Ask Artificial Intelligence (AI) for advice on where to go on holiday, and you might expect to be pointed towards somewhere like Japan or South Korea: a futuristic, high-tech society where skyscrapers are stuffed with gadgets and even the toilets have a triple-digit IQ. Likewise, ask it where to holiday as a family, and you’d likely expect to hear the obvious European favourites: Crete. Corfu. The Canaries, perhaps.
Yet when researchers recently asked Google’s AI chatbot, Bard, to recommend the best place for a family holiday in Europe, where did it deem to be the continent’s finest family-friendly destination? The Netherlands – a place which, for all its charms, often feels cheerfully, defiantly, old-fashioned, with many towns which look like they haven’t changed since the seventeenth century, and more of a reputation for wacky-backy and beer than beaches and buggies.
It’s not, in practice, a family favourite, either. When mere humans are making the holiday choices, the Netherlands rarely ranks highly – ninth on the list of UK holidaymakers’ favourite holiday destinations in Europe, in fact, far behind places like Spain, Portugal and France. In some ways, it’s easy to see why people might steer clear. The Dutch weather is usually more Baltic than Mediterranean, and the food generally less appealing (particularly for picky young appetites) than in countries further south. Throw in Amsterdam’s slightly seedy reputation – great for stag trips, less appealing for wholesome holidays – and it’s easy to see why.
So what does the AI know that we don’t? Well, one reason the chatbot chose the Netherlands is practical. If you’re coming from Britain, travel times are remarkably short (as little as 40 minutes for a flight from London to Rotterdam – a gift for those travelling with little ones), and flight prices can be very low. The Netherlands itself is also small enough to make getting around very easy, even if you have small kids in tow. Take your family on holiday to Italy, for example, and you might end up spending hours behind the wheel ferrying the brood from place to place. But come to the Netherlands and you’ll find almost nowhere is more than two hours’ drive from Amsterdam.
Train services are excellent and most of the destinations tourists want to visit are crammed into a small area. Families with younger children might enjoy a trip to Utrecht (about 25 minutes by train from Amsterdam), while teens will love hip, gritty Rotterdam, the “Manhattan on the Maas” (40 minutes from Amsterdam). There aren’t many countries small enough for different cities to share the same underground train network, but this is one of them.
Bard also pointed out that the Netherlands has “plenty of family-friendly attractions, such as amusement parks, zoos, and museums” – and it’s not wrong. The country may be only about half the size of Scotland, but it has more than 600 museums. 600! That includes world famous art galleries such as the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and the Mauritshuis in the Hague, but also lots aimed at smaller visitors, including the Miffy (Nijntje) museum in Utrecht, the Children’s Book Museum in the Hague, and NEMO science museum in Amsterdam. There are also several excellent zoos and even a sort of Dutch Disneyland called the Efteling, where families can alternate between riding rollercoasters and eating pancakes.
Dutch beaches also seem to have impressed the AI. The Netherlands isn’t known as a beach destination – partly because it rains more than a hundred days a year – but almost the entire coastline, from the Belgian border in the south to Den Helder in the northwest, is covered with beautiful white sand beaches, and liberally sprinkled with lovely bars, restaurants and places where you can learn to surf, windsurf or sail. The Hague, in particular, has city-meets-beach-break credentials capable of rivalling the likes of Barcelona. When the sun shines, even a Silicon Valley supercomputer would find the Dutch shoreline irresistible.
Yet despite all these considerations, the biggest appeal of a family holiday in Holland may be something which has, in fact, escaped the AI’s notice. Despite all the museums and attractions, many visitors find their favourite thing about this country is just wandering aimlessly along brick-lined streets. Almost every town and city in the Netherlands is small enough to be walkable, even with youngsters in tow, and in many towns it’s hard to go more than a few hundred yards without passing an ancient church, quirky boutique or welcoming café.
The Netherlands is famous for its bicycles, of course, but what really makes a difference here is that the car isn’t king. Traffic, where there is any, is light, meaning children can walk or cycle around freely without much care.
With all the current buzz of concern around intelligent tech – the biases it might have and whether it can be trusted – it might be time to admit that, at least when it comes to holiday planning, AI might just be right.