Thursday 8 December 2016

The Noughties: A Decade in Travel

As the new decade gets under way, Pól Ó Cónghaile looks back over the past 10 years of travel and weighs up the highs and lows, the things that had us screaming into our suitcases and the changes that revolutionised the way we go globetrotting...

Published 02/01/2010 | 05:00

The biggest change...

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When Aer Lingus launched its online reservations system in 2001, most of its tickets were sold through travel agents.

A year later, Ryanair stopped paying commission to travel agents.

Online growth was relentless, with hotels and airlines seizing the opportunity to sell direct to their customers, and consumers delighting in the newfound freedom to research, plan and book their trips online.

Websites such as TripAdvisor ushered in user reviews and the turnaround was completed this year, when Ryanair began charging customers to print their own boarding passes at home.

Travel will never be the same again.

The new kids on the block...

No-frills carriers led the way in introducing obscure new destinations (Gdansk? Lodz? Zadar?), but when tour operators began embracing Eastern Europe, the changes were set in stone. Croatia broadened our horizons, Bulgaria offered cheap sun, sea and overseas property, and Turkey became the mid-haul maestro (despite a 2005 bomb in Kusadasi that killed five, including Irishwoman Tara Whelan). Indeed, as the Noughties played out, Turkey had squeezed into Ireland's top 10 foreign holidays.

The biggest collapse...

"If you snooze, you lose," a Budget Travel spokesperson told me in 2006, defending the company's decision to stop dealing with travel agents. Cheap and aggressive, Ireland's largest tour operator was one of the success stories of the boom. Hubris came calling this November, however, when Budget was "caught off-guard" by the speed and severity of the recession. After major collapses such as that of XL Holidays to Slattery's Travel, a further 172 jobs were lost.

Our favourite destinations were...

In the Noughties, the world finally did become a smaller place -- for Irish travellers, at least. Budget airlines, mushrooming route networks and rising disposable income opened up all sorts of possibilities, from city breaks in Eastern Europe to direct flights to Dubai and South Africa (we were even tempted by Antarcticcruises). Nevertheless, our favourite short-haul destination remained Spain, which still accounts for almost 30pc of Irish overseas trips (followed by the UK, at 15pc). In long-haul, the US won out by a country mile, last year alone accounting for 7.8pc of all overseas trips.

The most ostentatious cruise ship...

There was no shortage of ocean bling in the noughties, with cruise companies racing to outdo each other in the size and extravagance stakes. Royal Caribbean's Oasis of the Seas is the last word, however. Launched this winter, the 360m giant spans 16 decks and several 'neighbourhoods', and is the largest passenger ship in the world. Facilities include the first park at sea (with 12,175 plants), a surf simulator, a 25m zip-line, a half-mile jogging track and a full Broadway show (Hairspray, in case you're asking). Its maiden voyage, from Finland to Miami, took place last month.

The best landing...

Heroes were in short supply during the global financial crisis. Then suddenly, last January 15, US Airways Flight 1549 suffered a bird strike after taking off from New York's LaGuardia Airport. Both engines lost thrust, and Captain Chesley Sullenberger stepped up. "We're gonna be in the Hudson," the pilot informed air traffic control, before gliding the airplane into the water beside Manhattan. All 155 people on board were saved, and an aviation legend was born.

The best Michael O'Leary quote...

"Air transport is just a glorified bus operation," Michael O'Leary chirped in 2002. We laughed then, but the Ryanair CEO has been laughing ever since, and continues to set off the PR firecrackers. "Take the f**kers out and shoot them," was his prescription for travel agents in 2003. In 2008, he said recession was "welcome" as a cure for "this environmental nonsense that has become so popular among the chattering classes".

Craziest of all, however, were O'Leary's plans to charge for use of toilets, mooted this year so customers could spend a pound to spend a penny. "If someone wanted to pay £5 to go to the toilet I would carry them myself," the no-frills supremo said.

"I would wipe their bums for a fiver."

The worst new holiday genre...

Stag parties once involved a few pints the night before a wedding. The Noughties saw them become travel categories (and laws) unto themselves. Specialist tour operators sprung up, cities such as Tallinn and Bratislava became bywords for cheap beer and Euro eye-candy, and foreign embassies were left clearing up the mess. In 2008, a documentary for the French Métropole 6 channel followed some 20 Irishmen on a stag party in Latvia, showing them boozing, accosting women and asking hotel staff to solicit prostitutes. Hardly travel's finest hour...

