‘A nasty little piece of smug class warfare’

A Green holiday firm’s promise of ‘chav-free holidays’ for the middle classes exposes the snobbery that underpins radical eco-tourism.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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Activities Abroad, a green-leaning travel firm based in Northumberland, England, has caused a stink by guaranteeing its clients ‘chav-free holidays’.

For the benefit of non-British readers, ‘chav’ is a derogatory term for working-class British youth, the tracksuit-wearing, blinged-up, lager-swilling kind, who are said to populate areas such as Croydon, Bermondsey and Birmingham, but who are most frequently found hanging around in the minds of panicked middle-class, Middle England hacks. In a promo email sent to 24,000 subscribers at the end of last week, Activities Abroad (AA) promised that no such despicable, slovenly people will ever be found on one of its trips overseas.

Under the heading ‘Chav-Free Activity Holidays’, AA said: ‘…Children with middle-class names such as Duncan and Catherine are eight times more likely to pass their GCSEs than children with names such as Wayne and Dwayne. This got us thinking. Are there names you are likely to encounter and not encounter on an Activities Abroad holiday?’ (1) It did some quickfire research and discovered that on an AA trip you are unlikely to encounter people called ‘Britney, Kylie-Lianne, Dazza, Chardonnay, Chantelle and Candice’ (in short, thugs and slags), and are far more likely to run in to people called ‘Sarah, Alice, Lucy, Charlotte, James and Joseph’ (in short, middle class and mild).

Eleven of AA’s email subscribers complained; one denounced the mailshot as ‘a nasty little piece of smug class warfare’ and promised never to patronise AA again (2). The Guardian seemed especially miffed by the embarrassing mailout, conscious, perhaps, that AA is the kind of trendy, liberal, eco-aware holiday firm that it normally advertises in its pages. AA’s holidays include husky safaris in the Canadian wilderness and volcano hiking in Costa Rica, which can set travellers back £2,000, and last year it won a silver award for ‘most environmentally responsible small tour operator’ at the British Travel Awards (3). Yet its managing director, Alistair McLean, was unapologetic about the email, telling one complaining customer: ‘I make no apology for proclaiming myself to be middle class and a genuine contributor to our society.’ (4) Unlike those Waynes, Dwaynes, Chantelles and Candices, who of course contribute nothing.

AA’s anti-chav advertising tactics are disturbing, and more than a little dumb, but are they really so shocking? Poisonous snobbery towards ‘chavvy’ and working-class holidaymakers is rife today – only it tends to be expressed in code, in underhand concerns about CO2 emissions, trails of noxious gases in the blue sky, the dangers of cheap flights, and the denigration of foreign cultures by unthinking Brits. AA’s mistake was to forget the coded lingo and state out loud the prejudices that underpin new forms of oh-so-superior eco-travel. Perhaps it has done us a crude service, then, by revealing for all to see the naked loathing of the young and horizon-exploring working classes that motivates much of the contemporary debate on tourism.

Much of what AA’s Alistair McLean said in response to the 11 complaints about his email went entirely unreported in the Guardian’s article, or anywhere else in the British press. This scion of Green travel – hailed by ethical columnists, decorated by the British Travel Awards, and a member of the Responsible Travel coalition (‘holidays that give the world a break’) – let rip against the Great Unwashed in one online discussion forum. To one complainant, he spat: ‘Do you encourage your children to go off and play with the shell-suited, Lambert and Butler sucking teenagers who hang around our shopping centres at night?’ He laid into the ‘shell-suited urchins who haunt our street corners’. And he pointed out that where his travel firm makes ‘a positive contribution to our economy’ – by paying ‘corporation tax, income tax, PAYE… and [making contributions] to AIDS projects in South Africa and other charitable organisations’ – he is tired of watching economic resources being ‘frittered away by people who simply can’t be bothered (“bovvered”)’ (5).

It’s nasty stuff, fuelled by hysterical images of feral working-class kids running riot and old-style prejudices about the poor sponging off decent society. Yet the idea that lower-income communities – these ‘urchins’, these cigarette-sucking teenagers – are destructive, especially when they go on holiday, is widespread. In recent years, ‘cheap flights’ has become a thinly-disguised codeword for ‘cheap people’, for those Dwaynes and Waynes who apparently only go overseas in order to drink, puke and fornicate. Eco-activists and commentators try their best to present their opposition to cheap flights as being driven by concern for the environment or even, laughably, as a radical anti-capitalist stance against ‘the toffs’ who allegedly populate Ryanair’s £5 flights to Riga. Yet their mask of eco-respectability frequently slips to reveal a sneering snobbery underneath.

