4 years, 30 days ago
Benidorm might seem an unlikely candidate for UNESCO World Heritage Status, but that hasn’t stopped it applying this year. If you’re a history buff don’t get too excited. No one’s discovered ancient Etruscan anything and there’s been no stumbling over lost cities or digging up mummified remains. Think more ‘cultural’ than ‘historic’. And don’t get too comfortable in the assumption that common sense always prevails in the UNESCO process. Take yourself to Lens and look at the slag heaps. La Base and 19/11 might be pointy black hills to us, but to UNESCO they’re as significant as the Pyramids at Gaza. Feel free to spend the next few months constructing a large heap of rubbish in your garden, rustle up a short ‘histoire’, invite a few relatives round to climb about and you too could be in with a World Heritage shout – no harm in trying, as Benidorm will testify.
But why Benidorm? Is it just another brazen move from the resort that successfully petitioned Franco for a bikini permit? Or is there more to the town that gave the world its first sip of Sangria? Rightly or wrongly, Benidorm is choosing to celebrate the 65th anniversary of the first British Package Holiday, by claiming it birthed the concept and changed the way we travel forever – you can muse a bit on echoes of Ancient Greek Tragedy here if you want: monster babies, parental regret, chaos, destruction.
Strictly speaking, it was Corsica who really got the ball rolling back in 1950, offering a 7-day, all-inclusive family break on the beautiful French island for a mere £32 including all the wine, meat (it was just post-war, meat was exciting) and tented accommodation you could handle. A dribble of intrepid types took the bait, headed off, apparently had no complaints and gave Corsica the right to forever claim it birthed two legends: the Package Holiday and Napoleon.
Over the next decade tour operators hustled relentlessly to find more unspoiled Mediterranean destinations to tempt the Brits away from their home-grown beaches. Tireless efforts that didn’t go unnoticed on the Costa del Sol where the post-war fishing industry wasn’t exactly paving the streets with pesetas. Enter Benidorm, an ambitious mayor, lax building laws, Mediterranean sunshine, white sands and gallons of the aforementioned Sangria. Between 1955 and 1965, the sleepy town with a quaintly historic heart and pretty beaches, transformed itself entirely. It threw up hotels, splashed around booze and, most of all, immersed itself in all things British to become a ‘home from home with sunshine’, the very definition of a perfect Package Holiday.
The rest of the Mediterranean caught on to an extent and more adventurous travellers expanded their horizons. We learned Olive Oil wasn’t just for ear infections, discovered you didn’t wash your feet in bidets and showers weren’t the work of Satan. But it was Spain’s glorious Costas that just didn’t know when enough was enough and by the 80s, Benidorm and the like had become bywords for cheap and nasty.
The drive for authenticity and independence was picking up, but air travel was still expensive and few people were in the position to head to the Far East or even further for their annual two weeks. Undaunted, tour operators just changed tack, divided up the demographic and sent the adults in one direction and boozy teens and twenty somethings in another.
Mallorca might regret Magaluf these days, but analysts credit the ‘excess in isolation’ model for protecting countless places from being completely desecrated during the late 80s and 90s. Families could look to quieter, calmer resorts for good value breaks. Independent travellers were catered for by packages that built cities and beaches and history and culture into the experience. And the Costas, plenty of Greek Islands and a large chunk of the little Balearics took care of the wild, party side.
Then two things happened almost simultaneously, online booking and budget air fares. Say what you like about Ryanair – and everyone always has an opinion – but it changed travel as dramatically in the late 90s and noughties as Benidorm did in the 50s and 60s (probably only a question of time before Michael O’Leary’s applying for World Heritage Status).
Suddenly holidays could be ‘packaged’ by people themselves and travellers didn’t need to spend a fortune to have a bit of independence. The world got smaller, exotic destinations were accessible and relatively inexpensive, more holidays a year were taken and short breaks became a big thing.
But with greater independence came greater impact and now one of the biggest travel concerns is how much potential damage there is in our hunger for more far flung, extreme and fragile destinations. Conscientious travellers, wise to this now, don’t dismiss Europe as ‘done’, they just look at it differently and a bit more carefully. The Costa Blanca is also fascinating Andalusia, the Costa del Sol is still surrounded by magnificent sierra and you don’t need to go stomping around remote Polynesian villages to find authenticity.
So that’s the past, what now? If you’re reading studies that tell you Package Holidays are making a comeback, check out the fine print. Remodelled ‘packages’ are effectively independent holidays only you pay a high price for someone else to take charge. So not really the kind of deal your average fun-loving post-war Brit was looking for? In fact, closer to 1860’s European World Tours than 1960’s sun, sand, sea and sangria.
Will Benidorm get its UNESCO status? If it does, is it deserved? We’ll see. One thing we can tell you for sure, Corsica, where it really all started back in 1950, won’t care a bit. The little island that birthed a holiday revolution hasn’t regretted its part in history for a moment. It’s still one of the Mediterranean’s loveliest destinations, completely unspoiled and looking forward to another sixty five years of flawless beaches, concrete-free towns, heart-breaking cities and an interior so rugged and untamed it can make extreme cyclists weep. It might come down to economics at the end of the day, but we like to think Corsica planned it this way all along.