Battle in Print: The staycation: making a virtue out of necessity

Jim Butcher, 19 October 2010

The Germans joke about going on holiday to an exotic-sounding ‘Balkonia’. The joke is this means the balcony. In Italy, newspapers report ‘vacanza talpa’ or ‘moling’ holidays. These involve hiding away at home but moving the car, shutting the curtains and claiming you were actually off somewhere nice. In the Canadian comedy Corner Gas, Butt, the filling station owner, sends postcards from the shed at the end of his garden.

These comic attempts at holiday deception are underpinned by a common desire to travel, even if the prospective holiday makers don’t quite make it beyond their street. Here in Britain, the ‘staycation’ has even entered the Oxford English Dictionary (along with ‘vuvuzela’ and ‘simples’, courtesy of the meercat), where it means a holiday at, or at least closer to home.

Local holidays for local people

Of course, staying close to home is a necessity for many, and due to the recession foreign holidays are in decline. Holidays, as a luxury item, are often income elastic. When incomes fall or people fear they might, growth is sluggish or negative. When incomes rise or we’re confident they will, holidays boom. This helps to explain why since the package holiday boom in the 1960s, foreign travel has tended to grow faster than income. Alongside the weak pound, it also helps explain why visits abroad from UK residents, which rose by an average of 4% each year over the last 25 years, slumped by an unprecedented 15% in 2009 from the 2008 level (1).

Despite this, in the discussion about holiday habits some seek to make a virtue out of necessity. They see staying closer to home as a clear moral good for everyone to aspire towards, rather than an unfortunate imposition on particular groups in society. Some even argue the staycation is good for the domestic economy, since more holiday spend stays here rather than leaking out to Spain or Portugal. There’s an element of truth in this, but only a small one. Certainly, parts of the industry benefit when people effectively ‘trade down’. Static caravan sales are reportedly up. Pontins are expanding and camping is undergoing a renaissance (2).

Though overall, staying at home has little to commend it economically other than from the perspective of the staycationer’s own bank balance. That’s because not only Brits are doing it. The French, Italians, Germans and Americans are also tightening their belts. Spending by inbound tourists has suffered even further than over recent years. But particularly, reduced tourist spend affects hotels and attractions, alongside carriers such as ferries and airlines. In this, it’s doubtable that those recently made redundant from the Dover ferries will be lauding the economic benefits of holidays at home.

Yet for those concerned about the environment, the staycation forms part of a wider, thoroughly positive promotion of localism. Prince Charles owns a 40 year old Aston Martin that runs on bioethanol made entirely from wine. He also recently announced his ‘Start’ environment campaign to urge on certain lifestyle changes, including holidaying closer to home (3). Environmentalists in the USA have extended the ‘100 mile meal’- eating on the basis of what’s fairly local - to the ‘100 mile vacation’. Tourists are encouraged to think about what’s close to hand, to improve the self sufficiency of different localities and reduce their carbon footprints.

This narrow-minded localism stands in stark contrast to any view open to the real possibilities of the global. For example, let’s consider the late pro-globalisation marketing guru, Theodore Levitt. Levitt wrote confidently in a 1983 Harvard Business Review that technology and wealth were ‘shrinking the world’. They were making the global village an inspiring reality for many (4). He noted the positive aspects of expanded leisure time and spending power for the masses. He pointed out that tastes historically associated with only a small elite, including the desire to travel for leisure, were becoming universal. Levitt was optimistic about the impact of wealth and technology in bringing the world closer together.

It seems this optimism is not shared by some. Regardless, the reality is that more people are joining the travelling classes. Budget airlines have spread from Europe to Asia. Here in the UK, people want to get away if they can. Turkey’s market share has increased as people trade down in price abroad rather than rely on UK sunshine. Some long haul destinations have become relatively more price competitive compared to short haul holiday staples on the Med, increasing their market share accordingly. Trips abroad from the UK this year have steadied. They’re not following last year’s slump with further drastic decline.

Robot like and routine

Holidays have long been seen as harbingers of environmental destruction and cultural levelling by a host of critics. In the nineteenth century, Thomas Cook was castigated for his part in extending leisure mobility to the masses. Eminent Victorian gentleman Sir Lesley Stephens openly referred to the lower orders on their holidays as a ‘swarm of intrusive insects’ (5). Wordsworth opposed the extension of the railways to Windermere, fearing the desecration of nature by day-trippers.

The period since 1945 has witnessed a boom in the package holiday abroad. Yet the simple pleasures of the package holiday are most often the target for tourism’s critics. Jonathan Porritt, in his foreword to Preserve or Destroy: Tourism and the Environment paints a grim picture of the destruction wrought by pleasure seekers (6). The notion that somewhere between preservation and destruction lies the possibility of changing things for the better is never entertained. Similarly today, the package holiday is associated with being crude, thoughtless and generally dumb by the ethical travel lobby. For Guardian ethical living columnist Leo Hickman, package tourists are ‘just passive lumps of flesh and bone’ (7). His book is apocalyptically titled The Final Call: Searching for the True Cost of our Holidays.

