Commentary -- The Funny, Stupid, Absurd: Off-Beat Awards For '92

Yes, it's that time again, the moment to celebrate the most stupid, absurd and ridiculous moments in travel during the past 12 months.

Once again, the passengers, airlines, governments and hoteliers of the world provide fodder for my annual awards.

Here goes:

-- The Chamber of Commerce Environmental Tourism Award: Well, two real winners tie for this award. Honors are shared by the Italian government, which proudly announced earlier this year that nearly 57 percent of the country's beaches and coastline were considered safe for swimming (what about the other 43 percent?), and the editors of the Beach News, a weekly Southern California paper. In a headline last July sure to keep the tourists coming to the communities of Del Mar, Carlsbad and Oceanside, the paper proclaimed "California: Where the Sewage Meets the Sea."

-- The Bad Choice for an Opening Night Amusement Park Attraction Slogan award goes to Disneyland. The invitation to its "Fantasmic" attraction unfortunately coincided with the L.A. riots. "Be there," said the glossy invite, "when the night ignites."

-- The Lucky Pierre award goes - without a doubt - to a French engineer named Pierre Cota. You might think twice if he's ever sitting next to you on a plane. Then again, you might actually want him to sit next to you.

Consider this. On Jan. 22, 1992, as Cota was driving his car to the airport in Lyons, France, to catch a flight to Strasbourg, the

vehicle went out of control. The car was totaled, but Cota survived.

Needless to say, he missed his flight, but returned - a little shaken - to the airport to catch a later flight.

Fifty-five minutes after taking off, the airplane slammed into a mountain. Of 96 passengers on board, nine survived, including Mr. Cota.

-- The Can You Walk and Chew Gum at the Same Time award goes to the government of Singapore. It is now illegal to carry more than 10 packs of gum into the country, and it is also forbidden to chew gum anywhere near the subway.

Think they're kidding? Penalty for a first offense could be a year in jail and a $600 fine. And, if you're caught with the contraband, whatever you do, don't drop it. The fine for littering is $500.

-- The Wake Me When It's Over award to the World Airline Entertainment Association - the folks responsible for what movies and videos you watch on airplanes. The WAEA recently polled 3,697 airline passengers to determine what they like to do in the air. The clear winner: 79 percent said "sleep."

-- The Well, Wouldn't You? award to the Four Seasons hotel, which recently published the results of a rather self-serving survey which indicated, among other things, that although most people would rather stay home during the holiday season, "more than twice as many people would rather go away to a luxury resort rather than visit relatives."

-- The Try This Excuse the Next Time You're Pulled Over award to the Morro Bay, Calif., police.

From the local police blotter: "Miscellaneous traffic call: Police responded to a report of a drunken driver at the intersection of Highway 41 and Main Street. Police determined that the man was not intoxicated, but a tourist."

-- And, speaking of driving, the Demolition Derby award goes to Hertz. When four foreign executives traveled to the U.S. and proceeded to wreck three rental cars, Hertz thought about refusing to rent to them again. But it didn't want to lose their business. The solution: the next time the execs crossed the Atlantic, Hertz gave them . . . driving lessons.

-- And while I'm on the subject of foreigners, the Ultimate Tourist Tips award to Glasnost News and Review, which published 10 travel tips for Russians about to visit the U.S. for the first time.

Perhaps the best advice (for Russians as well as for us):

"Ignore panhandlers. Virtually any American beggar is wealthier than you. If an undesirable pesters you for change, scold him in either Russian or English. There is no need to feel ashamed of your English; many American citizens are also unable to speak English."

Peter S. Greenberg's syndicated column appears occasionally in the Travel section.