x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

UK residents sick of austerity go hunting for sun

After a freezing winter and a dismal spring residents in the UK are putting the economic gloom to one side as they plan for a break abroad. The desire to get away from it all has sparked a boom in package holidays.

Racegoers shelter from the rain at Royal Ascot. The UK's poor weather is encouraging demand for foreign holidays. Alan Crowhurst / Getty Images
Racegoers shelter from the rain at Royal Ascot. The UK's poor weather is encouraging demand for foreign holidays. Alan Crowhurst / Getty Images

It is high summer in the British Isles and, despite the ongoing weight of austerity, the summer season is in full flow.

From Royal Ascot's famous horse race meeting, to the summer solstice at Stonehenge to the Wimbledon tennis tournament and the Glastonbury music festival this weekend, June is rushing headlong into July.

The temperature has even been known to sneak above 23°C.

Yet, amid the bleak economic landscape, the average Brit is still daydreaming of two weeks abroad, quite probably in the warmer parts of the Mediterranean.

Last year, when the Olympics came to London and locations around the south east of England, there was lots of excitement about spending the summer on home ground. This year, there's no such temptation.

Six of the past seven summers have had above average rainfall and there has been a run of unusually bitter winters.

The weather has blighted holidays at home and cost the domestic tourism industry millions of pounds. According to travel firms, the poor weather is encouraging demand for foreign holidays, even though austerity is continuing to have an impact on families' earning power.

The online travel website, Lowcostholidays.com, says searches for summer holidays abroad rose by 22 per cent last week, compared with the previous week.

Tenerife, Lanzarote and the Balearics were the most searched-for destinations.

The UK's largest airline by passenger numbers, easyJet, said last month the cold, grey winter had prompted a surge in bookings for the summer and also for the winter of next year.

All of Europe's airlines tend to lose money in the first six months of the year before the summer holiday season, and easyJet is no exception. However, its £61 million (Dh344.6m) loss for the six months to end of April was half what it was the previous year.

The airline has attributed this, in part, to its passengers' need to find a route to the sun.

"The longer the winter went on, the more Brits decided it was time to get on a plane and see some soon. And we have had record numbers of people booking for next winter, determined to avoid that type of weather," an easyJet spokeswoman says.

Greece, Spain, Cyprus and Turkey remain the most popular destinations for UK holidaymakers this year, according to the travel group Thomas Cook.

Its peak booking period is always in January and the tour operator has said bookings are similar to those of last year.

"Because of the terrible weather we have had, people just want some guaranteed sunshine," says Beth Harrison, a spokeswoman for Thomas Cook. "All-inclusive holidays are proving popular, particularly with families - people just want to know how much they are going to spend before they get there."

Protests in Turkey and strikes in Greece have not deterred people from travelling to those destinations, nor have they prompted cancellations, according to Thomas Cook.

Other travel companies, including the Monarch Group, Virgin Holidays, Teletext Holidays and Advantage Travel Centres, have also said bookings got off to a strong start in January, even though average selling prices are slightly ahead of last year.

For many Britons, who are determined to get away but anxious about the cost of doing so, the package holiday is making a comeback.

Independent travel soared during the late 1990s and the first few years of the past decade - as people took advantage of the internet to book budget flights and choose their own accommodation.

However, the collapse of a handful of airlines and travel companies, combined with the problems caused by the 2010 volcanic ash cloud from Iceland - which grounded aeroplanes over many European countries for six days - have made people think twice about travelling independently.

Package travel offers tourists the comfort of an industry guarantee, should anything go wrong. Fixed prices also mean unpredictable exchange rates will not suddenly send the cost of a holiday soaring.

Really cheap air fares are also much harder to find, while the costs of hiring a car and putting together a DIY itinerary have risen.

John Hays, head of Hays Travel, recently gave a "Back to the 80s" presentation at a travel agents' conference.

He says he noticed a "sea change" in booking habits part way through last year and adds that the trend has been sustained this year.

GfK Ascent, a market research company that monitors outward bound packaged travel from the United Kingdom, says in the first three months of this year, package market bookings for May to October departures were up 2 per cent, compared with the same period last year; the all-inclusive market was up 9 per cent.

Government data also show inclusive package holidays increased their share of the overseas vacation market from 2010 to last year.

Tui Travel, which includes Thomson and First Choice, has similarly reported customer numbers on its packaged holidays have risen 9 per cent in the past six months.

Nearly half its summer programme in this category this year has now been sold, with average prices and profit margins up against last year.

"We offer unique holidays and I think we are seeing a return to people saying packages are good - it's not old-fashioned," says Peter Long, the Tui chief executive.

"Bookings for summer 2013 have been really strong," he says.

"People who might have taken two holidays have traded down to one but people have said, 'I want to get away.'"

That is not to say the home-based holiday, or "staycation", is over. According to a survey by Travelodge - a chain of budget hotels - two out of three Brits plan to holiday in the UK this year.

The top destinations for families intending to stay in the country are London, Edinburgh and the Lake District, overtaking Cornwall last year.

Staying at home this year could boost the British tourism industry by £3.3bn, according to the survey. VisitBritain, an agency that promotes Britain as a destination, is optimistically predicting the number of Brits staying at home will rise by 3 per cent this year.

Nevertheless, anecdotal evidence suggests bookings at hotels and bed and breakfasts are not as strong as they could be for the industry that is worth 9 per cent of GDP and provides 2.6 million jobs.

Meanwhile, a separate study published by Thomas Cook suggests Britain is not the cheap option many believe it to be.

It found in the UK a basket of typical holiday purchases - from a glass of wine to a meal and ice-cream - costs £125.74, making it the second most expensive destination in the world after Sydney, Australia, at £157.96.

However, the survey did not include travel and accommodation, which is where those who holiday at home make big savings.

Now, the staycationers will just be hoping the weather shines on them - for once.