Picking our way across the broken glass, we cross the beach to where the sea can just be seen, a distant grey smudge. Dad puts up some stumps and we play cricket with a bald tennis ball. Nobody wins. Later on, the rain drives us into an abandoned bus shelter where we eat chips. There is no money for fish.
Is that the British holiday of the future? Actually, it’s my own childhood memory of a dismal summer’s day in Mablethorpe in 1967, but to judge from some of the doom and gloom of the Brexit trigger moment, you might think the great British holiday is heading straight back into that abyss. According to recent research by the insurer Columbus Direct, 41% of Britons will be changing their holiday plans this year as a direct result of the fall in sterling, with a hefty 16% – 8 million people – planning a staycation. Meanwhile, it looks like many traditional British destinations – the US, Australia, France and Spain – will also be more pricey. Could we be seeing a seismic shift in where the British go on holiday?
On the face of it, the world should not be so different: the pound is now at 2013 levels against the euro, and Donald Trump’s much trumpeted ban, should it ever work, will never affect most UK travellers. Travel has never been so easy, nor so universal. There were 1.2 billion international tourist arrivals in 2015, part of a firmly upward trend. “The greatest achievement of the travel industry in the last 40 years has been to give people the confidence to go abroad and meet strangers,” says Justin Frances, CEO of the ethical travel agency Responsible Travel. But that achievement, he adds, “is now threatened by a rise in fear and mistrust”.
In other words, populist politics. All over the world, it seems, barriers are going up and people are retreating to what is secure. The first sufferers, you might think, have been the citizens of those countries facing the US travel ban – Iraq, Iran, Somalia, Syria, Yemen, Libya and Sudan, Trump’s magnificent seven – but fear is putting the squeeze on others. In Turkey, Tunisia and Egypt, tourist areas are almost empty. Inquiries and bookings for the US are down.
It is not all bad news. Some locations are likely to benefit from this seismic change: Joel Brandon-Brown, managing director of travel site Travelzoo, says, “2017 will be the year of eastern Europe”. Further afield, the non-dollarised parts of Latin America, Asia and Africa also look attractive. Even Iran is hoping for a boom; Responsible Travel reports that inquiries for the US’s No 1 pariah state are up 272%.
Another unexpected trend to emerge is the rebirth of the package tour, with Thomas Cook reporting a 9% rise in bookings. In troubled times, a package tour insures the buyer against a currency drop, as everything is already paid for. With traditional favourites Turkey, Tunisia and Egypt all down-and-out, the beneficiaries, according to Thomas Cook, are proving to be Greece, Croatia, Cyprus, Portugal and Bulgaria. That trend is also evident among other types of holidaymaker: self-guided tour experts Inntravel report increased bookings in cheaper eurozone countries such as Portugal as well as non-euro Croatia.
Another emerging trend, which will please package tour operators, is that brakes are being applied to the informal sharing economy. The Airbnb bubble may be about to burst. Greece is planning a crackdown on short-term lets, with new taxes for landlords. The government there believes it is losing €350m a year to the informal sector. New York has outlawed short-term lets for unoccupied apartments, a direct hit on Airbnb’s business. And the UK looks set to follow: a short paragraph buried in the Spring 2017 Budget announced that the government will “consult” on ending tax relief for short-term lets.
Frances thinks that a divide is opening up, one that reflects the political split: between those who want safe escapism and those are still prepared to take the risk and have an experience. For the latter, experience is everything. A day lying on a tropical beach followed by a romantic sunset is not enough; they want to be counting turtles, learning to surf and then mixing the cocktails themselves. They are also the early adoptors when it comes to less well-known destinations. In this world, the arrival of Boeing’s Dreamliner is also being seen as a game-changer for longhaul – cleaner, quieter and more comfortable – with new routes such as British Airways to Chile’s capital, Santiago.
For all the downbeat prognostications, the public show few signs of giving up their wanderlust just yet, even if they will go to different places. And in that, perhaps, lies a gleam of hope. In the words of the late AA Gill: “Tourism is a greater force for peace, harmony, economies, education and stability than the United Nations, all its agencies and every NGO bundled together in Bermuda shorts.”
So how best to benefit from all the change and make your pound stretch further? Here are some tips.
