THE news that Spain may finally have overtaken France as the most popular destination for British residents travelling abroad will offer some solace to Spain's hard-pressed tourism industry. The news comes from the UK's Office for National Statistics and it needs to be regarded with some caution. Firstly, the figures are of travel for all purposes, not just for tourism; secondly, they refer to 2002 so the vagaries of the current year may have changed the picture. On the other hand, France did not win many friends during the preliminaries to the Iraq war and Spain may well have gained from the phenomenon of tourists “voting with their feet”.

It is not quite clear why it takes the Office for National Statistics eleven months to compile its figures in these computerised days but, for what they are worth, here are the facts and figures for 2002. The number of trips from Britain to Spain increased by 6.2 per cent to 12.5 million while visits to France edged up by a more modest 1.3 per cent to 12.1 million. The average stay in Spain was of eleven nights but in France only five, a discrepancy that may be accounted for by the fact that many visitors to France are “passing through” to other countries.

The down-side of the British lust for travel is the damage it is doing to the national economy. In 2002 the balance of payments deficit on the UK travel account rose by more than one billion pounds to a record fifteen billion in the country's overall trade deficit of nineteen billion. One of the reasons for this state of affairs is that visitors to Britain are poor spenders - for every pound that EU tourists spend in the UK, the British in Europe spend three.