Heathrow and Gatwick to Amsterdam.
I'm going off to . . .
. . . the biggest city in your country next weekend - what's the cheapest way to get there from London?'
The aim was to see who would rise above the standard 'see your travel agent' reply. France made a gallant effort to recover lost ground by supplying the number of a particularly good bucket shop (Nouvelles Frontieres, 071-629 7772). The Czech Centre goes beyond the usual remit of dispensing brochures, and actually sells discount flights to Prague.
By now I had figured out how to contact a human being at the Dutch tourist board (see the Fact File below for how). She advised against approaching the airlines direct: 'Buy through a discount agent, and don't pay more than pounds 100', she correctly prescribed.
Do I need a visa?
Not if you are a British passport holder on a temporary visit, you don't, advised the representatives of the countries that do not require them. Australia, India and Turkey - which all insist upon visas - explained how to obtain one. So everybody got this right. Unfortunately, the man on the Visit USA premium-rate line got it too right: he began to explain the arcane rule for visa-free travel to the United States, but at 36p a minute I wasn't keen for him to outline every sub-section.
Any dangerous areas?
A perfectly reasonable request, I thought, given the horrific attacks on tourists that have occurred in Florida. Two-thirds of the bureaux appeared surprised at the very suggestion, and responded along the lines of 'Well, it's no riskier than Britain'.
The remaining four gave solid advice: Ireland warned against using 'unapproved' road crossings into Northern Ireland; the woman from Turkey said that while Istanbul was safe, the east of the country should be avoided; India emphasised the need for health precautions; and my premium-rate pal from the United States came up trumps, with a lively exposition on US crime patterns. I spent 50p hearing how New York is actually much safer than people think, and by the end was quite convinced I would be safer on the B- train through Brooklyn than on the Bakerloo Line.
Is sterling acceptable?
I got the impression that almost any currency would be acceptable in the cash- hungry Czech Republic. The Turkish office advised that a much better rate for lire is obtainable once you reach Istanbul than in Britain. Mr-36p-a-minute earned his keep with a briefing about the wisdom of carrying dollar travellers' cheques to the United States. And the Irish pointed out that I could obtain good rates for the punt at branches of Irish banks in Britain.
I'm also hoping to visit . . .
A town that isn't in your country. For each nation I chose a city just across the border (or the sea), and asked for information on it. These 'rogue' destinations provoked some surprising responses.
Italy claimed to be able to supply advice on Locarno, across the frontier in Switzerland (I'm still waiting). The other deliberate mistakes were . . .
Czech Republic: Bratislava
The Netherlands: Antwerp
Hong Kong: Macau
United States: Toronto
Most offices, having pointed out my apparent geographical ineptitude, suggested calling directory inquiries to find the correct tourist office. The more helpful ones - Hong Kong, France and Greece - supplied the right number. The Netherlands gave a number for the Belgian tourist office, but it was wrong. Turkey couldn't help with the number for Greece, so rather cheekily offered one for the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus instead.
The American representative went into astounding detail about travelling to Toronto, plus an unsolicited dissertation on the attractions of Niagara - with a recommendation to visit the Canadian side of the Falls. Either he is refreshingly unbiased, or he is a double agent for Canada. In any event, he earned a few useful dollars for his employers.
Where exactly are you?
The United States disqualified itself from the next part of the survey. I followed up the phone call with a visit to each bureau, to ask a single question: can you recommend a modest hotel in the largest city? But the United States - contradicting its claims for hospitality - does not allow personal callers at its West End office. The remainder were almost all welcoming, efficient and generous with information. Even the trek out to Australia, c/o Putney, SW15, was worthwhile. Away from the cluster of bureaux in central London, the Australian Tourist Commission receives an average of only three 'walk-in' visitors a day.
Back in the West End, only Ireland was less than first-rate. The tourist office was devoid of customers and staff. After a few minutes a woman appeared, but she worked for B&I Line ferries, which shares the premises. Eventually, a tourism representative arrived, but the only solution to my accommodation problem she could offer was a list of guest houses, price pounds 2.50. It is notable in having more errata slips (three) than any other book I have bought, but otherwise is no better than the directories given away free by other countries.