Further in universities, historically associated with free and critical thinking, it also seems fashionable to casually label the masses on holiday as pretty thick. According to one popular account, mass tourism is characterised by being ‘consumed en masse in a similar, robot like and routine manner, with a lack of consideration for the norms, culture and environment of the host country visited.’ (8) By contrast, new ethical niches comprising of thoughtful, discerning tourists, sensitised to and supportive of cultural differences (even when these differences are a product of gross material inequality) are talked up. 

In many ways, the dawn of the ‘green staycation’ simply plays out the underlying logic of such views. If tourism is innately damaging and problematic, why stop at niches such as ecotourism, which themselves involve spreading the net of modernity ever wider? Why not go the whole way, and go nowhere…or at least not too far from home? It’s a logic that at least such staycationers are prepared to see through themselves. Unlike the rather mealy mouthed advocacy of ecotourism as a means to save species and ancient cultures, virtue starts at home.

Joining the jet set

The package holiday is well worth defending from its detractors. In the decades after the Second World War, it ultimately represented a democratisation of travel. It opened up opportunities to many people whose only prior experience of foreign shores was likely to have been fighting wars. The ability to travel more easily for leisure, relaxation, fun, inspiration or enlightenment is certainly progress. It’s rightly proved popular amongst those able to partake, regardless of their background or culture. Levitt put it well: ‘No place and nobody is insulated from the alluring fruits of modernity.’ (4)

The jet engine was a key technological innovation shaping the industry at this time. Aircraft linked the generating markets of the cold north to the warm Mediterranean. Jets could carry larger aircraft, and larger aircraft meant greater scope for economies of scale and cheaper travel. Independent charter airlines, boosted by capital from the shipping industry, pioneered the ‘back to back’ charter (itself seen as innovative in its time) in the 1960s. A week on the French Riviera, the Costas, the Balearics, Rimini or a Greek island became closer to the cost of a week in Blackpool. For many, the former proved preferable. The economic and social transformation of poor fishing villages in southern Spain into the convivial resorts of the Costa del Sol was one result. Host and tourist benefitted.

Liberation through the jet age is viewed rather more circumspectly these days. Jet aircraft emit CO2 and are hence under the spotlight for their contribution to man made global warming. Yet the legacy of tourism development in the Mediterranean is a positive one in so many ways. Finally, tourism, especially package tourism, is sometimes portrayed as stressful, beset by inefficiencies and inconsiderate people. It no longer serves the purpose it was designed for: a relief from the rigours of working life, a chance to relax and recharge the batteries. Holiday critics love to accentuate the negative.

Of course, as we all know, holidays can be hard work. But industrial disputes are pretty rare and travel has never been more seamless, fast and efficient. Trains, boats, planes and the much maligned motor car have opened up opportunities for travel to see relatives, snow capped mountains, sun soaked beaches and cultural icons that previous generations wouldn’t have imagined.

That is progress by any measure. As Thomas Cook,  the father of the package holiday put it:

These are the days of the millions [who can] o’erleap the bounds of their own narrow circle, rub off rust and prejudice by contact with others, and expand their sails and invigorate their bodies by an exploration of some of nature’s finest scenes.

And if we make a virtue of the limits imposed by lack of income or from environmental factors, how are we ever likely to challenge those limits through our endeavours?


Jim Butcher, lecturer at Canterbury Christ Church University in Kent; Fellow of the RSA. Jim is the author of several books and articles on the politics of travel and tourism, including The Moralisation of Tourism’(2003) and Ecotourism, NGOs and Development: a Critical Analysis (2007), both published by Routledge.


(1) International travel: visits abroad fell at record rate in 2009, ONS, 18 October 2010
(2) Recession-hit Britons abandon foreign holidays in favour of ‘staycations’, Peter Walker, Guardian, 13 August 2009
(3) Start, The Prince Charities Foundation
(4) Levitt T. (1983). ‘The Globalization of Markets’ Harvard Business Review. May-June
(5) Cited in Feifer M. (1985.) Going Places: the ways of the Tourist from Imperial Rome to the Present Day. London: Macmillan, p179
(6) Croall J. (1995). Preserve or Destroy: Tourism and the Environment. Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation
(7) Hickman L. (2007). The Final Call: In Search of the True Cost of Our Holidays. London: Eden Project Books, pxv
(8) Poon A. (1993). Tourism, Technology and Competitive Strategy. Wallingford: CABI, p4

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