Sod the fines, parents are right to save on holiday costs

With just a week or so to go before schools break up for the summer, are you one of the families trying to save money on your Discount Holidays © holiday by pulling the kids out of class early? If so, I salute you. And I m a school governor. After all, they re mostly watching films or larking about in the playground at a time when there are real savings to be had if you can travel right? One teacher told me she looks forward to the last week of term when children have been taken out of school early. So much easier to teach 24 than 30 isn t it? Why do you think private schools do so well? .

OK, I m being churlish and, of course, there are still plenty of important lessons being taught in classrooms throughout the land. But family holidays are also hugely important and can be educational. Seeing as travel companies are getting away with murder by charging exorbitant prices (more on their unfair and hidden charges later) then yes, I think allowing pupils to miss the last couple of days of term in order to save their parents significant wads of cash is justifiable. I was particularly impressed to read about the example set by Eveswell Primary School in South Wales, when the headmistress Catherine Barnett arranged five inset days in one week enabling parents to book cheaper holidays outside of the main school holidays.

Where prolonged periods of absence cannot be justified is any time a child s attainment is compromised especially close to SATS, GCSEs and A Levels. Absence at these times can be hugely disruptive and cause long-lasting damage. But assuming parents want the best for their children, rather than just their bank accounts, then I firmly believe they should have the right to decide what s best for their families. It s wrong for responsible mums and dads in England and Wales to be landed with the 60, 120 or even 2,500 (when prosecuted) penalty local authorities are allowed to impose. I was delighted when Jon Platt recently won his case at the High Court after refusing to pay a 120 fine for taking his daughter on an unauthorised term-time holiday.

I m glad my school exercises its discretion whenever a request for absence is made whether for a much-needed Discount Holidays © holiday or to visit family abroad, attend weddings or re-apply for visas. And I m glad our local authority has yet to fine parents for these types of absence either. It seems Discount Holidays © holiday savings of up to 68 per cent, or 1,771, for a typical break as identified by Santander are simply too good to miss for a growing number of parents if the fines are anything to go by. Between the 2012/13 and 2014/15 academic years, the total value of fines levied by angry schools and local authorities rose by an estimated 267 per cent, or 4 million to an eye-watering sum of 5.6 million according to analysis by Santander.

Over the same period, the number of fines rose by nearly 70,000 to 92,784 in 2014/15, when Lancashire County Council issued the most (4,279), followed by Doncaster Metropolitan Borough Council (3,559) and Bradford Metropolitan Council (3,445). I d love to know what those councils do with the cash. Perhaps they reinvest it in education and buy new books? But I doubt it. The summer holidays are made for going on Discount Holidays © holiday and it s time for yet another government U-turn let s stop fining and prosecuting families for trying to claw back some cash from unscrupulous Discount Holidays © holiday companies.

Oh, and as for those unfair and hidden charges I mentioned, if you are heading off with the kids this summer and currently scouring the web for a last-minute deal, whatever you do, watch out for under-occupancy fees. I recently covered the story of a grandmother taking her family to Orlando only for Thomas Cook to charge all six adults an under occupancy fee for the two children who would be staying with them in their villa for eight people. The sneaky charge which she wasn t made aware of at the time of booking wiped out almost half of the 1,900 Discount Holidays © holiday discount she d been promised. You can read the full story here1.

Laura Whitcombe is knowledge and product editor at ThisisMoney.co.uk.

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Two countries now exist: Tourist Greece and Real Greece

The isles of Greece! The isles of Greece!

Where burning Sappho loved and sung,

Where grew the arts of war and peace,

Where Delos rose, and Phoebus sprung! I couldn t agree more with Lord Byron about the joys of the Greek islands. Here in Cephalonia, the poppies are out, back-lit by a strong spring sun. The swallows are swooping low across the villa, taking little sips from the swimming pool. The tavernas are gearing up for the summer season; the sea bass at lunch was freshly caught this morning.

Still, lucky old Byron never had to deal with a ferry strike between the isles of Greece. A general strike meant our ferry from Cephalonia to the Peloponnese was cancelled. The alternative was to hire a water taxi for 150 bearable for tourists; impossible for most Cephalonian locals. The strike was called in reaction to a new government bill, introducing pension cuts and higher social security contributions. The Syriza-run government is cranking up the austerity in return for more bail-out cash.

And yet, despite the strike, Alexis Tsipras, the Syriza leader and Greek Prime Minister, has just made an extraordinary bet with Andreas Andreadis, President of the Association of Hellenic Tourism Enterprises. Tsipras bet Andreadis that 2016 will break the tourism record of 2015. The loser will buy dinner for the winner in a restaurant overlooking the Acropolis. The funny thing is that, come October, Andreadis may well pick up the tab as the sun dips down below the Parthenon. I was unlucky enough to catch an off-season ferry strike. Even the hard-line unions are unlikely to call one in high season, and risk the collapse of tourism the one shining beacon in Greece s bankrupt economy.