Caroline Lucas, leader of the UK Green Party, has written of the ‘stratospheric cost of cheap flights’ and demanded ‘an end to cheap stag nights in Riga’ (6). She fails to explain why a flight for a stag night in the Latvian capital is more destructive than, say, a flight to one of AA’s husky safaris in the Canadian wilderness. Plane Stupid poses as an edgy campaign group that wants to ground the cheap flights of ‘second home owners’. Yet in their more unguarded moments, its members spout bile about one kind of travel only. Its founder says: ‘Our ability to live on Earth is at stake, and for what? So people can have a stag do in Prague.’ (7) In another statement, Plane Stupid said: ‘There’s been an enormous growth in binge-flying with the proliferation of stag and hen nights to Eastern European destinations chosen not for their architecture or culture but because people can fly there for 99p and get loaded for a tenner.’ (8) That’s not edgy – it’s the age-old middle-class prejudice against pointless, wasteful working-class tourism dressed up in a little bit of environmental garb.

Whether they’re dissing ‘cheap flights’ (the correct code), ‘stag night attendees’ (the code starts to slip), or vile ‘shell-suited urchins’ called ‘Dwayne and Wayne’ (the code completely falls apart), the target of the eco-aware is always the kind of hedonistic travel indulged by youthful members of lower-income communities. Beneath their environmental concerns there lurks the long-standing prejudice that some forms of travel, involving huskies and volcanos, are worthwhile, and other forms, involving kicking back, relaxing, having unadulterated fun, are low, coarse, destructive and literally ‘noxious’.

Tourism and travel have long been the targets of vicious snootiness. When in the Victorian era British workers first started venturing to the seaside, thanks to one Thomas Cook, snobbish commentators complained that ‘of all noxious animals, the most noxious is a tourist’ (9). Later, in the modern era of the 1920s and 30s, the middle classes who had long been travelling to places like Italy and Greece were alarmed to see the lower middle-classes, and even Americans, following in their wake. The British literary snob Osbert Sitwell described American tourists as a ‘swarm of very noisy transatlantic locusts’. His sister, the poet Edith, said tourists were ‘the most awful people with legs like flies, who come in to lunch in bathing costumes – flies, centipedes’ (10). In more recent times, from the 1980s onwards, commentators have attacked ‘the vile behaviour of British tourists’ in places like southern Spain, the ‘disgusting inebriation, oral sex and other beachside practices [that would] startle a Blackpool donkey’ (11). The image of the ‘Blackpool donkey’ is telling: the sentiment is that ‘these people’, these destructive urchins, should really stay put in places like Blackpool rather than fouling the sophisticated world with their filthy habits as they get ‘loaded for a tenner’.

Paul Fussell argued in his 1982 book Abroad: British Literary Travelling Between the Wars that: ‘From the outset, mass tourism attracted the class-contempt of killjoys who conceived themselves… superior by reason of intellect, education, curiosity and spirit.’ The language changes over the years – from ‘animals’ to ‘locusts’, ‘centipedes’ to ‘yobs’ and ‘drunks’ – but the sentiment remains remarkably similar: these people are noxious, whether metaphorically, as described by that Victorian observer, or literally, in the way that they are now described by today’s snobs as being ‘harmful to the environment’. AA’s fantastically crude reduction of entire sections of the population to ‘chavs’, ‘urchins’, cigarette-suckers, all instantly recognisable by their ridiculous first names, reveals the deep snobbery that still underpins the tourism debate. Because it is about betterment and exploration, about escaping the local and dipping a foot into the global, about having ideas way, way above one’s station, travel invites the undiluted snobbery of those who consider themselves ‘superior by reason of intellect’ like no other single issue.

We should challenge the fake distinction made between ‘enlightening travel’ and ‘filthy travel’, and insist that travel is in itself a positive thing. Whether people go abroad to hang out with huskies or to chat up girls, to donkey-trek in Peru or to sunbathe in Magaluf, it’s all about escaping, exploring and experiencing, and urchins who smoke and sponge off society (allegedly) should be as free to do that as the kids named Lucy, Charlotte and Alice.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here. His satire on the green movement – Can I Recycle My Granny and 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas – is published by Hodder & Stoughton in October. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Previously on spiked

Brendan O’Neill witnessed class hatred at Stansted Airport and asked ‘Who’s afraid of Ryanair?’. Mick Hume was unimpressed by protesters’ hijacking at Stansted. Nathalie Rothschild slammed Virgin Atlantic’s attempt to shame passengers into onboard eco-penance and joined the not-so-happy-campers at the Heathrow protest. Or read more at spiked issues Environment and Tourism and travel.

(1) Activities Abroad, shame on you, A Different Voice, 20 January 2009

(2) Activities Abroad, shame on you, A Different Voice, 20 January 2009

(3) Holiday firm snubs ‘chavs’, Guardian, 22 January 2009

(4) Holiday firm snubs ‘chavs’, Guardian, 22 January 2009

(5) Activities Abroad, shame on you, A Different Voice, 20 January 2009

(6) The stratospheric cost of cheap flights, Comment Is Free, 5 July 2006

(7) The campaigner to watch out for in 2007?, Johann Hari, Independent, 31 December 2006

(8) See Class hatred at Stansted Airport, by Brendan O’Neill

(9) The Moralisation of Tourism: Sun, Sand… and Saving the World?, Jim Butcher, Routledge, 2002

(10) Abroad: British Literary Traveling between the Wars, Paul Fussell, Oxford University Press, 1982

(11) Who let the yobs out?, Observer, 24 August 2003

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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