Back on the map: Why package holidays are making a comeback
With Ryanair getting in on the act, Ed Power traces the unlikely return of a tourism institution.
Nostalgia is not a quality often associated with Ryanair.
But now the budget airline-to-rule-them-all has turned to the past for inspiration with a new package tour service that will for many will evoke images of sangria-fuelled fortnights in Torremolinos and fish-and-chip suppers on the Costa Blanca.
Just launched in Ireland, 'Ryanair Holidays' touts all-in excursions to the Canaries, Tenerife, Crete and other popular sun locations. The new offering will seek to take advantage of a boom in demand for stays in Spain and Greece, predicted to grow further in 2017 as holidaymakers abandon Turkey amid growing terrorism concerns.
With Ryanair entering the package business, there is a sense of things coming full circle. Until the late 1990s and the rise of cut-price carriers, package tours accounted for the majority of foreign treks. Without the option of going online in pursuit of the cheapest flights, holidaymakers understandably left the number crunching to travel agents. In the pre-internet age, who had time to compare airline costs, book hotels by phone and draw detailed itineraries?
Today there is evidence that package deals are once again in demand. No data has been compiled for Ireland but in Britain, 51pc of those going overseas for extended stays booked an all-in holiday in 2016, compared to just 37pc in 2008.
"If you look at where Europeans go on their holidays, we already have the flights," Ryanair marketing director Kenny Jacobs said this week.
"Many people fly from northern Europe to southern Europe. We are the number-one inbound carrier to Spain, the number-one inbound carrier to Greece. In fact, the only place we do not go to is Turkey, but that market is down 40pc."
The origins of the package holiday are a matter of ongoing debate. Some will argue that year zero was 1845 when Thomas Cook, the original travel impresario, organised a bespoke train trip for temperance campaigners from Leicester to Loughborough, just 20km away. Six years on, he would go one better in accompanying a party on a trek to Belgium, Germany and France.
However, the dawn of the modern package holiday is generally traced to 1950, when Vladimir Raitz, a Jewish-Russian migrant to London, arranged for 11 sightseers to travel to Corsica.
In the darkest days of post-war austerity, these pioneering tourists will have felt their hearts leap as they spied a propeller-driven Dakota military transport plane, decommissioned in 1945, waiting on the runway at Gatwick.
Six hours later, their rickety airborne chariot touched down at the town of Calvi, where the arrivals stepped blinking into the unfamiliar Mediterranean haze.
Horizon Holidays had completed its first-ever flight, though there had been some distress along the way. With regular trips to Corsica costing £70 - the equivalent of £2,500 today - patrons had wondered how Raitz could slash the price to just £32. There were genuine concerns that corners had been cut and that the plane would plummet from the sky halfway over the Med.
Such worries were a feature of the package holiday business into the 1960s, as cheap foreign trips finally became affordable to the masses (we were a little behind in Ireland, where it would be another decade before trips to Spain and Portugal achieved popularity).
With early flights utilising surplus World War II aircraft, which tended to limp into the air, rattling all the way, these anxieties were understandable (it didn't help that the approaches to landing strips in Spain, Portugal and Greece were sometimes littered with the hulks of planes that hadn't made it all the way).
To address this, early package-holiday providers invested in shiny new jets while also taking steps to address concerns about funny 'foreign' food (in short order, all meals at holiday resorts came with a comforting side of chips).
Even the names of these exotic locales were often a contrivance. Costa Blanca was, for instance, dreamt up by London tour operators for the region around Valencia so that it would prove more alluring to holidaymakers.
In Ireland and Britain, the rise of cheap package holidays rang a death knell for traditional resorts such as Mosney in Co Meath and seaside destinations such as Skegness and Margate (which today suffers one of the highest unemployment rates in the south of England).
The changes in the Mediterranean were no less profound. In 1950, Benidorm was an obscure fishing village. Twenty years later, it had become the self-proclaimed 'Manhattan of Spain', with towering apartment blocks and more fish-and-chip shops that you could shake a rolled-up copy of that morning's Sun at (this had been achieved in the face of local conservative opposition, with the town's mayor driving by scooter to Madrid to obtain the backing of Franco).
Just as remarkable was the transformation of Sitges, further up the coast in Catalonia. It entered the 1960s as a sleepy seaside hamlet, best known for its omelette festival. An influx of Northern Europeans seeking a cheap tan changed everything.
Today, Sitges is a popular destination for gay holidaymakers with three nudist beaches and a 35pc foreign-born population. A conveyor belt of middle and working-class tourists has remade, over the space of several decades, a town that had stood unchanged for centuries.
Still, not everything celebrated the progress. As concrete sprawl spread across swathes of coastal Spain, the architect of the revolution, Raitz, came to regret his participation in what he regarded as cultural vandalism. "Benidorm looks bloody awful now," he lamented in his memoir Flight to the Sun.
"A fishing village with half a dozen tiny hotels, a couple of bars and nothing else… Beautiful sites along the rugged coast were spoiled forever."