Like the weather in London, the U.S. travel picture to Europe has
been dreary for too long. A double-barreled whammy hit the booking
business with the domestic economy sagging and terrorism threats
looming. Then, there were all of those harsh feelings among U.S.
citizens toward the French over Iraq.
But like a brilliant sun shining upon Paris in spring the travel
forecast for Europe is considerably brighter this year.
Indeed, agents are getting swamped these days with these kinds
“I want to take my wife on a gourmet tour of Italy. Are there
affordable packages out there?”
“My granddad was in Normandy on D-Day, and has always wanted to
go back just one more time. Are there tours over there that would
appeal to him?”
“Can you get me a hotel and tickets in London for ‘Phantom of
The answer to all three questions is an assured “yes”. (Or “oui”
or “ja” or “si”.) Oh and, by the way, agents are even able to get
some nice add-ons to packages, like free or choice tickets to
Broadway-level shows like “Phantom” in London.
It’s all part of a tourism blitz in Europe, sparked by pent-up
demand among travelers after the long layoff, as well as creative
and cost-friendly packages arranged by tour operators and cruise
lines. And even the sagging value of the U.S. dollar isn’t hurting
business these days, travel industry representatives say.
At press time, the March 11 train bombings in Madrid hadn’t
upended European travel as of yet, although executives were
anxiously watching the situation. George Delanoy, owner of Brea,
Calif.-based Brea Travel American Express, said one client canceled
a Spain-Portugal tour but was looking to rebook at an alternate
locale in Europe.
“We’re tracking this every week,” he said.
Delanoy has had a great quarter, however. European cruise and
tour bookings doubled in the last three months over the same period
last year. He cites pent-up demand and said a poor currency
exchange isn’t stopping travelers.
“Maybe they’re more accepting of the rate difference because
things are relatively good here in the U.S.,” he said. “And with
the cruise lines, the exchange rate doesn’t matter as much because
so much cost is contained on the ship. Some tour operators raised
their package pricing by just 7 percent. So the less favorable
exchange rate is not currently creating an obstacle to our selling
the European product.”
The statistics bear this out. After two years of declines,
annual U.S. travel to Europe is expected to have increased by 2.8
percent by the time 2003 figures are finalized, with nearly
11-million flight departures, according to research from both the
Office of Travel and Tourism Industries at the U.S. Department of
Commerce and New York-based Donald N. Martin and Company Inc.
The European Travel Commission estimates that, this year, U.S.
travel to Europe could increase from 3 to 7 percent, based upon
In California, European tourism offices are as busy as they’ve
been in recent memory. The Switzerland Tourism office in Santa
Monica, Calif., which serves the Western U.S. and Mexico, reported
a 4.6 percent increase in travel from the U.S. to Switzerland in
December compared to the same month last year.
“With joy, we are seeing how the working spaces of our trade
partners are occupied again,” says an elated Michael Schandroch,
manager of the office. “When asking for training sessions, we can
hardly find any free slots because the reservationists are so busy.
Americans are a curious and appreciative traveler. They will not,
in the mid- and long-run, be subdued in their eagerness to
In Los Angeles, the phone messages and e-mails are flying at the
VisitBritain office. There were 241,000 visitors to the U.K. last
December, up 14 percent from the previous December.
Agents are finding many deals to please their England-bound
clients: The Athenaeum Hotel and Apartments in London is offering
special pound-for-dollar rates, which provide U.S. visitors about
40 percent in savings. The rates are available through April
Virgin Vacations is offering “buy one/get one free” tickets to
“Thoroughly Modern Millie” through May 6. VisitBritain itself
offers a Great British Heritage Pass that provides free entry into
more than 600 stately homes, castles and properties throughout the
Also in Los Angeles, the German National Tourist Office is
handling double its previous number of inquiries from agents and
tour operators, and its “Destination Germany” road show in February
was immediately sold out in Orange County, Calif., Los Angeles,
Portland, Ore., and Vancouver. Nearly one-quarter of U.S. visitors
to Germany are from the West Coast.
Universally, tourism officials and tour operators say that
California is the hottest state for agents, but that the Western
region in general is very strong. The Italian Government Tourist
Board is seeing a more than 5 percent increase in activity, with
the number of U.S. travelers to Italy in 2003 estimated at 3.3
million. About 30 percent of those travelers arrive from the
“The West Coast American is an especially good traveler for our
country,” says Enzo Colombo, the Los Angeles-based travel
commissioner for Italy. “It is a more educated, sophisticated and
culturally curious group of people. They are interested in the
culinary quality of life, as well as good wine. In the West, they
know more about wine than any other place in America.”
Of particular interest these days are smaller Italian
destinations such as Cortona, the village featured in the book and
film “Under the Tuscan Sun.” These kinds of towns are less crowded
and more affordable than the more familiar-sounding destinations
such as Rome, which helps offset the decline in the U.S.
Tour operators are reaping the rewards. Tauck World Discovery
eschewed the move by some tour operators to add surcharges onto
Europe prices set last fall. “Fortunately, when we set our prices
last September, we had the financial strength to buy millions of
Euros when the dollar was much stronger, so we will not have to
absorb as much of the difference in exchange rates as many other
tour operators,” said President Robin Tauck. “Our pricing integrity
is a core element in our relationship with our agents and
Bothell, Wash.-based wholesaler EEI Travel saw European bookings
increase by 20 percent last year over 2002.
