The travel industry, like the media industry, loves an anniversary. But I wonder how widely three revolutionary events in different parts of the world will be celebrated in the year ahead?
The first is the centenary of October Revolution, which began the creation of what would swiftly become the greatest empire of the 20th century, in terms of sheer size if nothing else. In 1917, amid the bloody turmoil of the First World War, Lenin seized power in Russia, and ultimately took control of 14 other nations. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics extended from the Baltic to the Pacific, and the Arctic to the shores of the Black Sea and Caspian Sea.
The USSR took a terrible human toll. Yet in terms of transport and tourism, the Soviet Union was revolutionary. The sprawling confederation was bound together by the railways, with the Trans-Siberian as the primary artery. Aeroflot became by far the world’s biggest airline, a no-frills people-mover that predated Sir Freddie Laker by decades.
Citizens privileged enough to travel long distances by rail or air enjoyed proletarian fares. And working men and women who, in Tsarist times, had no prospect of travelling for pleasure, could aspire to a week in Sochi or Yalta (though it helped to know the right people).
“Friendship tourism” blossomed, in the form of heavily subsidised adventures for Western visitors through a strange Marxist-Leninist theme park. Even in the late 1980s, as state communism was unravelling, £400 bought a two-week trip that took you from the palaces of Leningrad (as St Petersburg had become) to the mosques along the Silk Road through central Asia. The food, hotels and tour buses were third-rate, but the experience was unparalleled.
Lenin’s fingerprints are still all over much of Asia and half of Europe; just yesterday I walked along a street named for the first Soviet leader, Leninova Ulica, in the Slovenian resort of Piran.
Half a century after a winter of hate in the latter stages of the First World War, the “summer of love” began. To mark 50 years since hard rock, soft drugs and free love took hold in San Francisco, the world will be invited to a crossroads just west of downtown. The intersection of Haight and Ashbury Streets is seen as the crucible of counterculture in the summer of ’67.
Take a cheap trip to see the nursery where flower power took hold: I predict an air-fare war will break out between Gatwick and Oakland, San Francisco’s second airport, early in the summer of ’17. British Airways is taking on its upstart transatlantic challenger, Norwegian. Be sure to wear some flowers in your hair, and go straight from Oakland to Berkeley – the University of California campus that was the intellectual hub for hippiedom.
Yet arguably London was even more significant as a driving force for creativity in 1967: Jimi Hendrix moved in and the Beatles moved on from rock’n’roll mop-tops to Sergeant Pepper.
How fortunate we are to be able to travel to compare and contrast. Which brings me to the third great revolutionary anniversary: on 26 September 1977, the Laker Skytrain was launched between Gatwick and New York JFK, and rapidly expanded to Miami and Los Angeles.
Forty years on, we take ferocious competition between airlines for granted – across the Atlantic, Europe and the world. But until a flamboyant aviation entrepreneur named Freddie Laker shamed the Government into shattering the comfortable collusion of high-fare airlines, the average wage-earner could only dream of New York, Florida and California.
Skytrain halved the cost of long-haul flying. Laker’s venture lasted less than five years, but the low-fare genie had been let out of the bottle. Richard Branson picked up where Freddie left off by starting Virgin Atlantic. Then Stelios Haji-Ioannou transformed European aviation with easyJet.
On 11 January, British Airways follows easyJet in charging for inflight food and drink on European flights. Next time you fly BA, raise a £6 gin-and-tonic to the revolutionary who cut the cost of your ticket, and bound the world more closely together. But not in a Leninist way.
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