Tourism is a fashion business and its clients are rather like lemmings in that they all want to go to the same place at the same time. This year, for those who can afford to go there, it’s Burma.
The mass market, at the other end of the league table from those who follow the latest travel fashion, tends to go where it’s cheapest, which is effectively where the large operators choose to take them. This means that Spain and Turkey are always popular because of the very cheap deals to be had. The latest mass-market trend of, course, is the ‘all-inclusive’ holiday. Like cruising, which is really an ‘all-inclusive’ on the sea, this holiday concept enables more accurate budgeting for the client. What it does to the destination is another matter entirely. It’s very bad news in this respect and thus, as a point of principle, Sunvil does not feature all-inclusive hotels unless they are in the middle of the jungle where it’s impossible to visit a local restaurant.
At the moment I am in Portugal, in the Alentejo to be exact (north of the Algarve and roughly south of Lisbon), researching additions to our programme to the area. I happen to be staying at the Herdade da Malhadinha Nova, which is one of the most expensive properties we have in Portugal but is also one of our good sellers. One week’s bed and breakfast here in low season, including a flight into Lisbon and car hire, starts at £1,168 per person. There are only ten rooms, but you just cannot fault the place. It is peaceful, it is beautiful, the service is ‘old world’ – attentive and discreet – and the food and wines, much of which is produced on the estate itself, a dream.
Why don’t more clients visit the Alentejo? The comment we get is that you can stay in a five-star property in the Algarve for half the price. Yes, you can – but the Algarve is struggling, which is why hoteliers there are forced to sell at very cheap rates. The no-frills carriers tend to take a destination down-market, and no-frills flight customers tend not to stay in hotels but in rented villas and apartments booked on-line, or in properties belonging to friends. Hotels in the Algarve and in Porto (northern Portugal) thus have poor occupancy levels in spite of the fact (and, in my view, because of the fact) that the ‘no-frills’ control a great percentage of the flights going into these areas.
Portugal has a great deal of first-rate accommodation, much of it in spectacular historic properties, but it has two problems. The first is that the country no longer has the budget for overseas advertising and promotion and cannot compete with the likes of Turkey, Tunisia, Egypt and Morocco. The second is that the low prices available in the Algarve tend to make properties outside that area seem expensive, even though what many of such properties provide is of an exceptional standard. Should the properties outside the Algarve lower their prices then they would simply not be able to maintain their service levels. If they keep their prices at a level at which they can maintain their standards, then their occupancy suffers because they are deemed to be expensive in a market which is dominated by the Algarve. It’s a real catch-22 situation.
It’s a hard choice to make and one which many of us in tourism face. In a recession, the problem is even greater. Do you maintain standards or do you dumb down and give it all away for nothing and to hell with the quality, the service and the reliability? It’s all about discounts, special offers and flash sales these days. In the end it will all end in tears and in a general lowering of standards. Why did BMI, arguably the best European short-haul airline, fail? It failed because it tried to maintain standards but was forced to sell cheaply due to no-frills competition. What we will have in its place is not something we can be proud of.