I’ve always wondered what I’d make of good old Blighty if I were a tourist from elsewhere. Well, with the new publication of the Rough Guide to England, now we know. …Or do we?

In a ploy no doubt engineered to boost sales, the guidebook’s publishers have revealed to the media how its latest edition rates our country.

It’s provocative stuff. Apparently we’re a nation of “overweight, alcopop-swilling, sex- and celebrity-obsessed TV addicts” best described as “insular, self-important and irritating”.

Thankfully, people don’t seem to be taking it too seriously. It has at least provided another excuse for internet debates about what it means to be English/British, like this Yahoo discussion.

In response to the Rough Guide’s most insulting comments, self-professed Unionist blogger O’Neill jokes, “That’s just England of course- the rest of the United Kingdom is full of lithe, carrot-juice supping, muesli-chomping, culturally high-brow, unpaid charity-workers.”

But he goes on to make a more pointed jibe, adding: “Rough Guide says it all a bit of fun as opposed to downright racist stereo-typing; I’ve got their India edition at home, I think I’ll do a bit of cross-checking and see how they satirise the Indian national character.”

Perhaps it is somehow more acceptable for Westerners (‘first world’ countries, developed countries, whatever) to joke about the character flaws of the British – or the yanks and Aussies – and perhaps this does raise probing questions about the relationship between ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ countries, as raised in responses to my previous blogs.

But then this Rough Guide to England wasn’t written by tourists, or even entirely for tourists. It was penned by four Brits and, as all the hype demonstrates, was aimed in large part at Brits.

But in spite of the seemingly offensive remarks hitting the headlines, the guide is in fact pretty balanced. In spite of our bad habits and bewildering accents, the country is “fascinating, beautiful and culturally diverse”. 

With praise even for “cosmopolitan” Birmingham, I’d say its a typically British exercise in self-glorification disguised by the tongue-in-cheek humour that we can’t resist.

If green taxes on air travel ever do get off the ground, it might just be a best-seller.

Another young British traveller fell victim to the South American roads on Friday. Tom Austin, 22, was killed when a Toyota Land Cruiser collided with his mountain bike on the notorious Bolivian highway between La Paz and Coroico – less than two weeks after five gap year girls died in a bus crash in Ecuador.

Traffic accidents are a big danger most travellers ignore, says blogger Oztraveller. He argues we should spend less time worrying about yellow fever jabs, malaria tablets and the threat of global terrorism and more time worrying about who’s driving our bus.

Probably true. But  was unfair and insensitive of the Independent‘s Simon Calder to attribute the dangers of South America’s roads to underdevelopment.  If that’s what he meant. Speaking to the BBC about the Ecuador tragedy, he said: “This is a third world country with all the problems that come with that.”

Jonnymatthews is one blogger – currently travelling in Peru – less than pleased with Simon Calder’s comment, which he reports was met with hostility in South America.

And quite rightly too. First of all, the term ‘third world’ – coined back in 1952 to refer to non-aligned countries in the Cold War – is outdated, derogatory and explains nothing. It’s not clear what ‘problems’ such countries are supposedly plagued with, so lets clear things up. 

High up in the Andes, steep mountains inevitably make roads dangerous. If there were enormous mountain ranges to be traversed in the UK, rather than the occasional gradual hill, our roads would be perilous too.

Whatever Simon Calder’s words might imply, on the whole South American roads are not badly maintained. The vast majority are properly surfaced and well-marked.

Let’s face it, there’s only so much that ‘Go Slow’ signs can do to prepare drivers for this:

It’s part of the Camino de la Muerte, or the Death Road, on which Tom Austin was killed, which used to notch up an estimated 200-300 deaths per year (according to the BBC).

Since an alternative road opened in 2006 (paid for by the government and well-maintained), it has been one of Bolivia’s top tourist attractions among thrill-seeking travellers. Several tour operators offer mountain bikes and guides for the five hour ride which descends 11,800ft in just 40 miles.

Scare stories abound. Tom Austin knew what he was letting himself in for when he took the trip. And Downhill Madness are a decent company. No-one and nothing was to blame for what happened – least of all the underdevelopment of Bolivia. He chose to take a risk; accidents happen.

The same may not be true for the girls, who may well have been the victims of dodgy driving. It’s not a great sign that the driver of the vehicle with which they collided fled the scene. In my experience, the concept of right of way doesn’t seem to have caught on in Quito or La Paz, and ‘careful driving’ is for cowards. But then the same is said of Italy and other ‘first world’ countries. 

Locals in Ecuador, Bolivia and elsewhere warned me that many accidents resulted when drivers, taking back-to-back shifts without a break to make ends meet, nodded off at the wheel in the early hours of the morning. Maybe if wages were higher, South American drivers wouldn’t feel forced to work back-to-back shifts – but falling asleep at the wheel causes accidents in the UK all too often. On narrow, windy mountain roads the stakes are higher.

The brave parents of the Ecuador crash victims have it spot on. Robin Logie, father of Rebecca, 19, insists young people should not be put off from gap year travel because of these accidents. Gregory Swann, father of 18-year-old Indira, added: “Travel broadens knowledge, understanding. I think it is one of the best educations you can have. I would say to any student with the means to travel, do so.”

I hope no-one draws the wrong lessons from these tragedies. Visiting somewhere like Ecuador or Bolivia can be an invaluable, life-changing experience. Most travellers come back with memories that last a lifetime.

Truth is, for most young globetrotters, travelling wouldn’t be as exciting or appealing if there weren’t an element of danger, real or perceived. Particularly when our own society is so obsessed with health and safety. If you want to explore other countries and experience different ways of life, you can’t wrap yourself in cotton wool.

