With the gulf war over and the U.S. recession showing signs of abating, Americans are beginning to travel again at home and abroad after staying close to the fireside in recent months.
Airlines, travel agents and tour operators report some rebound in business since late February and many industry professionals foresee a good summer for travel within the United States as pent-up demand emerges from hibernation.Business travelers are returning to the road as corporations lift the restrictions they had placed on employee travel in response to the threat of terrorism during the Persian Gulf war that began with airstrikes on Baghdad Jan. 17.
Americans' interest in travel has revived markedly since Feb. 27, when President Bush announced the allies were prepared to negotiate a cease-fire in the gulf war.
But some agents and operators are not optimistic that travel abroad, especially to Europe, will recover to its previous levels by summer. Fear of terrorism and a continuing recession at home will dampen demand for travel outside the United States, they say.
Fear of terrorism, which was largely responsible for recent passenger declines of up to 50 percent on trans-Atlantic flights, will not go away just because the war has ended, travel agents and others argue. International travelers also may be deterred by a weak dollar and worries about jobs at home.
Despite these negative factors, Americans traveled slightly more within U.S. borders in January than in the same month last year, according to the Travel Industry Association of America, a trade group.
The association's monthly survey of the travel industry for January found the number of trips made by Americans was 1 percent above a year earlier.
"We've discovered that the war did not inhibit Americans from traveling," said Edward Book, president of the Washington D.C.-based association. He said the survey, covering 1,500 people, found that only 3 percent of respondents canceled domestic trips because of the gulf war.
The January findings follow three consecutive months of decline, particularly in December, when the number of domestic trips dropped by 10 percent.
Book said the latest survey supports the association's belief that the travel industry leads the U.S. economy into and out of recession.
"We started picking up as early as last April some decline in the travel industry. Then it really picked up after the Kuwait (invasion) and was very deep by the end of the fourth quarter. Now it is probably headed back up."
Travel agents in different parts of the country confirmed business was showing signs of reviving.
"We have seen a dramatic increase in business in the last two or three weeks," said Kathy Sudaikis of Brennco Travel in Overland Park, Kansas. "We're back up to speed for this time of year."
She said business travel, which accounts for about 60 percent of her agency's work, now is about 60 percent above its late-January level when it came to a "standstill" as many companies cut employee travel.
"The businessman is back on the road," Sudaikis said.
Despite temptingly low prices being offered by tour operators and airlines to Europe, this should be a bumper year for domestic travel, Sudaikis said, because people will be staying closer to home.
Major beneficiaries in the coming summer would be Disneyworld and Disneyland, and cruises to Alaska, she added.
Any travel rebound seems likely to be accompanied by heavy promotion.
Northwest Airlines, based in St. Paul, has launched a coupon offer for domestic travel following its participation in a fare war on trans-Atlantic flights.
Northwest spokesman Bob Gibbons said discount fares to Europe had been very successful but that travel to Europe still is below normal levels for this time of year.
Business travel internationally had been depressed during the war, he said, but some major corporations now are easing their restrictions on employee travel overseas.
At Delta Air Lines, bookings for March on both domestic and international flights are up over those for February, although no figures were available. February's figures were expected to show a significant increase over January, said Neil Monroe, spokesman for the Atlanta-based carrier.
American Airlines spokeswoman Lise Olson said the Fort Worth, Texas-based carrier also was showing an improvement in bookings, but she cautioned it was too early to say why.
America's rise in bookings was particularly noticeable in international traffic since that had shown the greatest decline, she said.
At Houston-based Continental Airlines, spokesman Ned Walker said international traffic had improved and had been stimulated by discount fares.
Domestic travel this year might also benefit from a surge in patriotism ignited by the war, said Arthur Tauck, president of Westport, Conn.-based Tauck Tours, a major name in domestic tours.
"We haven't seen patriotism like this since World War II. It could very well create more awareness for the U.S. product."
Domestic bookings were down 50 percent in January, he said, but started to pick up in mid-February. By the end of February domestic business was almost back to normal.
But the firm's European tours are looking "pretty tragic," Tauck said. The operator launched a new line of European travel last year.
He acknowledged a pent-up demand for travel and said he expected people to travel at home instead of abroad this summer. "If they have budgeted to go abroad, that budget would cover almost anything they want to do in the United States and Canada."
Following rock-bottom bookings in recent months, New York-based Trafalgar Tours specializing in trips to Europe said business had returned to about half its normal level by the end of last month.
Nigel Osborne, vice president of marketing at Trafalgar, said bookings on Feb. 27, the day Bush announced the allies' willingness to accept a cease-fire, had been the heaviest of any day this year.
Trafalgar's big sellers so far have been, in order of popularity, Scandinavia, the Alpine region, and Spain and Portugal. Britain and Ireland, normally the most popular European destinations with Americans, are "a distant fourth" and are being hurt by their own terrorism problems.
"Forget the Middle East," he added.
At home, the travel market will continue to be affected by the recession, even though war fears have dissipated, said Larry Frommer, president of Frommer Travel Service in Washington.
Frommer said his travel agency had had a slight increase in the number of inquiries from would-be travelers, starting in about the final week of the war but most wanted short vacations of up to seven days.
"It's going to be a pattern for quite a while until the economy really straightens itself out and people get back to work again."
As a result of recession-pinched travel budgets, Frommer said the hot tickets this year will include short packages to Mexican resorts such as Cancun and Puerto Vallarta, three- and four-day cruises on the less-expensive lines and trips to many areas of Florida.
Frommer said he did not expect bargains at Orlando, the Florida home of Disney World, which "thrives come hell or high water."
Mexico also is likely to be buoyed by being one of the few countries where the U.S. dollar is strong against the local currency.
As for Europe, Frommer said his bookings were down by almost 90 percent compared to the same period last year and that he does not see travel to Europe coming back in a hurry since "Saddam could now be at his most dangerous."
Europe is further hampered by the fact that its least-expensive countries are also perceived to be its least-developed and most politically unstable. These include Turkey, Greece and Yugoslavia.
Travelers looking for a cheap family vacation this year might opt for an old-fashioned car trip now that the price of gasoline is back to pre-invasion levels.
In the cruise industry, some tourists cancelled bookings after the outbreak of the war, said Larry Fishkin, president of The Cruise Line Inc., a discount cruise broker in Miami. But following the cease-fire, Fishkin said his company has had a surge of inquiries from people who had put their plans on hold.
Many cruise lines now are offering low-priced berths because of excess capacity on cruise ships which were rerouted the Mediterranean due to the gulf war.