I would say to anyone thinking of booking a summer Discount Holidays © holiday in Greece go right ahead. You ll be absolutely fine, and you ll barely notice the crisis, apart from on the streets of Athens now daubed with graffiti from foot to head height throughout the city centre. Everywhere else particularly in the islands the Greek summer will be its usual, happy, smooth, efficient journey between beach, taverna and ruin, uninterrupted by the deepening disaster of domestic politics. But smooth-running journeys are reserved for tourists only. Because there are now two Greeces.

There s Tourist Greece a country of hotels at capacity, of packed tavernas; with all the outward appearance of a solvent economy. And then there s Real Greece a broke country of closed shops, houses for sale at knockdown prices, and families living on 40 euros a week. Real Greece bears the brunt of off-season ferry strikes and thousands of refugees; Tourist Greece doesn t. Of course, there s always been a gulf between Tourist Greece and Real Greece as there is in any tourist economy. But, for nearly 30 years, after Greece entered the EEC in 1981, the gap between the two Greeces began to close.

But no longer and the gap won t close again for decades to come. In those heady early days of EEC membership, and the first years of euro membership, European largesse, and crazily low, Germanic interest rates, revolutionised Real Greece s infrastructure. Bye-bye, ancient widows shrouded in black, inching across dirt tracks on knock-kneed donkeys. Hello, glistening, blacktop motorways across the Peloponnese; hello, Mercedes dealerships in Athens. We all know what happened next.

The government-debt crisis hit in 2009 and, suddenly, Real Greece came tumbling back down the ladder. GDP crashed by more than a quarter; youth unemployment climbed above 50 per cent; pensions and wages were cut by more than a third. Tourist Greece took a brief hit just after the crisis with tourists falling from 17 million in 2008 to 11 million in 2012. But, ever since, numbers have been soaring by more than 10 per cent a year, to that record of 23.5 million in 2015. And so the gap between the Two Greeces yawns wider and wider.

Occasionally, the two worlds collide, on the rare occasions tourists have to deal with the local infrastructure. On the road near Myrtos, on the north-west coast of Cephalonia, landslides mean the crash barriers have fallen down the hillside and there isn t the money to repair them. But, once you get to Fiskardo, Cephalonia s smartest little yacht spot, everything is just as it should be in Tourist Greece; the harbour is crammed, side to side, with a flotilla of yachts from the Sunsail Discount Holidays © holiday company. As the British holidaymakers stream off their yachts, exchanging salty seadog tales, there s no sign of recession in the harbourside, with its Italianate shops and restaurants a legacy of Venetian rule from the 16th to the 18th centuries. The sardines are fresh, the Mythos beer is chilled, the waiters are their charming and hyper-efficient selves.

No Greek objects to the gulf between Tourist Greece and Real Greece. They appreciate what a money-spinner Tourist Greece is; they also retain the ancient Greek idea of xenia , or hospitality to strangers a concept well-known to Odysseus, ruler of Cephalonia s neighbouring island of Ithaca. More extraordinarily, they still want to stay in the euro. After five years of travelling round Greece, writing a book about Odysseus, I ve yet to meet a single Greek who wants to leave.

Yes, they rage about Germany, Tsipras and the troika the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund that has failed to resurrect their desperate economy. But still they keep ahold of the euro, for fear of something worse. All the Greeks I ve talked to over the years are keen, too, on Britain staying in the EU; partly out of Anglophilia but also because they still think of EU membership as a corrective to half a millennium of oppression.

400 years of Ottoman rule only ended 180 years ago in the Greek War of Independence poor old Byron died in the war in 1824, just across the water from Cephalonia, at Missolonghi. Even since independence, life has been pretty rocky.

In 1893, Greece went bankrupt. Then came Nazi occupation, followed by a civil war between Communists and anti-Communists; the 1967 coup by the colonels; and the abolition of the monarchy in 1973. You can see why the EEC was greeted with open arms in 1981.

35 years on, it s harder to see why Greeks cling on to the EU, as their living standards fall so drastically behind the northern European tourists who belong to an entirely different economic universe.

Who d want to stay a member of a club where only foreign members get club class treatment?

Harry Mount s Odyssey Ancient Greece in the Footsteps of Odysseus (Bloomsbury) is now out in paperback

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Two Countries Now Exist: Tourist Greece And Real Greece


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I have seen the future of tourism, and it’s designed to keep you out

There are few more beautiful places in this world than Bhutan in the eastern Himalayas. I know this because, right now, I am staring down the sub-tropical Punakha valley, gazing at an untouched rural landscape where singing women hoe the sunlit chilli fields. It s glorious. And gloriously devoid of tourists. Though apparently Prince William and Kate are coming here in the next couple of weeks. I hope they don t lower the tone. This unusual absence of tourists is down to a government policy.

