Gulf, Economy Pinch Tourism


FREDERICK MAYER isn't quite sure where all the tourists are who usually plan their spring cruises about this time. ``Usually we're at the height of booking'' in early-to-mid December, says Mr. Mayer, who heads up Exprinter Cruises, a New York-based ocean-cruise business. Group tours are still ``holding up well,'' he laments. But individuals continue to hold back on making travel plans. Mr. Mayer is not alone in his concerns about the missing tourists. Although statistical evidence is only now starting to emerge from around the United States, the pattern suggests that many individuals are reluctant to plan extensive vacations because of uncertainty about possible military conflict in the Gulf - which could lead to new incidents of terrorism. Moreover, consumers are apprehensive about the direction of the US economy and rising airline fares. A slumping dollar adds to the cost of travel overseas.

A new quarterly survey of independent travel agents indicates a major slowdown in the leisure travel industry, accelerating a general decline that began during the prior quarter. Only 22 percent of respondents said leisure travel sales were up from the previous year, while 46 percent said leisure sales were down. The study was conducted by Temple, Barker & Sloan Inc., a consulting firm in Lexington, Mass.

Travel industry experts point to at least three trends:

Within the US, hotel vacancy rates are starting to rise in some big cities and at some popular tourist sites, such as theme parks.

Travelers appear to be resisting higher airline fares. International air fares have shot up 11 to 15 percent this year, in part because of higher fuel costs. Continental Airlines this week cited soaring fuel costs as a primary reason for seeking Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

International tourists seem to be planning vacations in countries considered politically safe.

``The Gulf crisis, along with the softening economy, has resulted in some lessening of travel plans,'' says Jill Mross, the manager of travel agency marketing for the American Automobile Association. She says travelers are planning shorter trips and staying closer to home, although vacations to such places as Alaska, Hawaii, Mexico, and the Caribbean remain popular.

``The softening of the travel market ``is not just the result of any one factor, such as the Middle East,'' says Pamela Hanlon, a spokeswoman for Pan American World Airways, one of the main overseas carriers for the US. ``Even more than the Gulf situation, the state of the national economy is having an impact on our booking.''

Pan Am's new $149 discount fare to London is designed to help lure skittish passengers, Ms. Hanlon says. Booking levels are currently ``softening,'' and slightly weaker than the company had forecast in the spring.

Still, there are exceptions. Traffic to Latin America, much of it business-related, is up about 25 percent from last year. ``Improving economic conditions in Latin America are making that region a more popular destination for tourists,'' Hanlon says.

Tourist agencies say travel to politically safe areas appears to be holding its own. Off-season travel to Italy, for example, ``is going to be essentially flat,'' says Mario Perillo of Perillo Tours, based in Woodcliff Lake, N.J. He adds that in the present economic and political climate, even ``flat'' business has to be considered good.

Mr. Perillo, believed to have the largest tour business to Italy in the US, expects a successful summer season, but says some people don't ``seem as ready to book for July as they usually are.''

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