One of the long-running stories in the British media over the summer has been the antics of British tourists in the Greek resort of Faliraki on the island of Rhodes. Stories of the misadventures of ‘Brits abroad’ have been a staple of the British media over the last few years, fuelled by TV programmes like the Uncovered series that’s highlighted various resorts over the year such as Ibiza and Ayia Napa, but this year there’s actually been a real story for them to focus on. First, a British tourist was killed in a bar brawl and then others were arrested for lewd conduct and indecent exposure, giving the media a chance to moralise and ‘why oh why?’ about what goes on when British youth meets the Mediterranean.
However, while the existence of resorts like Faliraki is often portrayed as a new development, it can be seen as merely the latest incarnation of the British experience of the rest of Europe as a location for escape from the realities of life at home.
The visit to ‘the Continent’ can be seen as something that’s gradually spread down through the classes over the years, as increased prosperity at home, coupled with reductions in the costs of transport have made travel outside of the British Isles affordable to almost all. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, ‘the Continent’ was the preserve of the aristocracy and the upper classes with the ‘Grand Tour’ of Europe being seen as one of the activities that helped define a young man or woman. France was the main beneficiary of this early tourism with its resorts on both the Atlantic and the Mediterranean receiving an influx of well-heeled British travellers, while Paris became synonymous with licentiousness and decadence, exemplified by the visits of the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) around the turn of the twentieth century (perhaps taking this as an example, his grandson would later depart to France with Mrs Simpson after his abdication).
For the common man though, Europe would still remain a mystery, a place they would only experience as a soldier, not as a tourist. While the elites would have Beauvais, Cannes or San Tropez, they would have Blackpool, Skegness and Clacton-on-Sea. Certain travellers would go to Europe, but tourists and holidaymakers would remain on their side of the Channel until well into the 1950s and 60s when a combination of cheap flights and the Franco government’s need for foreign currency would open up Spain to tourists from Britain and the rest of Northern Europe, eager for holidays where sun was guaranteed. At the same time, the Grand Tour would be reborn by means of the Inter-Rail pass which would soon become the stereotypical holiday of the university student while Amsterdam, with its open availability of sex and drugs, would supplant Paris as the mythical home of continental licentiousness.
Other countries would follow the Spanish example – Portugal, the Adriatic coasts of Italy and Yugoslavia, Greece and even the Black Sea coast of Romania and Bulgaria would be developed in turn with each new development becoming more and more like a home away from home as Christopher Brookmyre describes in his novel One Fine Day In The Middle Of The Night:
When the technology allowed, Simone believed, we would one day see rotund Glaswegians in garments bearing the legend: ‘My pal went to the second moon of Jupiter and all I got was this lousy t-shirt’ – these being gifts from their radiation-blistered neighbours, who will have at length regaled them of where to get the best full English breakfast on Neptune, while complaining that the Martians still haven’t learrned to do a decent fish supper.
‘Make the world England’ had been the motto of imperialist ambition. Where invasion and colonisation had failed, tourism was rampantly succeeding. The poet Hugh McDiarmid once said that England destroyed nations not by conquest but by pretending they didn’t exist, words which went a long way towards explaining, for instance, why centuries of Spanish culinary heritage had been wiped off menus to make way for ‘bubble and squeak’…
…Gavin appreciated this, although he’d phrased it differently: ‘People don’t like anything foreign at the best of times; they certainly don’t want to be bothered with it while they’re away they’re holidays.’
As tourism has advanced, so have the pockets of cultural colonisation. My favourite personal example of this was in the Spanish town of Torrevieja, still a working fishing port, spotting an ‘English’ bar and restaurant that specifically offered North Sea Cod and Chips, just in case their patrons were worried they may be getting something unfamiliar from the Mediterranean.
It’s easy to sneer and present tourism as a bad thing, but I think that the progress of tourism is a ray of hope for the development of a wider vision of ‘Europe’. Yes, there is the incessent parochialism of the tourist, but that’s a global phenomenon, present in Australian bars in London for example, but there’s also the acceptance that what was once the mysterious ‘Continent’ is now seen as just another place that’s easy to get to as well as being welcoming and not in the least bit alien. Going anywhere outside your home country was once seen as taking a huge step into the unknown, not it’s something people do with a second thought. Yes, they might misbehave, but young people on holiday misbehave everywhere in the world (think of the American experience of the Spring Break in Florida) and while the tour companies may be striving to make the Mediterranean English (those parts that aren’t Scandinavian or German, anyway), we’re now travelling beyond our borders in a way that would have seemed unimaginable just a few decades ago.