The weak dollar is not keeping hordes of Americans from traveling abroad this summer, but it has prompted many to seek cheaper destinations, travel consultants and tour operators report.
Although some foreign countries are getting more American tourists than a year ago, overall foreign travel is running at about the same level as last summer, the travel professionals say.That was around 2.3 million Americans, up sharply from the 1.8 million in the summer of 1986, when the dollar's steep slide and terrorist incidents kept many at home.
The dollar has continued its downward trend despite a rebound earlier this month. A dollar bought 131 Japanese yen on Friday, compared with 151 yen a year ago, while a British pound has risen to $1.74 from $1.61.
"The big factor obviously is the purchasing power of the American dollar," said James V. Cammisa, a travel industry consultant in New York. "That's really the driving force."
Europe still accounts for about half of all vacation travel overseas by Americans, and Britain, France, West Germany, Italy and Switzerland remain the most popular destinations, with Britain the leader by far.
But the erosion of their buying power abroad has driven more Americans to countries like Spain, Portugal, Greece and Turkey, where the dollar goes further, Cammisa and others say. Costs in those countries are lower and their currencies have not risen as sharply against the dollar as others have.
"It's the value of the dollar, and also the value of what the dollar buys," said Paul Kerstetter, vice president of sales and marketing for Maupintour Inc. in Lawrence, Kan., one of the country's largest tour operators.
That principle is keeping tourists away from Japan, Kerstetter said. U.S. bookings to Japan are down more than 30 percent from last summer. "People just can't afford to do it," he said.
Even when Americans stick with their original countries, many of them are cutting back their spending or staying for shorter periods, experts say.
"They're buying down," said Robin Prestage, a spokesman in New York for the British Tourist Authority.
For some U.S. travelers, that means staying in a moderately priced hotel, or even a bed-and-breakfast, instead of first-class accommodations, or cutting back or eliminating purchases of French perfume, British china and other goods.
A typical seven-day European tour package, including airfare, hotels and some meals, costs around $1,350 per person this summer, up about $70 from last year. A room in a moderate European hotel runs about $150 a day, compared with $100 a year ago, while the average round-trip plane fare to Europe has jumped to about $800 from $600.
Another feature this summer: More vacationers going abroad are using plane tickets obtained through frequent-flier programs. Some travel agents estimate that as many as 25 percent of their customers for foreign travel are cashing in frequent-flier awards.
That could be artificially inflating overseas travel figures for this summer, since many of the "frequent fliers" might not have taken the trip without the free ticket.
The dollar's slump, coupled with recent terrorist incidents overseas, led some potential travelers to delay booking overseas trips.
The shooting down of an Iranian jetliner by a U.S. Navy warship "raised some concern," said David Perlman, president of DMS Travel in New York. The incident, which killed 290 people, initially sparked fears of a retaliatory attack by Iran, perhaps aimed at a U.S. commercial plane.
Perlman said his agency received many inquiries about airline security after the Persian Gulf incident, but things have since returned to normal.
Likewise, cruise ship operators say business is still steaming along despite a recent terrorist attack on a Greek liner.
Travel to Israel, however, remains sharply below last year's levels because of continuing clashes between police and Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, travel professionals say.