Competition came quickly: Wings, set up in 1955 by the Ramblers’ Association, advertised package holidays to Portugal costing 49 guineas for two weeks (about £1,180 today).
By the 1960s, demand from tourists was boosting airport growth; Luton was one of the first to capitalise on the opportunity. (Later, the airport’s role in mass tourism would be immortalised in an award-winning ad for Campari and lemonade, the ultimate package holiday drink.)
The annual shiny Lunn Poly or Thomas Cook brochure could be collected from your high street travel agent and pored over at home, en famille. Each year, there were new and ever-more exotic destinations: Corfu Town, Albufeira, Naples, Dubrovnik. The hotels promised in-room TVs, three-star dining, local entertainment and day trips. Package holidays went upmarket with Roman ruins and butterfly farms, while souvenir shops offered cheesecloth dresses and hand-woven bedspreads.
Yet still for most the main idea was to spend as much time as possible in the sun. Night times were for fun at the disco, retsina and waterside dining watched by a horde of feral cats.
Over time two tiers of fliers emerged: the ones who “travel”, and then everyone else, who “go on holiday”. The former look down on the latter, sneering at the way they buy flight and accommodation as a unit, rather than – the ultimate virtue signalling – booking one’s own flight and calling that charming hotel your best pal told you about, in the sort of exotic destination that requires at least three vaccinations – and this pre-Covid. While no one seems to begrudge this kind of thoughtful traveller – casually offsetting their CO2 via an app, cheerful Costa-mongers are another matter. And have been for quite a while.
And so Covid may now have become an excuse for doing what some of our elitist leaders have perhaps dreamed of for years: putting an end to the cheap package holiday.
But while the talk now is of the need to keep expensive testing and complicated rules – in place, this undeclared war on cheap travel is unlikely to end with Covid. There will be others looking to stop the bargain-bucket Benidorm crowd for environmental reasons.
Already, powerful government advisers have mass travel in their sights as they ponder how Britain can meet the government’s legally binding target of reducing carbon emissions to net zero by 2050. For them, Covid restrictions have been a dry run for how our lifestyles might be curtailed in future for the good of the planet.
Yes, that would mean turning the clock back to the era when travel was so complicated and expensive that only the most dedicated and economically blessed among us would consider getting away. And as the numbers of putative passengers to Spain, say, fell, then there would be fewer flights, and those would be offered at higher prices. Throw in testing that costs as much as the holiday itself and suddenly, the sort of ordinary Brit who has come to depend on their annual dose of vitamin D wouldn’t be able to afford it anyway.
Keeping the masses off planes would delight well-off travellers – the sort who assuage their own guilt by buying carbon offsets and who shudder at the fly-and-flop crowd at the boarding gate.
Among those who see Covid as a dry run for restricting our freedom to travel is Dr Susan Michie, member of the Sage committee and director of the Centre for Behaviour Change at UCL.
In a Channel 5 News interview in June, she said: “We need to think about the way we plan our cities, our transport, our lifestyles – instead of going back to huge long commutes, we have more local hubs where people don’t have to travel so much – good not only for health but for the environment – the environmental crisis is the next one down the road.”
In other words, now we have conditioned the public to expect lockdowns and other restrictions, let’s use them to cut carbon emissions.
Sir David King, the former chief Scientific Adviser who set up the shadow “independent Sage” committee and the similar Climate Change Advisory Group, is another who might not want to let the opportunity slip.
Last September, he wrote in The Washington Post: “The pandemic ought to make fighting climate change easier, serving as a model for responding to the climate crisis. While it did so at a huge cost to the economy, it has proved that large swaths of the population could change their behaviour and lower the trajectory of emissions — not over decades but in a matter of weeks.”
His argument somewhat ignores an important point: the public supported restrictions on the basis it was a brief response to a disease threatening to kill large numbers of people in a short time.
However much you dress up the dangers of climate change, it isn’t going to be solved with restrictive measures over weeks or months. If a government was going to try to cut carbon emissions by announcing a ban on, say, holiday flights, it would have to stay indefinitely, or until some alternative technology was invented.
The public might be a little less keen to accept that. Except, perhaps, if they can be either put off going away (the cost, the effort) or frightened into changing behaviour (disease, global warming) forever.
So the culture war over travel has begun. Government ministers from Johnson and Sunak down are already modelling the responsible, patriotic and green style of holiday: a sodden staycation in wellies and a coat. It’s one that would suit the World Economic Forum (WEF), which carries on its website a piece by Arthur Wyns, former climate adviser to the World Health Organisation, saying: “The global health crisis we find ourselves in has forced us to dramatically change our behaviour in order to protect ourselves and those around us, to a degree most of us have never experienced before. This temporary shift of gears could lead to a long-term shift in old behaviours and assumptions, which could lead to a public drive for collective action and effective risk management.”
Can we take that as a promise that the WEF will no longer be inviting the great and good to fly to Davos in their private jets? I fear not. You can be sure the wealthy will carry on travelling, while lecturing the rest of us on climate change. I don’t doubt that, given half a chance, the PM will be jetting off to some borrowed villa in the Caribbean once again.
Covid will be used to justify interference in the lifestyles of ordinary people – by a global elite which, to judge from the fact that G7, COP26 and other beanfeasts are carrying on regardless, are immune to changing behaviour. Life is returning to normal for those important people, who get swept through empty airports without being imprisoned for 10 days at the Holiday Inn. But for the rest of us, the byzantine rules on travel and the cost of complying with them are a foretaste of what is to come.
The Denial by Ross Clark is published by Lume Books