June 23, 2002

Holidays from hell will provide a haven for smart investors

Posted in Sunday Business Post ·
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You pull up a chair for a civilised looking British chap who also happens to be in this remote Spanish village, miles away from the Costa del Sol. You both marvel at the beauty of the place, how unspoilt and “real” it is. He nods sagely but hesitates and pronounces that it is not as authentic as the Alentejo in Portugal.

He then makes a comparison between the Sierra Nevada of Andalucia and the Tatra mountains in that “gorgeous jewel of Europe between Poland, Ukraine and Slovakia — home of Andy Warhol’s family, don’t you know?”

Before you can answer, he adds with apparent self-deprecation that he only has rudimentary Ruthenian. Unfortunately you’ve had it: you are in the company of a travel snob.

Now the travel snob is not a new phenomenon, he has been around for years. But recently we have seen a proliferation of travel snobs, possibly as a direct result of cheap airfares to hitherto exotic locations.

In 1990, two friends of mine who suffer acutely from this strange affliction, announced that “tourists had ruined Mexico”. The following year they told me that Turkey and in particular had been similarly desecrated.

Undaunted, they started taking their summer holidays in the oddest of locations.

First, there was the four weeks in Uganda, which was described on their return as “difficult”. Best of all was the month travelling around West Africa, Ghana, Nigeria and Togo.

For my sins, I had the misfortune to spend a week working in Ivory Coast’s capital Abidjan — an unmerciful hole — which is widely regarded as the most civilised place between Liberia and Cameroon. To go there for work is one thing, to choose to spend your holliers there is something altogether different.

Yet travel snobs will put up with the hellhole that is West Africa, simply to say they had been there.

When I asked my mates how it was, I was told it was “hard”, which struck me as a rather odd way to describe your annual holiday. Not bloody surprising when you think that there is no electricity for most of the day in these places. Maybe that’s the attraction — possibly Sierra Leone had been ruined by the arrival of electricity.

The same pair made their way to Mozambique one summer and arrived home with stories of how the loos and sewers in Mozambique had been cemented up in an act of wanton delinquency by one side or other in the civil war. Quite how they found this out and how it affected the sanitary conditions of their two-week stay, I dread to think. Despite it being a vision of hell for most sane individuals, the phenomenon of travel snobbery is on the rise.

A few years back in Thailand, I was introduced to the distinction between being a “traveller” rather than a mere “tourist”. We were all tourists as far as I was concerned. But no, I was mistaken — travellers were quite, quite different. Travellers stayed in hostels and got crowded, sweaty overnight trains to Laos. Travellers were at one with the people of the area until it came to prices where they haggled for everything and prided themselves on the fact that they were surviving on something ludicrous like five pence a day.

Yet these travellers, for all their bonding with the natives, seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time getting stoned off their faces on Kosan Road in Bangkok and watching Terminator 3 on videos in their unspeakable hostels.

Now, of course, Asian travellers are really only tu’ppence ha’penny travellers when compared with the hardcore travel snob who goes to the Burkina Faso film festival every year, but the symptoms are the same. To paraphrase Mr Spock, the Irish travel snob “wants to boldly go where no Dun Laoghaire man has gone before”.

Both the amateur traveller in Thailand and his snooty counterpart break out in a rash at the sign of a package tour. Nothing fills the travel snob with such dread as the prospect of a PAB bus tour.

The travel snob seeks out the weirdest and most inhospitable places, always trying to outdo his last adventure to reach the ultimate al shaheed of travel snobbery by going on a three-week barefoot walking holiday with an Inuit guide in the Baring Straits.

Despite all their subtle and hierarchical differences, what binds the travel snobs together is the sense that the natives are on their side, that the furtive glance of a tribesman is an acknowledgement of empathy.

It is much more likely to be a flirting game aimed at fleecing the European eejit in the all-weather trousers with all the pockets. That the natives regard travellers differently from the way in which Irish schleeveens regard fat Americans who’ve waddled onto the pony and carts in Killarney seems to me to be ludicrous.

Behind travel snobbery is a recently new mass phenomenon whereby “educated” people try to define themselves by anything other than possessions. Time was when having a Merc suggested you were different from the next fella. Not any more — with more Mercs per head in Dublin than Frankfurt, there is little mileage in such a trophy. Thus the middle classes are keen to drive a cultural wedge between themselves and the newly rich working classes.

If I go to Iran or Uzbekistan and eat pine nuts with shepherd’s pie then I’m an Irany-Uzbekistany-piney-nutty type of person who is a cultural cut above someone who drops the GDP of a small African country for a fortnight at the Sandy Lane resort in Barbados.

Over the coming years, these cultural statements are going to become rather less important for the moneyed classes. And the more successful Michael O’Leary is at bringing down airfares to the likes of Biarritz, the more the cultured classes will seek out the Tatra mountains in Slovakia.

Locations will become ever more exotic and the proportion of punters with a smattering of Swahili and Pashtun will rise.

This is good news for the travel industry in general and even better news for opportunists in the likes of the Andes and the Gobi Desert. These trends will not be limited to professionals in the likes of Donnybrook and Notting Hill — people everywhere will be on the move. Soon individuals whose parents never left their own village will be trying out exotic places just to be different. The progression from package holiday to weather beaten traveller that took at least one generation here, will take about five years in newly opened China.

I leave you with one statistic. There are over one billion Chinese of whom only ten million travelled abroad last year — up from one million in 1990. That’s ten times in ten years. Should this rate of increase continue (which is likely), this implies 100 million Chinese will be taking holidays in 2012.

Who said with all this stock market turbulence there was no place to put your money? Find the Michael O’Leary of Asia and buy as much stock as possible in his company tomorrow morning.