Public transport is an essential part of the lifestyle of people in countries like Ecuador and Bolivia. Millions use taxis, buses and coaches every day. Boarding a bus packed full of colourful indigenous men and women, wailing babies and the odd clucking chicken is the bread and butter of South American travel.

Maybe I’ve been lucky, but in 9 months of travel in South America and Africa my biggest problem was losing my debit card. And if I go back, which I hope I will, I’ll still be using the bus.

Guidebook travel

April 20, 2008

Thomas KohnstammCarole Cadwalladr of the Observer  writes scathingly of the outcry that Thomas Kohnstamm has provoked.

 

He’s the guy who admitted that he didn’t actually visit Colombia to write about it for the Lonely Planet guidebook. “I wrote the book in San Francisco. I got the information from a chick I was dating – an intern in the Colombian consulate,” he said.

Says Carole of the “self-righteous indignation” of responses on travel websites, such as Gadling and the LP’s own Thorn Tree, “you would think that he’d taken to murdering kittens or claiming War and Peace as his own.”

Travel journalism, unlike our national media, is largely an unregulated affair. Hacks might be accused of sensationalism, selective reporting and even lying. Criticisms of their lack of power aside, however, they are accountable to their audiences, through media competition, the Press Complaints Commission and, at the last resort, the law.

There are few genuine checks in place on travel writers. Of course people can send in feedback to travel guides, and tourist chat among themselves about where to go. But for the single traveller arriving to an unfamiliar destination where they don’t speak the language, a travel guide is the only advice they have. For thousands of tourists, the Lonely Planet is their bible.

Kohnstamm cited low wages as some sort of justification for “making it up”. But many people, me included, would give anything to write for the LP – however low the wages. Aaron Hotfelder and others are right to be pissed off on behalf of guide book users and would-be travel writers.

Like Fransisca Kellet of the Telegraph, I find it disappointing to say the least that a self-professed journalist – and travel writer herself – should treat the issue so lightly. Kohnstamm and Cadwalladr are doing a real disservice to the majority of honest, ethical travel writers who strive to give accurate advice to their readers.

That said, I’m actually rather glad I had to struggle with an out-of-date Lonely Planet when I travelled in South America last year. Hostels, restaurants, bars and tour companies close down and reopen frequently in four years, it turns out.

But after the initial frustration, I enjoyed the challenge of having to figure things out for myself. It encourages you to chat to fellow travellers and local people and be more independent. That is what travelling is about, after all.

A terminal problem

April 3, 2008

The chaos in Heathrow\'s T5Just as holidaymakers have been prevented from escaping the country in the last few days, so the rest of us have been unable to get away from all the fuss about Heathrow’s Terminal 5.

Commentators and bloggers from the Telegraph’s Francisca Kellet to the Observer’s Will Hutton have been busy venting their fury about the chaos, slamming BA and BAA for causing so much upheaval and discrediting Britain on the word stage.

According to Hutton and others, the whole sorry affair demonstrates the problems of Britain’s private sector. No doubt heads will roll – and no doubt they should. It’s a total disgrace that a high-profile project granted planning permission back in 2001 and costing a total of £4.3 billion wasn’t ready on time.

But let’s not let these albeit disastrous teething problems obscure a wider debate about air travel. The real issues raised by the opening of T5 seem to have got lost with the missing luggage.

Heathrow now has five terminals. T5 Heathrow’s capacity (or it will do when it’s functioning properly, that is) from 68 million to 90 million passengers per year. And that’s just Heathrow. In the last year, 236 million passengers have flown in and out of the UK. It is estimated that by 2030 that figure will be 465 million.

Meanwhile, the threat of diminishing natural resources and climate change looms ever larger. The inconvenience experienced by thousands of would-be airline passengers over the last few days will pale into insignificance when the warnings of scientists about fuel shortages and global chaos are borne out.

Though a blinkered and irresponsible few might try and play it down, air travel is a big contributor to global carbon levels and climate change.  But airlines are more profitable than ever and demand remains sky-high: proof (if ever it were needed) that we’re all too selfish to forgoe our exotic holidays for the sake of the environment.

In a well-informed and persuasive article for the Guardian, Leo Hickman highlights a survey commissioned by Butlins, which recorded a five per cent rise in visitors on the previous year. But of the 1,500 surveyed about why they were shunning flights abroad, only one percent of those cite “saving the planet”. For 39 per cent, airport delays were the main factor persuading people to holiday at home.

Middle class liberal lefties are faced with a difficult dilemma when it comes to eco-travel, of course. Eager to champion good causes, no-one is keener to do their bit to help the environment. But no-one loves travelling to far-flung destinations more than the open-minded internationalist keen to broaden their horizons and get their hands dirty helping underprivileged children in developing countries. 

While it’s easy to pay a bit extra for locally grown organic produce, make the effort to recycle plastic bottles and even take the bike to work, they -okay, we – are far more reluctant to swap Tanzania for Torquay or Bolivia for Brighton.

Eco-travel writers are doing a great job of publicising green alternatives to air travel. There is some inspiring journalism of this sort about:

Green travel from the Guardian

The Telegraph’s offerings

The Times favourite green holiday ideas

But, worthy and appealing though they seem, flying is simply to easy. And if young vegetarians like me won’t give it up, fat chance that the rest of us will.

Governments could – and should – be introducing ways to get people onto other, greener methods of transport. As Hickman argues, it’s high time for green taxes that make us think twice about flying. Instead, politicians – ever obesessed with short-term gains for the next election – are supporting attempts by the industry to make air travel even more accessible.

Now that’s what I call bad planning.