Travellers are used to receiving free information, since most countries regard providing promotional bumph as an investment. The Czech Republic, however, emphasised its rapid conversion to capitalism by demanding pounds 1 for sending a map (so where is it, guys?). The only other tourist office I have found that does the same is ours. Go to the 'Welcome Centre' at Victoria, ask for a map and you will be directed to a machine that sells humdrum plans for a pound. Welcome to Britain.
It's in the post
Clutching my free maps and expensive, error-laden Irish purchase, I went home for the third part of the exercise. I called each office and asked them to send me a map of the largest city and details of art galleries there. I awaited a deluge of dispatches on everywhere from Paris to Prague. Yet although the literature had to travel only a couple of miles, and a week has elapsed since the initial request, my postman is hardly groaning under the weight of solicited material.
Just four countries have replied so far. In a spirit of entente minimale, France sent just 40 grams, comprising a map of Paris and a flyer about the Barnes exhibition at the Musee d'Orsay. Spain went 20 grams better, but Italy dwarfed both with 300 grams of excellent material, including a fine English- language guidebook to Rome and a classy map.
Top weight was 400 grams from the United States, including a Travelfax book incorporating a list of phrases translating everything from 'Collect Call' to 'Cookies'. As if these cultural differences were not enough, the only reference to the most important sporting event in the world next year is a tiny mention at the foot of page 20: June - World Cup (Soccer).
I think I'll stay at home, and hope one of the other eight tourist offices might eventually get round to writing - even if it is only junk mail from Hong Kong.
ADDRESSES for the tourist offices surveyed are as follows (hours shown apply Monday to Friday, unless otherwise stated):
AUSTRALIA: Tourist Commission, 10-18 Putney Hill, London SW15 6AA (081-780 1424 for a recorded message; 081-780 2227 for a human). Open 9am-5.30pm. Nearest tube: East Putney.
CZECH REPUBLIC: Czech Centre, 30 Kensington Palace Gardens, London W8 4QY (071-243 7981/2). Open 9.30am- 5pm from Monday to Thursday, 10am- 4am on Fridays. Nearest tube: Notting Hill Gate.
FRANCE: Government Tourist Office, 178 Piccadilly, London W1V 0AL (071-491 7622) Open 9am-5pm. Nearest tubes: Green Park and Piccadilly Circus.
GREECE: National Tourism Organisation, 4 Conduit St, London W1R 0DJ (071-734 5997). Open 9.30am-5pm; until 4.30pm on Fridays. Nearest tube: Oxford Circus.
HONG KONG: Tourist Association, 125 Pall Mall, London SW1Y 5EA (071-930 4775). Open 9.30am-5.30pm. Nearest tubes: Piccadilly Circus and Charing Cross.
INDIA: Government Tourist Office, 7 Cork St, London W1X 1PB (071-437 3677). Open 9.30am-1pm and 2-6pm. Nearest tubes: Oxford Circus and Piccadilly Circus.
IRELAND: Tourist Board, 150 New Bond St (entrance in Bruton St), London W1Y 0AQ (071-493 3201). Open 9.15am- 5.15pm; until 5pm on Fridays. Nearest tubes: Bond Street and Oxford Circus.
ITALY: State Tourist Office, 1 Princes St, London W1R 8AY (071-408 1254). Open 9am-5pm. Nearest tube: Oxford Circus.
THE NETHERLANDS: Board of Tourism, PO Box 523, 25 Buckingham Gate, London SW1E 6NT (071-931 0707). This line is manned 2-4pm; the office opens 9am-5pm. Nearest tube: Victoria.
SPAIN: Tourist Office, 57 St James's St, London SW1A 1LD (071-499 0901). Open 9.15am-4.15pm. Nearest tube: Green Park.
TURKEY: Tourist Office, 170 Piccadilly, London W1V 0JL (071-734 8681). Open 9.30am-5.30pm. Nearest tubes: Green Park and Piccadilly Circus.
UNITED STATES: The Visit USA Information Service is contactable on a premium-rate phone line - 0891 616000 - 10am-4pm. Inquiries can also be made by fax to 071-495 4377, or by post to PO Box 1EN, London W1A 1EN.
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