- The Washington Times - Friday, November 14, 2003

NEW YORK — A sagging economy, September 11 and SARS. Fear of flying, war in Iraq and a bomb in Bali. A weak dollar

and the high price of gas. Rain at home from April through July and a heat wave in Paris.

Is it any wonder big vacations went out with the Wall Street boom?

But that was then — and this is now. From consumer surveys to hotel bookings, from Web-site traffic to festival crowds, from weekend getaways to the trip of a lifetime, it’s beginning to look a lot like travel is back.

“In the past month, I’ve done Russian river cruises, Moldova, Costa Rica and Bolivia,” says Dana Vannasse of Beacon Hill Travel in Weston, Mass. “I am quite amazed at how people have returned to the travel market. Client interest in [the] Third World and soft adventure has grown tremendously in the last 90 days. Many clients have had this pent-up interest and are now manifesting it.”

Her observations are consistent with the results of American Express’ annual travel survey, released last month, which showed that Americans are planning to spend more on travel in 2004 than they did in 2003.

“General consumer unease from the war and economy” is waning, says Karen Baker, marketing manager for Rock City Gardens in Lookout Mountain, Ga., which boasts panoramic views and ancient rock formations. “We show positive numbers this fall, and I think it reflects a pent-up demand from summer trips planned but not taken.” October attendance at Rock City increased 24 percent over October 2002.

“Consumers are feeling a bit more confident,” says Rocco Laterzo, American Express’ senior vice president for travel, “but there’s still a focus on value. People expect a lot for what they will spend.” Three-fourths of those surveyed said they are seeking quality vacations “within a budget.”

“My advice to travelers contemplating visits to popular destinations such as the Hawaiian Islands, Italy, Greece, Cancun or Great Britain in 2004 is to book now while airline seats and hotel rooms are plentiful, especially if you have specific dates in mind,” says Cynthia Valles, general manager of American Express’ U.S. Consumer Travel Network.

Hilary Lachoff of North Hollywood, Calif., vacationed in Thailand in June, her first big trip since going to Costa Rica five years ago. After the September 11 attacks, she says, “I remember thinking that I would restrict all vacation travel to driving trips until the long delays and new security procedures at the airports had been worked out.”

When she finally was ready, she looked for “adventure, relaxation and cultural exploration all within one country,” but also a place where “our dollar would stretch.” She considered Turkey, then rejected it because of the war in Iraq and decided to stick with plans for Thailand, even after the Asian outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome. The trip was great, she says, and she hopes to take more like it in the future.

In addition to renewed interest in foreign travel, regional attractions also are seeing crowds. At the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California, “we had been concerned because the period March through June was below our projections,” spokesman Ken Peterson says. “The reversal, which began just after the Fourth of July holiday weekend, has been impressive.”

Grand Canyon Railway ridership also is up, 7.5 percent this year, over 2002. “Clearly, we are benefiting from a rebound in the travel industry,” says spokesman Jerry Thull.

Hotels also report increased demand. At the Breakers Palm Beach Hotel, a luxury oceanfront resort in Florida, October bookings were 34 percent ahead of October 2002 and 22 percent ahead of October 2001.

Last year, the Hyatt Regency Chesapeake Bay Golf Resort in Maryland sold out for Thanksgiving, but only because 80 percent of the rooms went to a teen pageant. The resort expects to sell out for Thanksgiving this year without major group business.

The 41st annual Holmes County Antique Festival, held Oct. 4 and 5 in Ohio’s Amish country, was expected to attract 5,000 people this year; instead, 15,000 showed up. In Greene County, another rural Ohio area, not far from Columbus, hotel-tax revenue is up, requests for tourism information are 14 percent ahead of last year, and Web traffic to the local tourism Web site is up 68 percent.

Expedia.com saw a 50 percent increase in bookings for the second quarter of 2003 over the comparable period in 2002 and is suddenly seeing consumer interest in places such as Costa Rica and Hong Kong, according to product manager Teri Franklin.

“The trend we’re seeing now is people going to the more exotic locations; they’re switching from driving to flying,” she says.

Travel by foreigners to the United States remains down, with the U.S. Commerce Department forecasting a 4 percent decline from 2002 to 2003 — bad news for domestic attractions that derive revenue from international visitors. Nevertheless, the Commerce Department expects 5 percent growth in international travel to the United States in 2004 and additional increases of 5 percent in 2005 and 2006.

The Travel Industry of America’s senior vice president of research, Suzanne Cook, believes Americans remain “reluctant to commit, so last-minute planning and booking will continue to be the norm.”

However, the sudden uptick in travel may lead consumers to change those habits, especially because airlines have cut back on the number of flights. “Book now while space is available,” Mr. Laterzo advises. “A degree of flexibility may be important for dates and destinations; having alternatives is important.”

One group planning a March trip to Italy had to pick new dates because “the original date sold out so quickly, we couldn’t accommodate the new people,” says Lucy Hirleman, president of Berkshire Travel in Newfoundland, N.J. “And this is the off-season.”

Her clients are starting to book as far as a year in advance after two years of doing everything at the last minute. She adds, “The signs are all here for a very good 2004.”

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