How to do it: from wild camping to all-inclusive
Heading to those cheaper eastern European lands? With the euro riding high, watch out for expensive toll roads in France and Italy. It would be better to go via Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany, which are all free. Austria and Slovenia have daily motorway passes available near their borders. Fill up the tank in Luxembourg – petrol is 20% cheaper than in the UK – and compare fuel prices everywhere with the AA’s monthly report. If you are using a hire car, take out personal hire car insurance, not the car companies inflated offerings. Check out rental bikes to make your own city tours. Fly at cheap times and investigate viable alternative airports: Bratislava, for example, is an hour by bus from Vienna and two from Budapest.
Most British travellers’ idea of an expensive destination would be Germany, but while restaurants are pricey, supermarket shopping is significantly cheaper than in Britain, especially when it comes to alcohol. With cottages cheaper in Germany too, a self-catering holiday can actually be cheaper than in the UK. As you might expect, price comparisons of all European countries show that Bulgaria is the most affordable – beating even Turkey. On food alone, Poland offers the best value in Europe.
3. Use huts, bothies and barns
All over the world, there are wonderful mountain huts, ranging from bare stone shelters to the super-efficient alpine huts of Europe. While the latter are not always cheap, you can save significantly by joining the British Mountaineering Council and taking advantage of member discounts. The benefit of these huts is that they are often situated high up, far above the midges and mess of lower levels, and are more likely to give you that “wow” moment. You don’t have to travel far, either: in the Lake District, Lakeland Camping Barns come in at about £10 per person, for example, while bothies – situated in remoter areas across the UK – are usually free.
There are people who believe the best place for a tent is the attic. Their first camp went badly. It rained incessantly, and they ended up stampeding for the nearest hotel, screaming: “The slugs are coming!” It has to be said that camping is not for everyone, but there are ways to ease the pain. First of all: always borrow gear for that first attempt. Second: never camp further than five minutes from a good pub. Third: to save money, wild camp in Scotland, though not by the western shores of Loch Lomond, where it has been banned from March to September. And watch out: continental sites can be very expensive for campers. Finally: what’s wrong with slugs?
5. Embrace the all-inclusive trip
There is something about being a member of a party and being made to wear a wristband that fills me with – well, buffet breakfasts, actually, but also rebellious horror. But all-inclusive can also mean more adventurous trips that often include flights, accommodation, transfers, guides and most meals. And in deciding to go all-inclusive, your up-front price is almost all you will need to find – a godsend in a world of wildly fluctuating exchange rates. Many of the trips linked in our recommended countries are of this type.
Where to go: 10 countries that should be on your itinerary
“Pound for pound, Nepal is better value than Europe,” says Catherine Shearer of specialist cycle holiday experts H+I Adventures. The country has had a tricky few years that have featured Maoist insurgencies, royal massacres and a devastating earthquake, but Nepal has come roaring back. Travellers are reporting a sense of optimism and vibrancy that rubs off on visitors. “Democracy is on the rise,” reports Dr Claire Smith of York University’s Asia Research Network. “It is an inspiring moment to visit the country … and the curries are delicious.” This is a country with a huge amount to offer: its mountain ranges, of course, but also a wealth of wildlife, temples, ancient towns and colourful culture. KE Adventure Travel specialises in some spectacular hikes in the country.
The UK is not the only economy suffering from own goals. South Africa has been riven with fights in parliament, corruption scandals and a slew of well-reported criminal cases, and the currency has not escaped the turmoil either. The rand has been volatile of late, but it has now settled at around ZAR 16 to the pound, making it a good value destination. Cape Town has been a perennial favourite, but interest in less well-known regions such as the Eastern Cape is growing. The coast of this province is a real gem, as are small desert towns such as Graaff-Reinet and Cradock, while the Drakensberg mountains offer world-class trekking in a true African wilderness. The real success stories, however, are the country’s revitalised cities: Johannesburg and Soweto are vibrant fun, while Durban has transformed its spectacular oceanfront from a seedy dive to a great multicultural playground. Rainbow Tours offers some good self-drive options.
Benefiting from being exotic, close to the UK, and outside the EU, Albania is a great option for independent travellers. It has spectacular mountain ranges, some quirky ancient towns and a fine stretch of unspoilt Adriatic coast. It also has a currency that remains good value against sterling. What you get with Albania is somewhere curious and unusual within easy reach, but without hordes of other visitors. Walk through the “Accursed Mountains” (more properly, part of the Dinaric alps) or take to the Via Egnatia, the old Roman road that once connected the Adriatic to the Black Sea. The bridges and cobbled ways have remained unchanged in over 2,000 years.