We said hello to...

Using three boarding bridges, double decks and capable of carrying more than 500 passengers, the A380 has always trodden a fine line between white knight and white elephant. Since its debut flight in 2005, acceptance of the superjumbo has gradually come to pass (the first aircraft entered service in October 2007 with Singapore Airlines). The plane is larger, more fuel efficient and quieter on take-off than its nearest competitor (Boeing's 747-400) and strangely beautiful.

The worst air disaster...

It's an airline's worst nightmare -- a plane that simply vanishes into thin air. Sadly, that's exactly what happened last June 1, when Air France 447 disappeared after delivering a sequence of automated warning messages en route from Rio to Paris. Some 228 lives were lost (among them, Irish doctors Aisling Butler, Jane Deasy and Eithne Walls) when the plane went down in strong thunderstorms.

Since the tragedy, 51 bodies and 5pc of the aircraft body have been recovered, though the flight's all-important data recorders remain missing (the disaster may have been caused by malfunctioning speed sensors, but without the black boxes, it's impossible to tell). France will spend up to €20 million next year on a renewed undersea search, according to reports.

The biggest cautionary tale...

In the mid-Noughties, Dubai was the boom town by the beach. Developing at a dizzy pace, we watched in awe as the excitable Emirate built seven-star hotels, indoor ski slopes, a 1,200-store mall and, ultimately, whole new islands such as The Palm. It couldn't last, and it didn't. Last month, Dubai World asked for a freeze on debt repayments while it restructured some $60 billion in debts. Things probably aren't as apocalyptic as the told-you-so crowd so gleefully maintains, but for the moment, Dubai is looking conspicuously like a mirage.

The great success story...

No argument here. Ryanair dragged the airline industry onto the internet, broke flights into their constituent parts (seats, luggage, check-in, food), democratised air travel, opened up Eastern Europe and facilitated wholesale economic migration.

Of course, Michael O'Leary's airline made enemies (the DAA, travel agents, the Irish Government, Aer Lingus, unions, wheelchair users, passengers). In 2006, it was voted the World's Least Favourite Airline in a TripAdvisor poll. But nobody can argue with the bottom line. This year, the airline will carry some 67 million passengers at lower basic fares than ever. Go figure.

The worst opening...

Heathrow's Terminal 5 opened for business in March 2008 and was an unmitigated disaster. Hailed by the Queen as a "21st-century gateway to Britain", botched baggage handling and hundreds of flight cancellations at the £4.3 billion building left passengers in chaos.

"The buck stops with me," declared BA chief, Willie Walsh, before firing two senior staff in April. The Terminal has run smoothly since, but we'll never forget the passenger graffiti scrawled in its toilets: "Welcome to Hell."

The most hyped hotel...

In October 2007, Ritz-Carlton opened its newest luxury hotel in Powerscourt, Co Wicklow. Developed by Treasury Holdings, the multi-million euro resort boasted the country's first Gordon Ramsay restaurant, a spa featuring a 20m Swarovski crystal-lit pool and a 2,500sq ft presidential suite in a space "where celebrities want to be" (Robbie Keane and Claudine Palmer celebrated their marriage there in 2008). Then came the credit crunch and the dodgy restaurant reviews. Ireland's only Ritz-Carlton remains a quality proposition, but its investors have surely taken a haircut.

The most disruptive virus...

In 2001, an outbreak of Foot and Mouth Disease devastated tourism in the UK and Ireland. Two years later, we saw how effective tourists could be at spreading disease themselves, when SARS sped from China's Guangdong province to 37 countries, killing more than 700 people. In 2006 and 2008, outbreaks of bird flu caused further panic.

But swine flu, first detected in Mexico last April, put them all in the ha'penny place. By June, the World Health Organisation had declared the virus a pandemic, Ireland got its first fatality in August, and more than 10,000 people have since succumbed to the virus worldwide. In a globalised society launching tens of thousands of flights per day, containing a virus is sometimes simply not feasible, it seems.

The weirdest hotels...

Ireland began the decade with 40,000 hotel rooms. It ended it with 62,000 and a royal headache of oversupply. But our small market never really attracted the outrageous -- unlike Berlin, for example, where the "habitable work of art" that is the Propeller Island City Lodge included a pure orange room, a room covered in mirrors and a room based on a prison cell.

