Ho, ho, ho, that’ll be a fiver please

A headline caught my eye in a London paper in the run-up to Christmas: "'It's safe to swim in Red Sea,' says tourism boss." Given that four tourists had been mauled by sharks and a fifth, a German lady, had just been killed, it struck me as a particularly optimistic piece of PR. "The shark was thrashing and tearing at this poor woman," said a fellow snorkeller. "I was being thrown around in the blood."

You don't see sharks (or jellyfish, for that matter) in pictures of Red Sea resorts, do you? Or in all the other pretty coral reefs in the tourist brochures, kiddies wide-eyed in their little masks amid the clownfish. But they've always been there and it was probably only a matter of time before one of the brighter sharks realised that you could eat these funny, noisy, strange-smelling fish that swim so badly. We as tourists are complicit in the pretence that they don't exist - otherwise it spoils the dream, as that unfortunate German woman found out.

Our willingness to be sold a dream is at the heart of tourism and it is also at the heart of Christmas. The shoddy commercialisation of the season, from the Santa Claus in every high-street grotto - "Ho ho ho, that'll be a fiver" - to the argument over who got the last Waitrose/ Heston Blumenthal Hidden Orange Christmas Pudding, easily turns Christmas into a nasty, competitive exercise in the expensive manufacture of fantasy.

Santa's grotty

It's not a very fashionable thing to say, particularly at this time of year, but I'm not a huge fan of Santa. He seems to have turned from being
a benevolent old chap into something slightly cheap and smelly, nestling in the corner of every village Christmas party in that scraggy old beard from last year.

“It's all about the children," we gush. Is it?

Or is it about the bloke who likes to dress up in that red polyester costume and worry the kids with questions about whether they have been good enough this year?

When children are taken to visit Santa at one of the many Laplands in Scandinavia - huskies through the snow and all, "from £899 per person" - their parents slip him some info about little Thomas in advance. Santa then knows Thomas's name, and can praise him for all the excellent things he has done this year - the time he scored that goal, the fantastic Sats results - and urge him to do even better in the next one. Proud parent gleams with self-indulgent pleasure ("Did I create perfection, darling?"). You can probably tell that I find this distasteful. It is manipulative, emotional blackmail. St Nicholas is not supposed to come with strings attached.

A couple of blokes from Brighton saw a commercial opportunity two years ago and opened a "Lapland" in the New Forest, Hampshire. The flyers promised reindeer, a "magical tunnel of light", a bustling Christmas market - and polar bears. How desperate a parent do you have to be to believe that a theme park in the New Forest is going to look like snowy Lapland? What the punters got was fairy lights strung from trees, polystyrene slabs, spray snow and two food stalls selling sausages and turkey baguettes. The polar bear was a model and the reindeer were tied up, looking mangy.

It isn't recorded how the children reacted, but their parents wailed. The discovery that life, like Christmas - or a winter wonderland in the New Forest - isn't perfect, was immediately put in the hands of trading standards officers and this year it ended up in the crown court, just before Christmas.

Christmas on trial in the crown court; now that is a fantasy come true. Coming up next year: why I prosecuted my daughter's school after the Nativity play because the teachers led me to believe that she actually was an angel. "It was just a white costume and the so-called halo was a bit of tinsel in her hair! When I got her home, she was still the brat she's always been," said one disappointed mum.

A man who spent £150 on tickets to take his parents (his parents!) and children to Lapland New Forest told Bristol Crown Court that the polar bear was a "poor plastic representation which didn't fool my six-year-old for a second". But it fooled you, didn't it?

Just deserts

The tourist brochures for Sharm el-Sheikh also lie: sunsets and deserts and that little child with the Nemo-style clownfish. No mention that town has been a building site for 20 years. The desert twinkles with the thousand stars of the Marriott, Sheraton and InterContinental guest entertainment programmes, the Bedouin are there to sell you a ridiculously overpriced camel ride and the resort staff are commuters from towns around Egypt, sending money to their families back home.

Which, on an average annual hotel worker's salary in Sharm el-Sheikh of £850 (less than the price of your one-week Christmas break - plenty of availability in Sharm at the moment, by the way), isn't much. Their families cannot join them because there is minimal housing there. It is just a tourist town. Oh, and there are those sharks . . .

Interviews with female travellers to Sharm el-Sheikh, by one of the authors of the Rough Guide to the area, have found the resort intertwined with a desert metaphor in the women's imaginations: a site of solitude and displacement, at one with nature, beyond civilisation (but with air-conditioning).
“Despite the Sinai being a relatively small desert, filled with hotels, airports and roads, the imaginary of the desert was still one of a vast empty space, devoid of life and full of sand dunes," wrote the interviewer (in Travels in Paradox, edited by Claudio Minca and Tim Oakes). Many of the women, incidentally, appeared to be sex tourists.

Reality rather spoils the illusion, doesn't it? Enjoy your Christmas. I hope it isn't perfect. l

This article first appeared in the 20 December 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special