I have long harboured a suspicion that Spanish tourist guides to London advise visitors to stand outside Tube stations, blocking the entrances with rucksacks. The guides also, I fear, tell the tourists to talk loudly and wear clothes to match, so their hosts are in no doubt as to how much they are enjoying their stay.
Normally, this would remain a private prejudice, the only result of which is the occasional nasty fall down the escalators at Oxford Circus by unfortunate Spaniards. But a summer trawl of travel agents raises another nasty issue. Namely, that the guides and brochures we read over here might be giving us similar misinformation about our own destinations. None of us wants to wind up face down on the floor of a Madrid train station after following bad advice.
Travel brochures are not as unpleasant as they used to be. At least, not on the outside. My selection of brochures shows a move away from some past excesses – there are fewer photomontages of babes, hunks and palm trees.
But inside, nothing has changed. Open a travel brochure and you will find a more complicated version of a train timetable with a few tired old photographs attempting to brighten things up.
And it is the photographs which might hold the key to the problem of misinterpretation by tourists. Look at the pictures closely and it becomes apparent from the clothes or, if there aren’t enough clothes, the hair, that the shots were taken around 1979. For years I thought foreigners all just dressed badly.
But, apart from in Germany and some of the southern United States, the opposite is probably true. The French and Spanish tourists simply dress so loudly when in London because the brochures they have seen suggest that is the way to blend in. They stand outside Tube stations because the photographs they have seen were taken in the Seventies – people were probably standing outside stations because the train drivers were on strike.
Travel agents and their designers still have a long way to go before they reach the communication levels expected by consumers in 1998.