Monday 9 December 2019

Last night’s TV: Holiday Hijack

Diarmuid Doyle wonders what was the point of a programme that plays to holiday sterotypes

Imagine that you are holidaying in some tropical paradise. You’ve just arrived, full of anticipation about the fortnight ahead, and are planning to recharge your batteries after another stressful year at work. Sand, sea, sunshine, sleep and the occasional drink by the pool are on the agenda...

Then imagine that you are suddenly removed from your idyll and taken to live four to a room with a local family who want to show you what life is actually like in the paradise you have just landed in. You eat with your hands, wash with water from a bucket; the harsh sun is your enemy rather than the glorious aid to relaxation you had expected. How would you cope?

That, more or less, is the premise of Holiday Hijack (Channel 4), a three-part series in which Brits in search of five-star luxury are given a cold dose of local reality instead.

As always with these reality shows, which do not regard themselves as a success unless participants undergo a total personality transplant, the four holiday makers involved – Dan, Alex, Natalie and Louise - were chosen for their unpleasantness in the face of all things foreign and different.

They were the kind of Little Englander you’d pay good money to avoid on your own holiday.

But here they were in The Gambia, the smallest country in Africa, asserting their devotion to five-star holidays, inspecting the sheets for dirt and assuring viewers that “if everything is not exactly the way I want it, I will complain”.

They’d holidayed in 12 different countries in five years, they said. In none of those places had they ever stepped outside the hotel compound to see the local area.

Having been thus set up as incurious, unimaginative and dull as mules, they were met at their hotel by local woman Bella and her brother Omar. For the rest of their holiday, they would be living in more basic rooms.

As you can imagine, this provided howls of protest and more than a dollop of old-fashioned xenophobia. “”They’re not going to be as clean as us”, said Dan, the only male in the group. “Do you ever use forks?” ditzy Alex asked. Though the Gambians spoke perfect English, their British visitors addressed them as though they were half-wits. Slowly. One. Word. At. A. Time.

After a while it actually became distressing to watch these privileged and pampered pups sneer and laugh at the lifestyles of their hosts. What exactly was the point of the programme? It doesn’t require a Channel 4 series to show us that some holiday-makers are unpleasant company. Neither do we need to watch the television to know that people in Africa are poor.

Holiday Hijack did make some good points about the lack of interest some tourists show in the places they visit.

Can you truly say you’ve been to The Gambia, or Jamaica or the Maldives if you spend all your time there in an all-inclusive cocoon? How authentic is the experience of being in a foreign country when the only locals you meet are the ones who clean your room or serve your cocktails?

Such a lack of engagement has consequences, as Holiday Hijack showed when it took its four holidaymakers to a local beach, where locals had set up several stalls selling local crafts.

Although the beach was in the middle of a tourism area, there were hardly any tourists. They’d all stayed in their hotels. “We want the tourists to get out of the hotel and come to the market”, said Bella.

The implication was clear. Without the stimulus to the local economy that tourism should bring, the widespread poverty would continue.

By the end of their holiday, our four intrepid travellers seemed to be getting the message. Their personality transplant was well underway, accompanied by what seemed like genuine tears of regret that they could ever have been so insensitive to their surroundings and to the local population.

But how deep did this regret go? One recurring problem with this kind of programme, in which people’s outlook and expectations are supposedly altered by contact with reality, is that we never get to see them again. We never find out if their behaviour has changed forever.

The cynical view is that people don’t change that much and that this summer, Dan, Alex, Louise and Natalie are back in some five-star joint living a life of luxury, wondering how they’d ever agreed to wash themselves from a bucket.

It’d be nice to think otherwise, though.

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