Whenever I think of summer holidays I almost involuntarily hear the Sex Pistols' scornful punk classic Holidays In The Sun ricocheting around in my head. As you'll recall, this opens with the unforgettable "a cheap holiday in other people's misery" line and continues with: "I don't wanna holiday in the sun / I wanna go to the new Belsen." (Check out this footage of the band performing it in, suitably enough, Penzance!)
Hmm, in the mood for your holiday now? Well, I'll come back to the Sex Pistols later, but first a quick run-through of the summer holiday ritual in all its sun-baked glory. First, the packing. Oversized Jackie O-style sunglasses: check. Swimming costume: check. Sunblock factor 30: check. Latest must-read summer blockbuster: check. Other seasonal cliched items: check-mate!
Yes, the deeply-entrenched British (northern European?, Western?) idea of a summer holiday comes with bulging suitcases full of "expert" advice starting with... what to pack. Then there's ... what to wear. And where to go. And what to do when you get there. And how to cope with "real life" when you get back. There's advice on getting out of "unendurable" holiday friendships. What about holiday romances? Or hand-wringing or accusatory articles on "boorish Brits" coating the pavements of Magaluf or Kavos in their 95% alcohol-based vomit (ahem). Stuff on sunburn. Facts on food, on hotels, on travel. What to photograph while you're there (discussed on the Today programme this week). Independent holidays versus package tours. Backpacking. Inter-railing. The dos and don'ts of camping. Holidays for singles. For honeymooners. For stressed out dogs who need to get away from their overbearing owners (maybe not that one).
Phew! At this time of year you could spend hours and hours reading the newspaper travel sections, soaking up the advice and poring over the features (some strangely similar to 'advertorials'). It's positively exhausting. You'll definitely need a holiday after wading through all this stuff.
But when all is said and done, it's only a holiday. Right? You book, you go, you come back. Except... it's true that holidays can be important periods in your life. After all, spending biggish chunks of time in a different place with different surroundings and different people - that's significant in itself. And it can lead to a new-found interest in countries previously only seen on a map. This, basically, is the point being made by Amnesty in a new briefing about where Brits go on holiday. So whether you go to the Canary Islands, Corfu or Florida (three favourite destinations), you might come back with a new love of the country, a desire to go back, and even a feeling that you'd like to support campaigns to promote better human rights in those countries...
Woah! What's this? From frothy advice on "how to look good on your holiday" we're pitching into things like torture and unfair trials? Well, I'd say potentially yes, yes we are. If for example you go on a month-long "dream" holiday to China, and have, let's say, a wonderful time in Beijing and Shanghai, on return wouldn't you be more likely to take an interest in things like Chinese people getting arrested in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, the same place you'd just visited? Or imagine you've just been to the Maldives and when you get back you read a newspaper article about how two juvenile offenders from the country are facing execution. You're surely a step closer to wanting to do something about it already. The next step could be to support an Amnesty campaign. Or at least that's the theory ...
I think the theory is roughly right actually. It's not (generally) a question of going to a particular place and witnessing human rights abuses first-hand. Tourists don't see what goes on in police stations or in courtrooms, and they stay away entirely if a country is experiencing mass demonstrations and violence (for example tourist numbers for Egypt dropped from 14million in 2010 to 9.5million in 2011, the year of the 'Arab Spring' revolution and subsequent instability and continued violence). The real effect is more subtle and more about empathy and awakened interest.
So no, it's not really a question of the Sex Pistols' cheap holidays in other people's misery (though wider issues of ethical tourism are definitely bound up in John Lydon's lacerating lyrics). Instead it's surely a matter of engagement, and recognising that a spin-off from global tourism is that we potentially edge closer to caring about 'foreigners' who we may even come to see as rounded, fellow human beings with lives that matter to us.
Right, now I've dealt with that it's time to pull the Sex Pistols record off the turntable, power down the computer and have a well-deserved breather. In fact I'm actually off on a holiday of my own later today (honestly! I've got a 20.50 flight from Luton this evening). It's not quite in the Brits' top ten list, but I'm headed to Romania for a few days. That's right. I reckon I've been working too hard lately and so there was only one thing for it... Bucharest!