Sun, sea, sand and snobbery

Ignore the shrill headlines about badly-behaved British tourists: the overwhelming majority have a great time overseas.

According to the UK Foreign Office’s British Behaviour Abroad: Annual Report, released yesterday, 17million British tourists visited Spain between April 2006 and March 2007. A further 761,000 British people reside permanently in Spain. France, the second most visited country by British tourists, received 14.8million British visitors and 200,000 British people are resident there. Over the same period, 6.5million British tourists visited the USA (1). And the big news is that this annual mass movement of people passed off largely peacefully and without incident. Not exactly headline-grabbing stuff, is it?

However, the Foreign Office figures handily include the number of British residents who were arrested during their holidays. So forget the fact that millions of Brits travel the world without incident, and cue shrill headlines about drunken young Brits showing us up overseas.

‘British arrests soar 32% in Spain’, declared BBC News, complete with video footage of drunken holidaymakers abroad (2). The Daily Telegraph reported a ‘surge in arrests for badly behaving Britons in Spain’ (3). The Daily Mail, never known for understatement, bellowed on its front page yesterday: ‘Shame of binge-drink Britons abroad.’ Not wishing to pass up the opportunity of an easy-to-pen headline, the Independent said: ‘Drunk and abusive Britons wreak havoc in Spain as 2,000 are jailed.’ (4) Come again - 2,000?

Yes, a closer look at the Foreign Office figures confirms that over the 12 months to March 2007, a mere 2,032 British people were arrested in Spain out of a total of 17million visitors to the country (5). The equivalent figure for the previous year was 1,549 arrests, out of 13.8million visitors (6). While a 32 per cent year-on-year rise in arrests seems pretty dramatic, the actual increase of 483 arrests, which came alongside an additional three million tourists, is barely worth commenting on; the figure of 2,000 arrests amongst 17million British tourists in Spain is statistically negligible.

Similarly the figure of a 42 per cent rise in arrests in France actually accounts for just 153 Brits out of a visiting population of 14.8million. This is up from 108 arrests amongst 11million visitors during the previous year. Cyprus, where as a proportion British visitors were more likely to be arrested, recorded only 377 arrests out of 1.5million British tourists in the 12 months to March 2007, which is at least consistent with the previous year: 330 out of 1.4million visitors.

Just to repeat: the holiday destination where British tourists are proportionally most likely to be nicked recorded 377 arrests out of 1.5million visitors - just one arrest for every 4,000 people who visited. And then there is the fact that it is unclear from the Foreign Office figures how many of the recorded arrests ended in convictions. That doesn’t matter for the headline-writers: holidaymakers are guilty as charged.

The Foreign Office said many arrests abroad were due to ‘behaviour caused by excessive drinking’ (7). However, as the reason for being arrested is not given, it is unclear how many of these arrests were actually for drunken behaviour or some other misdemeanour. The Times (London) reports that one reason for the increase in arrests could be a Spanish police crackdown on drivers who do not carry their driving licenses, which is a detainable offence in Spain, unlike in Britain.

Never one to miss an opportunity to patronise us, the Foreign Office advises: ‘Know your limit and try not to drink more than you usually would at home.’ Some holiday.

On yesterday’s BBC Radio 4 Today programme the presenters suggested that the Foreign Office figures, so un-shocking if one bothers to look at them in detail, paint a ‘familiar picture of drunken behaviour overseas’ (8). Even the normally sensible Simon Calder, travel editor of the Independent, claimed ‘the world has learnt to expect British louts’ (9).

With arrest numbers as insignificant as 2,000 out of 17million (or roughly one arrest for every 8,000 visitors), it is clear that there is something else behind the reporting and discussion of the new figures. The handwringing news reports shine a light on contemporary fear and snobbery towards ‘British holidaymakers’ - for which you should read, not ‘polite family visiting Tuscany’, but ‘working-class louts boozing it up in the Mediterranean’.

It is striking, for example, that the figures for Spain - where there was a 32 per cent rise in arrests - dominate the headlines, rather than the statistically larger 42 per cent rise in France. This might be because a figure of of 2,000 arrests is more dramatic than a figure of 153; but it might also be because the car-driving families and genteel middle classes holidaying in Aix-en-Provence don’t quite fit the stereotypical picture of ‘Bad British Holidaymaker’ as easily as those working-class boys and girls on the Spanish Costas or in Faliraki - an area that is frequently the focus of the media’s silly-season panics (10).

Mass tourism has long been criticised and carefree holidaymakers openly despised for their leisure activities. In the nineteenth century, when Thomas Cook started taking groups of working-class people to the British seaside as part of the first organised package holidays, the well-off elites reacted with horror and disdain. The growth of low-cost airlines over the past decade has further fuelled anti-mass travel arguments - this time couched in environmental rather than cultural or class terms. The tone of the reporting yesterday should leave us in no doubt about the real target of the anti-flying, anti-mass tourist sentiment: the masses who holiday in the Med.

Sure, anyone who has visited or worked in a major holiday destination will confirm that drunken young Brits sometimes behave badly, yet these incidents are normally worked out locally with little fuss or lasting consequences. For all the shrill headlines, the Foreign Office figures confirm that there is very little conflict between tourists and the host populations. Perhaps the hacks who write these stories could do us all a favour and go on holiday - preferably long-haul.

Peter Smith is the director of tourism at St. Mary’s University College, Twickenham, London.

Previously on spiked

Peter Smith argued that when it comes to air travel, the sky is the limit. Jim Butcher said travel snobs have turned holidaymaking into a moral dilemma. David Soskin told Brendan O’Neill that cheap flights should be ‘a cause of national rejoicing’. Brendan O’Neill asked who’s afraid of Ryan Air, the airline which has been nicknamed ‘chav carrier’. Or read more at spiked issue Tourism and travel.

(1) British behaviour abroad annual report, UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office, 12 August 2008

(2) British arrests soar 32% in Spain, BBC News, 12 August 2008

(3) Surge in arrests for badly behaving Britons in Spain, Daily Telegraph, 12 August 2008

(4) Drunk and abusive Britons wreak havoc in Spain as 2,000 are jailed, Independent, 12 August 2008

(5) British behaviour abroad annual report, UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office, 12 August 2008

(6) British behaviour abroad annual report, The Foreign and Commonwealth Office, 08 August 2007

(7) British behaviour abroad annual report, UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office, 12 August 2008

(8) Today, BBC Radio 4, 12 August 2008

(9) The world has learnt to expect British louts, Independent, 12 August 2008

(10) See The latest resort, by Peter Smith

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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