LONDON, United Kingdom — Two weeks ago, in the eye of this summer's two news storms — the phone-hacking scandal and the riots — I met a buddy for lunch on Kingsland High Street.
Like men of a certain age we spent our meal grousing in descending order about the people who rule over us: our wives, children and political leaders; and then moved into the comfort zone of sports. My friend is a lifelong fan of all Boston teams. I am not. So these conversations never reach a natural endpoint.
We paid for lunch and carried on arguing out the door. I walked across Kingsland High Street, a four-lane road that is the main traffic artery from the north into the City, London's financial district. In the middle of the street, I stopped and decided to make one final point.
When I realized where I was standing I had to ask myself, what's wrong with this picture? Usually this stretch of road is teeming with traffic at midday. If you stop and stand where I was standing you have a good chance of being smeared across it. Where was everyone? The answer was obvious. They were on vacation.
This led to another question: If Britain's economy is flatlining — the jobs report released Wednesday showed a jump of 38,000 unemployed in the second quarter 2011 — how can so many people afford to go away?
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Earlier this year there were dire predictions about what the economic downturn would mean for Britain's travel and tourism. But Sean Tipton of the Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA) says business has "surged in the last two months." Tipton added, "40 percent of Britons take a holiday abroad each year. That's 38 million trips. It will be the same this year."
The reasons vary. The weather is certainly a factor. Since the summer solstice there have been only two days when the temperature has broken 80 degrees in Britain. Dull, wet and cold days certainly have sent many in search of last-minute holidays in the sun.
More importantly, Britain is not cheap for family holidays even for Britons. Renting a cottage in the Yorkshire Dales for a week in August costs as much or more than renting a cottage in Le Marche in Italy. With gas hovering around $6.46 a gallon an all-inclusive package holiday in the Mediterranean can be a cheaper alternative.
Tipton says that early in the year the traditional Mediterranean destinations, Greece, Spain and Portugal, "realized they needed to lower their prices to become competitive." They have been successful, the ABTA spokesman points out, "There has been a marked shift of British bookings to those countries." It's not just price, however, that has driven the change. "Political instability has driven people away from North Africa — Tunisia and Egypt, especially. Turkey has suffered a drop in tourism — but to a lesser extent."
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I called ABTA's sister organization in continental Europe, ECTAA, to get information on whether the trends in Britain were mirrored on the continent. I was told the person I needed to interview, Michel DeBlust, was on vacation. But there is no reason to think that Germans, Swedes and Danes are any different than the Brits. For the Greeks, the Spanish and the Portuguese in particular, that is a good thing.
Greece in particular needs a big summer season — between 15 and 20 percent of its GDP comes from tourism. Spain is almost as dependent on tourism, around 11 percent of its GDP comes from foreign visitors. Ten thousand jobs have been lost in Spain's tourism sector over the last three years. As holiday makers return to Spain that number will improve. In a country with an official unemployment rate of 20 percent that is good news.
There is another reason why the economic downturn has not stopped Europeans from grabbing a vacation. Unlike in America, where there is no law saying employers must give employees time off, every country in Europe makes paid vacation a statutory requirement. It's not that people here aren't busy. They simply have to take time off. Not every one jumps on a plane and flies to another country. If you were French or Italian why would you bother? You have beach, you have Alps, you probably have grandparents with whom to leave the kids — and all within a day's drive.
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And if southern Europeans want to escape the heat they can always fly to London where the pound's devaluation against the euro over the last 36 months means that they can just about afford to visit. Certainly, the number of Spanish and Italian families riding the London Underground at the moment shows that the British capital is an attractive destination.
About the only people not having a quiet vacation this summer are Europe's political leaders. British Prime Minister David Cameron had to fly back from Chiantishire, aka Tuscany, to deal with the riots. He didn't want to be alone so he summoned all of parliament back from holiday to join him. French President Nicholas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have probably had more time together in the last two weeks than they have had with their respective spouses.
But then August has always been a dangerous month for politicians to go away. Twenty years ago this month, Mikhail Gorbachev flew to the Crimea for vacation and found himself overthrown in a coup. Ten years ago this month, President Bush was so busy clearing brush at his Crawford, Tex., ranch that he missed the import of a national security briefing paper titled, "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S."