BY PETE WOLSTENCROFT
However, despite my near lifelong state of penury, I am quite widely travelled. I have stood on top of glaciers in Iceland, spent time in New York, Boston and Montreal. I have seen the Casbah in Tangier and have had breakfast in Europe, lunch in Asia and dinner back in Europe once again: in Istanbul, naturally. One thing alone is responsible for this track record: the humble package holiday.
Had I been born in the 19th century, it is unlikely I would have strayed much outside the confines of the county of my birth, Lancashire. The grand European tour would have been out of reach. I would never have marvelled at the Acropolis or seen the sun rise over a pristine white beach in Puglia. (As it happens, I have done neither of those two things, but you catch my drift.)
Package holidays on commercial jet aeroplanes have opened up all but the most exotic locations to those of modest means. A trip to Mexico can be had for the price of a handful of meals in a posh London restaurant. Thailand is so busy with British tourists, that in some resorts, you stand a good chance of bumping into somebody you know from your local pub.
It must have really hurt the wealthy people when planeloads of plebs started turning up in the parts of Europe colonised by their chums. Many of these people, still dressed in their Sunday best for the flight and reeking of cigarette smoke, even if they had chosen to sit in the no smoking section of the plane, went abroad for the first time in the late 60s and early 70s. I know. I was one of them. In Boeing 707s and De Havilland Comets, we flooded the south of Europe.
We didn’t really know what to do when faced with 14 hours of strong sunshine every day. The Spanish called us gambas (prawns), and with good reason. It was reckoned – wrongly – that continental beer was much weaker than good old British bitter, leading to more than a few unsavoury scenes in Magalluf and Rimini. But once this tidal wave of ordinary humanity had been unleashed on the world, it would not be stopped. One by one, the chic destinations fell to the hordes: Crete, Cyprus, Corsica – and that is just the C’s!
The Spanish called us gambas, and with good reason.
The package holiday is much maligned. The chattering classes when asked the clichéed question: “Traveller or tourist?” would always respond with the former. I remember a woman sneering at me in a hotel in Mallorca because I had made my journey with a cheaper outfit than the one that took her to the very same hotel. But once you are in your resort, you are free to be as independent as you like. You can still trek up to see those hill tribes that have barely seen a westerner. You can still have camel stew under a starry night in the desert. And you can still tell those who sneer, that you have managed to do your trip for a fraction of what the sophisticated, independent traveller has paid.
On more than one occasion, I have had a full holiday: flights, transfers, hotel and meals for the less than the cost of a single night in the hotel I stayed in, had I walked in off the street and asked for a room for the night. This is a good thing.
And, let’s be realistic. You will always be a mere tourist unless you learn the language of your destination country. I speak fluent Spanish and can get by in French, Italian and Portuguese, but that still leaves a lot of languages that are a mystery to me. So, in Romania or Finland, I am reliant – to a certain extent – upon the hospitality and helpfulness of other people, if I am to make the most of any trip to those countries.
None of this stuff would be possible without the jet engine. At least as much as the internal combustion engine, this miraculous form of transport has utterly transformed the world. It is relatively easy to maintain genuine friendships with people an ocean away from you, when it only takes five hours in an aluminium tube to cross that ocean.
Easy global travel enables those of us of humble means to experience other cultures. This contact makes us more aware of the differences between peoples, but – crucially – makes us more aware of the similarities. People of every hue and every religion are largely just trying their best to get by. I know this, because package holidays told me so.