Thursday, January 26, 2006

How not to plan your next vacation

FITUR opened in Madrid on Wednesday out at the IFEMA convention center. You could tell it was coming because suddenly, a ring of yellow sand materialized in the middle of the Plaza Mayor, the newborn site —as it is every year—for a performance by the famous dancing horses of Jerez.

Out at the convention center, things are much less predictable. FITUR is the world's second largest travel trade fair, and in the quest to stand out amid the hundreds of other booths that are all grappling for the attention of hordes of travel agents and convention planners, each country or hotel chain or regional tourist board tries to outdo the other. Some wrap recent theater-school graduates in billows of turquoise tulle and have them ripple like a river you might want to row down. Some convince middle-aged Spanish men to dress like the Centurions who one roamed their city's streets. Some force poor natives from foreign countries to do folkloric things in an overheated convention center for hours on end.

Imperative to the task of drawing a tour planner from Lérida or Liverpool to your booth is a small legion of pretty azafatas--some dressed like hot businesswomen, others like hookers at Mardi Gras-- to hand out brochures. But hostesses aside, in the end, it all comes down to swag. Free food, drink, and tchotckes apparently keep the travel industry afloat. In the few hours I was there, I scored half a dozen pens, two pencils, one glass each of sherry, cava, and a very fine Rioja, a poster of Picasso, three lapel buttons, fresh conch, a fan, a bottle of olive oil, and a fez. And I wasn't even trying.

FITUR, which runs through Sunday, is open to the public during the weekend.


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