Tattler editor Marjorie Dean is just back from a holiday in Europe. On trend, she decided to mark a special occasion by taking her whole immediate family of children and grandchildren on a holiday together. Then she and her husband Colin, enjoyed a short break in Istanbul (Images courtesy Colin Dean).
So what does the tourism view look like from the other side of the fence?
Our family holiday was a hugely successful experience. In today’s world where parents often have neither time not money to take their children travelling, we were determined to share our love for travel with the younger generation. In that aim, we were successful, as both children and grandchildren have promised themselves they will travel again – and soon! Mission accomplished!
However, not being a travel agent, organising the complex itineraries involved in collecting family together in one small Scottish village from different parts of the globe was going to be a challenge.
So we made a crucial decision. We would not try to be clever, do it all online or otherwise sidestep the professionals. We got ourselves a travel agent. And a gem! Martine Brown works for Pentravel at their Cresta branch on Johannesburg. She had organised some fairly simple trips for us before, so I went to see her, explained what we wanted and asked for her help. And we got it, in spades! Both from Martine and from her colleagues. A big Thank You to them.
Nothing was too much trouble. Airfares, tours, accommodation and car hire were scrutinised carefully for both price and convenience. It was decided that we would use Turkish Airlines from South Africa and British Airways from the USA. As we booked early, excellent fares were obtained. Now both of these carriers are excellent airlines, with good records, but I would be less than honest if I did not say straight out that the flights were the worst part of everyone’s holiday.
Air travel today is to be endured rather than enjoyed if, as most tourists do, you travel Economy Class. Cabins are seriously crowded, and cabin staff is stressed almost beyond endurance. There is basic service – and no more. If you are elderly, disabled or travelling with small children, forget any extra help – the cabin staff don’t have time. Airports are crowded, the security palaver is uncomfortable at best, and downright intrusive at worst. Immigration officials are hassled and can’t wait to process you. Airport food is very expensive – and mostly very ordinary. On the whole it is not a pleasant experience.
So dear tour operators, when you pick passengers up at the airport after long international flights, be kind to them! A little kindness is much appreciated after a long and basically stressful flight. And very few flights are not stressful nowadays.
Car hire was another unexpected stress. Although all bookings had emphasised that we wanted, and had paid for, cars with automatic transmission, this was quite a mission at each car hire desk. Each of our three groups was given keys for a manual vehicle – and had to traipse back to the desk and wait until an automatic was found. And we picked up vehicles from large, internationally known car hire companies at large airports in the UK, so there was really no excuse. But staff were trained to handle such matters politely and efficiently, all our paperwork was in good order, and eventually, with many apologies, we got what we had paid for.
We checked into a couple of Scottish hotels, had excellent service throughout, as well as great food. Our special family dinner was handled superbly by a small restaurant in a tiny village. It’s a small business that has built itself a great reputation, based on value and service, as well as some clever PR. The village itself has revamped to meet the needs of modern holidaymakers, and thrives year round, while retaining its old-fashioned charm. No fast food outlets or supermarkets, but well run local shops, that stocked what visitors need. Some of our local small tourism towns could learn from that.
We had not expected the UK to be cheap, but the cost of visiting attractions was huge. (This is now also true in South Africa.) Even the smallest place seemed to cost over £10 (R150)per person, concessions were not great for older and younger people, and in many cases over £20 (R300) per person was charged, quite an outlay for a party of nine people.
But what we saw was well looked after, and everything was clean and well maintained. Often there were guides at no charge where we did not expect them, and they were very knowledgeable about their subjects, and put across their information clearly and well. Queues at top attractions were long (it was July, peak season) but the situation was well handled from the point of view of how the numbers were dealt with. At Edinburgh Castle, one of busiest tourist sites in Britain, we managed to short-circuit long queues, after an observant staff members realised we had a partially disabled person in our party. Special lifts were available and seats offered during the tour. It made a huge difference.
From Scotland we flew back to Istanbul were we had booked to spend a few days stopover. Istanbul was an interesting look at a top destination that manages its tourism well. The city has been hard hit by recent negative exposure of the demonstrations in June in Taksim Square – in peak season it was relatively quiet when we visited. On a Bosphorus boat cruise it was sad to find only 40 passengers in a boat that could easily accommodate 200. But we still got the full package and services. However, it is a warning that even small pockets of unruly behaviour, justified or not, are highlighted by saturation news coverage, and the effect on tourism is dire.
In a few short days we had experience only of a tiny area, but were very impressed by what we saw. Al the city’s historical treasures were being well maintained – ahead we guessed of the city’s bid for the Olympic Games in 2020. Pentravel had booked a superb ground handler company and a tour guide, who not only told us about the places we visited, but placed them in the context of the country’s history, geography and politics. Our hotel was basic three-star place, but clean and comfortable.
It was very noticeable that the ubiquitous hawkers were restrained in their approach – we found out as we went along that a visible presence of Tourism Police in uniform, on foot, in cars and on Segway scooters, was the main reason. Walking around in obviously “tourist” areas felt very safe. The visible (and vocal) tourism police presence made a huge difference.
The issue of a special tourism police force at top tourist spots has been discussed in South Africa, but the jury remains out. Given the overseas perception of high crime rates in South Africa, justified or not, it would be a way to show that we take the issue seriously, and, well done, is most effective.
Local people in shops and restaurants were all friendly and helpful, gave directions clearly, and the city was spotless for pedestrians. Cleaning crews came around several times a day, and did a thorough job. Markets were patrolled regularly, and there was little evidence of petty crime.
All in all, Turkey came across as a destination that takes its tourism industry seriously, and is making a good job of positioning itself as a welcoming destination. It now ranks sixth in the world. Turkey is no longer a cheap destination, but everywhere we felt we got value for what we spent, and as tourists, that was what counted.
So, what was it like being a tourist? On the whole an enjoyable experience. We enjoyed, with some few exceptions, great service and that made all the difference. What mattered most was that, genuine or not, the people we met who worked in tourism took pains to ensure we had the best experience possible.
They went the extra mile – sent out for a takeaway meal at our Istanbul hotel when we arrived tired and hungry late at night when their own kitchen was closed because of Ramadan; called the airline to confirm flight times and pickups so that we arrived in good time for our flight home when we had to query the arrangements that had been made; always gave more than just the “minimum required.” Staff were well trained and competent to handle whatever happened. Tips were received with thanks, and not expected as a right.
The tourist experience
In short, a lot of our enjoyable experience in both countries was down to the attitude of the people in tourism. Where it was great, it was down to great attitude. “Give us a couple of minutes and we’ll sort it out.” was the order of the day; service was good and polite, but also friendly.
We, a very ordinary family, were their guests, and we were treated as important, as valued, as people who were there to be cared for. Not everything went smoothly, it never does, but if the glitches are sorted out in a friendly manner, one forgives.
We came home with great memories to last a lifetime. And that, after all, is what being a tourist is all about.