It’s not that long ago – well, 50 or 60 years, to be honest – that the idea of travel abroad was something beyond the reach of any but the very rich or those for whom it was an exotic by-product of their job.
For an awful lot of people (men for the most part), National Service during the World Wars was, in fact, their one and only experience of ‘abroad’. And not, I rather imagine, the most ideal visitor experience, albeit an unforgettable one in a way that – in the case of World War II at least – mercifully, their children and grandchildren would never have to live through.
Rucksacks and floppy hats
So the emergence of package holidays in the late fifties and early sixties*, and the rise of budget airlines across the following years, were – for literally millions of people – a chance to go on holiday overseas for the very first time. By the turn of the century, in fact, a foreign holiday had become commonplace for people from pretty much every background. Not so much the case these days, though, with general belt-tightening and the ebb and flow of currency exchange rates, making it all rather less enticing. A recent survey from Travelodge confirms this. Over a third of us will stay in the UK for our summer holidays this year, apparently, with Cornwall, the Lake District and Devon being the most popular destinations, a state of affairs neatly summed up in The Herald’s headline – Frugal Britons join the staycation set.
But nothing seems to stop the backpackers. With rucksacks, floppy hats, sheet maps that are almost-but-not-quite-properly-folded and those ubiquitous bottles of water, they remain a constant, and entirely welcome, part of the tourist scene both here in London and right across the UK.
Touring a country on a very tight budget with youth hostels, public transport and improvised catering arrangements, is a brilliant way of experiencing a place. And all the more so if you have a guide book written from the budget traveller’s perspective. The Rough Guides, Let’s Go to… and Lonely Planet series, along with many others, find their way into so many of those bulging rucksacks because they seem to have been written by people who, like their readers, have sat on stone steps beside historic buildings eating supermarket crisps, and trying to make sense of a bus route diagram that has been ‘simplified’ to the point where 20 miles and 500 yards are represented on the map by precisely the same distance. But for all their easy-going informality of style, these books only sell if they’re useful, and they’re only useful if they’re accurate and true to life. So I was a little surprised to see the recent press coverage of the new Lonely Planet guide to Great Britain.
We learn, for example, that from the backpacker’s perspective we’re ‘overcrowded, overpriced and overrated’. While London, they claim, is ‘one of the world’s great cities, if not the greatest’, Dover is ‘down in the dumps’, Essex is ‘home to chavs, blonds and boy racers’, and even poor blameless Surrey is written off as ‘uninspiring and dull’. Ouch! But this, of course, is the sort of stuff that’s food and drink to newspaper editors and radio phone-in hosts, and all these places are quite confident and well-established enough to stand up for themselves (although I did enjoy The Daily Telegraph Leader column’s defence of Surrey in particular). But, honestly, isn’t it rather odd that, beneath the budget travellers’ easy-going demeanour and happy-go-lucky air, there beats a heart that would be quite at home in Victor Meldrew’s curmudgeonly breast?
Festivals and gigs
What else? Well, new data reveals that people from overseas – and here in the UK, of course – who go to music festivals and gigs in this country are contributing a record £1.4 billion to the economy, and supporting around 20,000 full time jobs. Live music is something we’re really good at in this country and it’s reassuring to know that its undoubted cultural value is backed up with a real and growing impact on the economy. Whether it’s Glyndebourne or Glastonbury, or just a band in the back room of a pub, we know how to put on a show and these shows are feeding a visitor economy that draws in people from far and wide. In a different part of the forest I’ve been doing a lot of work on helping deregulate this sector, by the way. Live music is chronically over-licensed in this country and we’re going to take the shears to all the red tape, but more of that shortly.
In the same musical vein, I recently ‘listed’ the zebra crossing outside the Abbey Road studios in London, as immortalised on the cover of the Abbey Road LP by The Beatles. My press officer told me that the news had been picked up across the world. ‘Yeah, you’re better known in New Zealand than you are here these days – not that that’s saying much, to be absolutely honest’ he helpfully commented. So that’s alright, then.
*As with my recent rumination about Henry VIII and ice cream vans, this is not strictly true, by the way. The first package holiday is generally believed to have been a trip organised by Thomas Cook (an individual at this point, rather than a company) for a group of 570 temperance campaigners from Leicester to Loughborough. Tickets for the 11 mile journey, which took place on 5 July 1841 and included food, cost a shilling (5p). I’m only guessing, but I doubt if there was a bar on board. And history does not, incidentally, record the precise point at which the first tour operator realised that he could charge rather more for packages in the school holidays, than during term time.
Photo by Steve Calcott on Flickr. Some rights reserved.