Under-appreciated and largely unsung, Bulgaria is a magnificent country to spend time in. The spectacular mountains are ideal for self-guided hiking, there are wonderful churches and monasteries to visit, and there is plenty of good wine and food at affordable prices for those of us who earn in pounds. Look out for Plovdiv, a quaint old city with a Roman amphitheatre that makes for a star attraction with budget airline flight connections. Accessible from there are the Rhodope mountains with great hill walks and villages. Varna, on the Black Sea coast, is also interesting.
Felipe Zalamea, of Sumak Travel, is a self-confessed Colombiaphile. “You’ve got an amazing variety of landscapes: the Andes, the Amazon rainforest, stunning deserts, the flatlands, several snow-capped mountains you can climb, a coffee region, plenty of colonial towns and vibrant cities.” That all comes with a functional peace agreement, a devalued currency, and a dynamic culture. Highlights are the coffee-growing regions, Bogotá, Medellín and a host of gorgeous hill towns. With more species of birds than any other country, Colombia is set to be the ultimate destination for ornithologists. One mountain alone, Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, boasts 20 unique species, and is also home to Teyuna, the Lost City, a potential rival for Machu Picchu.
Despite the continued frostiness between the US and Iran, many people are quietly getting on with investigating the idea of visiting one of the Middle East’s most fascinating destinations. With world-class historical sites such as Persepolis and astonishing cities such as Isfahan, plus a unique cuisine, fabulous gardens and a population eager for contact – for the most part – Iran is a tourist hotspot. There is a lot to surprise and astonish here, but the ancient cities are magnificent: Tabriz, Kerman, Mashhad, Yazd and Shiraz are all fascinating. Wild Frontiers does a comprehensive introduction.
Teresa Bennet, of Wildlife Worldwide, is an unapologetic advocate for Namibia. “It is a wonderful country,” she says. “Fantastic parks and natural sites with magnificent wildlife, too.” The range of environment is spectacular with the rolling forests of the Caprivi, salt pans in Etosha national park, the sculpted deserts and weirdness of the Skeleton Coast. It is also a country where self-drive safaris can really work well. In the extreme south is the Fish River Canyon, a 160km-long, starkly beautiful valley. The canyon hike is one of Africa’s most popular for good reason: five days are normally needed to complete the 88km. For those classic wind-whittled red dunes, try Sossusvlei, where they tower over a salt pan.
For almost a decade, Malaysia’s currency, the ringgit, has been pretty good value for British visitors, and yet arrivals there have been in decline, dropping 6.3% in 2015. This is explained in part by the two massive air disasters that befell Malaysia Airlines flights in 2014. Nevertheless, the country has a lot to offer: jungle hill stations, islands such as Tioman and the Perhentians and some excellent beaches. Over in Malaysian Borneo, the river trips and national parks of Sarawak and Sabah offer great wildlife opportunities, the highlights arguably being Gunung Mulu national park and, of course, the awesome Mount Kinabalu – although beware, as a devastating earthquake that hit the region in 2015 killed 18 people, including hikers.
Knocked back by terror attacks, Kenya’s tourist industry has suffered badly in recent years, with coastal resorts particularly badly hit. Nevertheless, things have quietened down and the majority of the country, away from the Somali border, is relatively peaceful. For anyone wanting to see Africa’s wildlife it remains the continent’s No 1 destination, and the safari has been revitalised in recent years by the work of the conservancy movement: community-business partnerships that bring real financial benefits to poor areas while preserving great wildlife and wilderness. Look out for Naboisho, Slenkay and Laikipia conservancies and companies such as Basecamp Explorer and Gamewatchers, which offer top-quality experiences.
While Croatia is starting to wonder how to cope with the huge number of visitors – cities such as Dubrovnik and Split are packed in summer – neighbouring Serbia remains the undiscovered gems of the Balkans. For cyclists and walkers, this is a glorious country: friendly villages, interesting history and good food and culture. Expect epic hospitality served with lashings of rakija (fruit brandy). Don’t miss Petrovaradin on the Danube (a great cycling or walking route follows the river), towns such as Niš, and mountainous parks such as Fruška Gora and Kapaonik, the “roof of Serbia”.
- This article was amended on 27 March 2017, to correct the spelling of Mablethorpe.