At Gatwick Airport, the Yotel offered capsules with no windows, including a bed that converted into a sofa and a pod bathroom.

Meanwhile, following the success of the Lord of the Rings movies, the Hobbit Motel opened in Otorohanga, New Zealand. Its two hillside burrows replicated the fictional dwellings of Hobbiton, though, thankfully, they were scaled to human proportions.

The most annoying security change...

Understandably, travel security got a major shakedown after 9/11. Since 2001, we've seen marshals on transatlantic flights and the fingerprinting and photographing of visitors entering the US from visa-waiver countries.

After Richard Reid attempted to ignite a shoe bomb in December of that year, we became accustomed to removing our footwear while passing through metal detectors. However necessary, beefed-up security soon became a royal pain in the behind. Most annoying of all were EU regulations introduced in response to the threat of liquid explosives in November 2007. They reduced us to carrying child-sized toiletries in Ziploc bags, with mothers tasting baby food to prove their Heinz Organics were not made of semtex. Travel's golden age was well and truly over.

Who would have thought...?

Irish surfing was once the preserve of adrenaline junkies. As wetsuit, board and weather technologies improved, however, surf schools gave a new lease of life to resorts such as Bundoran and Lahinch, and it became one of the country's fastest growing sports. Aill na Searrach, our own monster wave, was discovered beneath the Cliffs of Moher, and surf legends such as Kelly Slater and Laird Hamilton jetted in to extol some of the world's best cold-water waves. Today, you can grab a €40 wetsuit in Lidl and a €25 lesson along the West Coast. It's still blooming cold, though.

We said goodbye to...

With its sleek frame, droopy nose and supersonic speeds, Concorde became an iconic airplane the instant it was launched in 1969. Entering service with Air France and BA in 1976, it was the kind of plane you stopped to take photos of, whisking customers across the Atlantic in a gob-smacking three-and-a-half hours. After 109 people were killed in a crash on July 25, 2000, however, the post-9/11 economic wobble destabilised the plane terminally. Concorde was retired in 2003.

The biggest rip-off...

'Rip-off Ireland' was a catchphrase of the Noughties, and travel was no exception. Ryanair ended the decade charging €20 per excess kilo of baggage; at Dublin Airport, basic sandwiches crashed through the €5 barrier; and last year, the DAA introduced vending machines charging €1 for two Ziploc plastic bags (they're available at this writer's local Tesco at €1.71 for 25).

Roaming charges were the rip-off to end them all -- in 2006, the European Commission reported that Irish consumers were paying up to €13 for four-minute calls abroad. Regulations have since lowered that substantially, but we're not out of the woods yet -- as travellers who have gotten shock bills for mobile internet usage will testify.

The most outrageous airline charge...

It's hard to believe that baggage was carried for free through most of the Noughties. Since the first charges were announced by Ryanair in 2006 (at €3.50 per item), however, they have stacked up like pancakes at a breakfast buffet. The most contentious? There was huge opposition to Ryanair's €5 online check-in charge last year, because of the cultural shift it represented. For its part, Aer Lingus was at one point charging fuel surcharges of €110 each way to San Francisco. These were nothing compared to Michael O'Leary's latest threat, however: hiking Ryanair's airport check-in 'fine' to €100.

No such thing as bad PR... or is there?

When Lord of the Rings hit cinemas in 2001, Tourism New Zealand rejoiced. When Borat premiered in 2006, Kazakhstan did the opposite.

Offended by the portrayal of its people as besotted with cow-punching, Jew-running and drinking fermented horse urine, the country's foreign ministry threatened to sue, its president broached the issue with George W. Bush, and Borat's Kazakh website was shut down.

Not everyone was disgusted, however.

Borat "has managed to spark an immense interest of the whole world in Kazakhstan," wrote Kazakh novelist Sapabek Asip-uly, and a Kazakh travel company began running tours called 'Jagshemash!!! See the Real Kazakhstan'.

We used to pack...

Travellers' cheques, CD and MiniDisc players, rolls of film, phone cards, hard-copy guidebooks, foreign currency, bottles of water, full-sized toiletries, and sensible shoes.

Now we pack...

Euros, iPods, digital cameras, Crocs, Ziploc bags, travel guides on hand-held devices, inflatable travel pillows, and bare-minimum toiletries.

Irish Independent

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