What was the length of your last holiday? A week? A long weekend? And how long will your main break be? Two weeks? It’s unlikely to be three and even more unlikely to last as long as a month – which European neighbours such as France and Italy would regard as the lower end of the scale for a summer vacation.
Britons work longer hours and have fewer days off than anyone in Europe. The working week is 44 hours, compared with a European Union average of 40.5. Portugal comes second to the UK’s Stakhanovite regime, with an average of 41 hours. The Netherlands, Belgium, France, Italy and Denmark all come under 40. And, while the inhabitants of Germany, France and Italy enjoy an average annual leave of six weeks or more, plus numerous national holidays, most of us are firmly stuck at four (five at the most) with just three bank holidays in England outside the Easter and Christmas periods.
As a result, Britain has become the land of the mini-break. Since this article is published over a traditional holiday weekend, you may well be on one now, reading this on a “city break” or during a few self-catering days away.
We take around 100 million holidays a year, but they are increasingly what Mintel describes as “the substitution of longer holidays with shorter breaks”. After a decade of expansion, the market for the traditional summer sun package has become as saturated as its drunken British visitors. So while total spending on tourism this year is forecast to reach £24.3bn, growth is slowing.
The decline in the average length of a holiday has been marked but steady over two decades, and it covers all destinations. The latest International Passenger Survey figures reveal, for example, that the average length of a visit by a UK resident to the US was 23.1 days in 1982 and 15.2 in 1997; to Italy 13.6 days in 1982 and 9.0 now; to Spain 13.3 days then and 11.2 now.
Many Britons express great satisfaction with the new routine: a couple of weeks away in summer, a week around Christmas/New Year, and then mini-breaks spread throughout the year to “recharge batteries”. What could be more civilised?
It’s easy to see why the industry would want to encourage such a trend. More journeys, more activities to get through in less time, more treats for the children, more spending, more profits. It’s easy, too, to see why employers like it. Even where holiday entitlement is above the ungenerous norm, many companies insist on no more than two weeks being taken together. Offices and shops that remain open 52 weeks a year do not want to have to make special arrangements for a mass summer exodus. But even where a two-week rule is not enforced, many people believe (and they may be right) that if they left their seat vacant for more than a fortnight it would be filled by the time they returned.
So we cram more into fewer days. A glance through the advertisements in the weekend travel supplements will confirm the trend: two, three and four nights to Paris, Prague, Dresden, etc; “seven nights” to almost everywhere; the “Voyage of the Vikings” in nine nights, taking in the Norwegian fjords, the Shetlands, Orkney, Dublin and Holyhead; long-haul destinations such as the Far East in less than a fortnight (“Hong Kong, Bangkok & Beach 12nts – 3 HK, 3 Bangkok, 6 Beach”). Even a £2,890 trip to the Galapagos islands on Beagle III is squeezed into 13 nights. Darwin took years.
This exhausting hurry to experience everything in the shortest number of nights away merely continues the frenetic pace of working lives. Yet, since the only people not in a hurry are generally the unemployed or poor, we embrace this new pressure to holiday intensively with enthusiasm. Who wants to be seen as the hopeless person who can take a long holiday with no one noticing? We even exacerbate our stress by becoming our own travel agents. With the advent of cheaper flights and the possibility of booking hotels over the internet, the British increasingly plan their own breaks, trying to beat the package price. Now, according to Mintel, 50 per cent of holidays are self-planned. It is as if, having realised that we don’t have enough time to wind down properly, we find pleasure instead in winding ourselves up. Then, perhaps, the return to real life will seem calm by comparison.
Need it be like this? If you travel the length of the west coast of Italy by train, your seaward view for much of the journey is disappointing: unremitting kilometres of postwar apartment blocks. As you go further south, the building becomes denser, more apparently unplanned and closer to the sea. It is not inviting to the foreign tourist, and some travel writers have condemned the destruction of the coastline and southern Italy’s failure to develop a welcoming-to-foreigners tourist industry. But these tens of kilometres of strip development are to the Italian holiday what sea-front B&Bs once were to the British holiday. We deserted our B&Bs decades ago for the beaches of Spain – astonishingly, one in three Britons has been to a “Costa” – but the Italian seaside apartment holiday goes from strength to strength. There, where schools break for as long as three months in the summer, a family is likely to take a flat for the whole of July and August. Part of the family, traditionally mother and children but increasingly grandmother and children, will be there throughout July while the breadwinner works. Then, for August, the entire family will be at the seaside.
Every glorious day the same – with no reprimanding culture – and the sea, sand and sun infinitely invariable. No need to worry about work. Signora A knows that Signor B is not stealing her job, because he’s down at the seaside, too.
France, like Italy, enjoys numerous bank holidays and, as in Italy, workers extend those that fall on Tuesday and Thursday with “pont” days to bridge the gap to the weekend. It now has the shortest working week in Europe at a maximum of 35 hours, and, uniquely, also set an annual maximum of 1,610 hours or 46 35-hour weeks.
According to the statistics bible Francoscopie, French citizens are second in the world only to Germans in the numbers of holidays they take: 27 per cent go away more than once a year. As well as the summer break, workers have enough additional time off for another national institution – the skiing break (schools realistically take a two-week break in February).
But the centrepiece is the summer break, which is as long and cheap as possible and usually taken within France – often at the sea, but increasingly “green holidays” inland in rented houses or camping. The point is to do nothing, to shrug off one life and try another. The cities, particularly Paris, still empty out during August.
Maybe the British could no longer handle such excesses of spare time. Now that the rich are characteristically busy and the poor idle, we would probably waste long holidays on self-improvement. Mintel’s research shows that ABC1 socio-economic groups already demand venues that involve cultural sightseeing or viewing wildlife.
But Mintel also identifies a group of holiday-makers who do want to do nothing and prefer holidays where there are children’s clubs or someone else will do the child-minding. These are called the “relaxers”.
“Relaxers” are mainly in the C2DE groups. (If you thought we were becoming a classless society, think again.) Bless relaxers, as William Blake said. I had always wondered what he meant.
The writer is director of the think-tank Catalyst