Miércoles 24 de Agosto de 2005, Ip nº 123

The cost of free time
Por Mark Tran & Jon Henley

Too much free time can prove to be expensive as the French are finding.

France seems like a worker's paradise. Thanks to the 35-hour week introduced four years ago, the French have the luxury of 11 weeks holiday a year. That must seem a lifetime for Americans, many of whom start their jobs with a measly two weeks annual leave.

But the French have discovered a downside to all this leisure time. Going on holiday can be expensive. Plane fares, hotel bills, restaurant meals, snacks, cups of coffee, pre-dinner drinks. It all adds up.

No wonder hotel and restaurant owners are griping about a drop in summer takings, although they must be making up for slower summers with revenues from the rest of the year.

Still, France's long holidays illustrate the cruel dilemma of excessive free time. While we are at the office, our opportunities for spending money are normally limited to the tea trolley and the canteen - or the occasional restaurant lunch - and perhaps an after-work drink or two.

But once liberated from the office, the temptation to spend is overwhelming, even if we do not jet off to Sicily or Sardinia for the holidays, but stay home. We live after all in a consumer society.

Of course we could stay home and read Marcel Proust or Thorstein Veblen's Theory of the Leisure Class, but there is only so much time we can stay indoors before cabin fever sets in. We need to go out.

Once we step outside the home, spending opportunities beckon. There is the allure of an afternoon movie or a browse in the bookshops that invariably results in an armful of tomes. All that walking around makes us hungry so we stop for a snack and coffee.

It takes real discipline not to spend money when we have an abundance of time on our hands and there are ways of scrimping. A friend of mine managed to survive for a year in New York without work by employing many strategies to keep the lid on spending. She took full advantage of free trial offers from gyms, she attended free talks and lectures and spent hours reading newspapers and books at Barnes & Noble and other bookstores.

Such money-saving ploys would work equally well in Paris and London, especially the latter where access to the British Museum and the National Gallery is free. Strolling through parks and long bus rides are always also a good way of using up time while saving cash.

My friend in New York, however, was relieved to go back to work as it had become rather taxing to constantly come up with schemes to avoid spending money. As for the French, there is a way out of their free time quandary. They could ask for fewer holidays.

French no longer bon vivants

The French now have so much free time that they cannot afford to enjoy it, tourism professionals said yesterday, blaming a sharp fall in summer hotel and restaurant revenues on the average Gallic tourist's newfound parsimony.

With many employees entitled to up to 11 weeks annual leave, thanks to the 35-hour-week laws introduced four years ago, the French are taking more breaks. However, they tend to be shorter and holidaymakers have less cash to spend when they are away.

The Union of Hotel and Restaurant Owners said its members have complained that holidaymakers now rarely take aperitifs, that they drink water rather than wine, eat sandwiches at lunchtime, order just one course at dinner and refuse even a post-prandial coffee. Overall, it estimates that takings this summer are down by 15-20%.
"One of the effects of so much more time off is that people are spending so much more through the year on planes and trains that that they have to economise when they are actually away," said Brigitte Lenfant of the tourist office at Meditterranean resort of La Grande Motte.

Official statistics appear to confirm the trend away from the traditional month-long summer vacation. A French government agency said last week that the average summer break now lasted a fortnight.

France's faltering economy and unemployment rate is not helping either. A recent survey by Ipsos polling group found that 52% of French people planned to spend less than €1,500 (£1,038) of their budget on holidays this year.

The proportion taking at least one break away from home is also falling. Nearly 16% of the population have never been away and half of all French holidaymakers now stay with friends or family.

The trend is being particularly keenly felt along the Mediterranean and south-western Atlantic coast, where most of the year's income is earned in July and August.

"It's really getting problematic," said one Nice hotelier and restaurateur. "People are having a snack at lunchtime and avoiding anything that resembles a restaurant.

"Often they'll go out for a full three-course meal in a decent establishment just once in their whole holiday. We're no longer a nation of bon vivants, it seems."

  09/08/2005. The Guardian.


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