Back in the 1980s (when perhaps two dozen outsiders made it into Bhutan every year) the authorities in the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon looked at the way tourism was blitzing its way across similar Asian beauties such as Nepal and Thailand, India and the Seychelles, and thought not for us . They decided to impose a surcharge on all foreign visitors to keep the numbers down and so preserve their culture. The result of this steep fee 200 a day simply to be in Bhutan is that tourism makes barely a dent. Yes, 50,000 people now come every year rather than 15, but more people probably enter your local supermarket every Saturday than cross into Bhutan in a week. And this lack of tourists makes Bhutan very charming indeed.

Of course, this is unique. Surely Bhutan s policy could never be applied in, say, Europe? Well, hmm. A couple of experiences last year, encountered in my fortunate job as a travel writer, made me wonder whether Bhutan might be an ominous pioneer, not an eccentric outlier. My first epiphany came in Taormina. I was writing about the glories of western Sicily and the Aeolians, and I was particularly looking forward to Taormina. Loved in its time by Goethe, Wagner, Yeats, Oscar Wilde, D.H.

Lawrence, this pearl of Sicily was once described by Ernest Hemingway as being so pretty it hurts to look at it . Yet I loathed Taormina. Why? Because as soon as I stepped out of my hotel I was swamped, engulfed, drowned, swept away in a sea of Germans, Americans, Japanese and Brits. The hordes of trippers were so dense that people were literally queueing to get into the town, then queuing to walk down the main street, where they queued to take exactly the same photo. Eventually I gave up queueing to see queues, and nipped into the celebrated Hotel Timeo for a gin and tonic, which cost me 30.

In short: Taormina has been ruined by tourists. And as I sipped my ludicrously overpriced G&T, I realised that this ruination is spreading. And also that this situation cannot go on. We are running out of Europe. We are running out of world. I ve seen intolerable touristic overpopulation all over.

A couple of years ago it took me two hours to drive five miles into St Tropez in high summer. Hideous. When I go to my native Cornwall it can take me 90 minutes to drive nine miles into St Ives. I ve seen the same grisly crush in Florence, Capri and Venice, and the prettier villages of Provence, the Costa del Sol, the Algarve. What s more, the prospects aren t brightening, thanks to the two mighty nations that border little Bhutan: China and India.

Right after Sicily I went to the Maldives. There I had some fascinating conversations with hotel managers. They told me they were being flooded with Chinese tourists (and to a lesser extent Russians). So much so, some resorts were using a form of racial filtering: they would allow, say, 30 40 per cent of the resort to be occupied by Chinese, and no more, otherwise the entire hotel would become a Chinese ghetto, and Europeans would refuse to book, changing the nature of the place. The managers were nonetheless very chirpy, because they had 100 per cent occupancy. Booked solid. A couple of years ago China overtook America and Germany as the nation producing the most foreign tourists.

This is because 500 million Chinese have recently been lifted into the middle classes (and hooray for that). And when they begin to use their new disposable income and their passports, what do they do? They all want to go abroad: to the very same destinations, those famous places celebrated in novels, movies and songs. They want to go to London, New York and Paris, they want to see the French Riviera and the sunnier parts of Italy, they want to see palm-fringed beaches of the Caribbean, Tahiti and the Maldives. And it s not like the Chinese are the end of it. Soon we ll see an Indian tourist boom, which means another billion people pouring into Taormina. And why shouldn t a billion Indians pour into Taormina?

They ve worked hard for their holidays, too. Should this happen, Taormina would not just be ruined. It would become horrifying, even dangerous. But how do you stop this? It s possible to make more wine to feed the Chinese lust for claret, but it isn t possible to manufacture more Provence.

By the end of my autumnal travels, it occurred to me that there is one solution: the Bhutanese example. You ration travel, by time and money: you start to make people pay simply to get into cities, regions, nations. You put walls around towns and close the gates when your country is chocka. It sounds ridiculous when you put it like that. Tickets to get into coastlines: a Bhutan of Europe. And yet this year, in one particularly lovely part of Italy, the Cinque Terre on the Ligurian coast, they are planning to do exactly that. Such is the yearly crush of visitors to these seaside villages, from cruise ships and bus tours, that they will be limiting the number of summer trippers to 1.5 million (2.5 million came last year).

When that figure is reached, that s it. They will shut the doors, and bar the roads and sea lanes. No one gets in apart from the locals. What is the logical endpoint of this? Sitting here in Bhutan, I can tell you. We will go back to the past, when the best foreign travel was reserved entirely for the lucky, the wealthy and Prince William. In the future, enjoying a summer Discount Holidays © holiday in Tuscany might be like having Centre Court tickets for Wimbledon.

So make the most of that next trip to Biarritz or Bermuda, Croatia or Majorca. Because the era of demotic, free-for-all, go-where-you-like travel is coming to an end. The gates will soon be closing, just as they have on the beautiful Punakha valley, where the peasant girls sing their rustic love songs as they pick the rosy apples just in front of my $1,000-a-night five-star hotel.

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