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by George Olden

Travel has become the great leisure pursuit of our age. Every weekend paper has a supplement or at least a section of pages devoted to it. There are columns of advertisements for cheap flights and independent tour operators, and usually a few articles about some exotic place for the dreamers. Or some established writer will hack out a thousand-word memoir of their gap year twenty years ago when they went round Europe or America or India and discovered themselves. There is even now an industry award for the Travelex Guidebook of the Year. There are guidebooks for every walk of life: Fodor's, according to The Observer, is for "the aspirational American cocktail and cruise set", Lonely Planet for "straggly-haired, dope-smoking hippies". However, whatever your wallet size or travel intentions, certain unpleasant truths now dominate modern travel. It is certainly no longer a 'lonely planet.' That ironically named series, more than any other, has probably destroyed any remoteness that remained.

Unless you want to venture into war zones, or extremes of climate, the probability is that wherever you go you will find hordes of other tourists with the same guidebook. Being well travelled has become a late twentieth century western cliché. Places are no longer visited, they are Œdoneı, consumed in the way that most culture is now. Do Paris, do Goa, do Morocco, do the Inca Trail, do London. Places become fashionable through the same processes as clothing and music, which is the real clue as to how much travel has been assimilated into our western culture. The influences of travel can be seen across culture, affecting clothing and fashion, food, television and literature. Millions watch the endless early-evening holiday shows on BBC1 and ITV, which offer superbly edited ten-minute snap-shots of exotic locations.

The process is much the same, I believe, as accounts for the appeal of Through The Keyhole. The travel shows offer ideas, and for millions of us, save us the bother of actually going to the places. An interesting judge of the power of television would be to see if there was a marked rise in bookings for a place after it being featured on a travel show. Similarly, travel writing has become a hugely popular genre, and one wonders how many places there are left in the world to write about. The answer to that, of course, is plenty ­ most travel writing is uniformly terrible (with notable exceptions such as Jonathan Rabanıs superb books) and therefore places can be constantly recycled as travel writing subject matter. This has even spread to fiction, so that a book as bad as Alex Garlandıs 'The Beach' can become a bestseller.

Garland cleverly tapped into his own generation, an accomplishment many writers fail to achieve, and wrote the Far East travel adventure that drug-snorting, movie-watching, Loaded-lad would love to have. But it is the guidebooks that are the true stars of travel literature. Two series have dominated travel culture in recent years: Lonely Planet and Rough Guide. They have been successful by offering a promise of adventure and independence, but with the safety net of the guide to point you towards the hotels that are in your price range, the location of the bus station, and which streets to avoid at night. But where the hell is the adventure in that? There is a great docu-soap somewhere in the making that would whip the guidebooks out of peoplesı hands and strand them in the middle of a strange and foreign city. Their reactions and dealing with the situation would, I am sure, make great, uncomfortable television. How we would love watching their reactions and imagined perils. Even better, lets strand Michael Palin on a desert island with nothing but a collection of Monty Python videos for company. Now get out of that!

What people want, and what these successful guidebooks offer, is convenience dressed up as adventure. The innocent young person could not walk out on a midsummer morning, as Laurie Lee did in the 1930s, and wander around Europe living off his earnings from busking with a violin. Sadly, and against the supposed direction of developing societies, the world is a much more dangerous place to live in now than it was then. The rucksack and guidebook translate, in some cultures, straight into "yes, please rob me." British hotels specialise in it through the ridiculous pricing of their rooms. The guidebooks are helping to sell us a lifestyle ­ part of that middle-class norm that we all supposedly aspire to is now a fundamental right to at least one exotic holiday a year. Everyone yearns to go somewhere unique or different, for status or genuine interest. But at the fundamental level, there is little difference between the coach-load of elderly American tourists being ferried from sight to sight, and the trail of backpackers all with the same guidebooks, taking the same buses, staying in the same hotels, eating in the same restaurants. Instead of a guide holding your hand, there is a guidebook in it.

The conformity remains, no matter how much window-dressing of independence is put on it. Travel companies were quick to jump on this particular boat, as hundreds of Œindependentı agencies have now sprung up. They offer tours and treks, expeditions and adventures. There may be a bit of hiking and climbing involved, but it is still an organised tour with a company watching over you and planning it all. Of course, they give you plenty of Œfree timeı to explore a city on your own, but the itinerary is always there, at some point you must report back for the next organised bit of your holiday. At least you will be safe from any danger. Meanwhile, the search for more remote or undiscovered holiday destinations goes on. One senses every corner of the earth falling under the spotlight of commercial tourism potential. The ominous prospect of Antarctica being opened up to tourists looms ahead of us. Soon there really will be no untouched wilderness left. You can already buy tickets for the first passenger flight to the moon. Theyıll be taking bookings for Mars and Jupiter soon. And I hear Bag
hdad will be the trendy destination next year. Me? I think Iıll stay at home.


And a reply from Mitch in Romania CROWDED REPLY

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