“The top destination for forward bookings is Italy for us,” says
CEO Paul Barry. “The frequent traveler knows that air capacity is
quite restricted to Italy, and they need to book early in order to
find space. For the other top destinations of Britain and France,
our clients know that there are more air options, so they can
Littleton, Colo.-based tour operator Globus and Cosmos is seeing
a more than 50 percent increase in European travel from the U.S.
this year. As for specific countries, Italy and Britain are up more
than 100 percent.
“Baby boomers are helping lead this increase they’re exploding
for us,” says Steve Born, director of marketing for Globus and
Cosmos. “Last year, a third of our travelers were boomers, and this
While Globus and Cosmos implemented a 6 percent average
surcharge since setting prices in September, the dollar has
weakened 16 percent against European currency, so the packages are
still a relative bargain.
Ramsey, N.J.-based GoGo Worldwide Vacations is seeing nearly
twice the amount of Europe business as it did in 2003. It helps
that the wholesaler has convinced its hotel partners to increase
the availability of rooms at contracted rates, resulting in, for
example, the recent lead price for a three-night, air-inclusive
(from New York) London package for $299 per person.
“London is our hottest destination,” says Beth Kaplan, director
of European marketing at GoGo. “As a great add-on, we also can
reserve seats for some top-running shows in London, like ‘The Lion
King’ and ‘Phantom’.”
With more than a quarter-century as a top escorted tour and
cruise wholesaler to Europe and the eastern Mediterranean, Anaheim,
Calif.-based Insight Vacations is reporting a 40 percent increase
in bookings for 2004 over last year.
A recent promo that ended on Feb. 15 helped, with a “buy one/get
one at 50 percent off brochure air” sale. Italy, Ireland, Spain,
the United Kingdom and Eastern Europe are the hot spots right
“Our phones are ringing off the hook,” says Insight President
Marc Kazlauskas. “It’s all about pent-up demand. Consumers love
Europe and have put off going there for three years now. With the
economy improving, consumers feel more confident in spending for a
trip there.” Insight pays a minimum of 10 percent commission on
land and 10 percent on air.
Not all the demand is coming from the last-minute,
bargain-hunting crowd either. Wholesaler Business Travel
International reports that this year’s bookings are up 10 percent
so far on the corporate side; leisure travel is up 5 percent.
“I detect a slight reversal in the trend to book at the extreme
last moment,” says Alexandra Lorenzen, vice president and COO at
BTI’s New York office. “Some of our customers are planning for
meetings and conventions a few months in advance again. Leisure
business is picking up as well, with a lot of families traveling to
classic European destinations such as Rome, Paris, London and
Milan. Many have elaborate itineraries now, with up to six
destinations for 10 to 20 days.” Commissions range from 8 to 10
As for France and that whole “freedom fries” blowup? Why, that’s
so forgotten and forgiven. Agents are too busy booking trips for
Americans who are tres enchantés with the idea of going to Paris to
even think about hard feelings.
Scottsdale, Ariz.-based wholesaler Discover France saw December
2003 sales soar 114 percent from December 2002, with strong sales
to Paris and Tour de France tour bookings at an all-time high. The
active-traveler outfit is marketing tours that start at $689 for
four nights, with many seven-night tours still priced at less than
$1,000. Commission rates are 8 percent for travel agents, and 10
percent for Discover France-certified agents.
“France is coming back,” says Loren Siekman, president of
Discover France. “The outcome of the war and questions of the U.S.
government’s intentions have caused the media to let drop the
French position. Once it is out of the media, the populace seems to
forget. Also, the segment of the population that travels to France
and Europe tends to be of higher education and income and is
perhaps less susceptible to media propaganda and politics of the
Savings abound in myriad ways. Valdagno, Italy-based Jolly
Hotels, which pays 8.5 percent commission, is offering discounts of
up to 50 percent for weekend stays at four-star properties through
December when booked seven days or less in advance. Sample prices
include Rome and Milan for $86 a night.
Rail Europe and Destination Europe Resources are offering a free
France Railpass this summer to veterans of the battle of Normandy,
to mark the 60th anniversary of D-Day. For other travelers, it’s
also offering a special, three-day France Railpass for $199, valid
for travel between June 1 and Aug. 31. (For more on D-Day packages,
see box below.)
Cruise lines are also reaping the rewards of the boom. Crystal
Cruises reports that European bookings increased 57 percent over
the last year, with one recent week posting a 300 percent increase
over the same week in 2003.
With the U.S. dollar so weak, Americans are more likely to book
a cruise, as even something as simple as nail polish can cost U.S.
visitors $23 in Europe. Seabourn Cruise Line touted cruising as a
hedge against the weaker dollar simply by paying for European
luxury in advance with U.S. currency. Seabourn’s tagline for the
summer: “The Yachts of Seabourn: Keeping your dollar strong in
Europe this year.”
Sidebar: D-Day Tours
With the 60th anniversary of D-Day being celebrated on June 6
this year, interest is high for travel to England and France. Here,
some appropriate packages.
Bicycle and walking tours of Normandy, priced at $795 for four
nights on bike and $1,319 for a seven-night walking tour.
Globus and Cosmos
Cosmos tour packages to France visit the landing beaches of
Normandy, the Arromanches, St. Laurent and the American Military
Cemetery. Nine- and 15-day tours from $659 land only.
Globus offers three French trips that include the Memorial
Museum for Peace, the American Military Cemetery and the Rangers
Memorial at Point du Hoc. Nine- to 14-day packages start at $1,029
A 10-day tour to Normandy, Brittany and the Loire Valley
includes visits to Omaha Beach, the American Military Cemetery and
the bunkers and Rangers’ memorial at Pointe du Hoc. Priced from
$1,425 land only.
Clipper Cruise Line
The 122-passenger Clipper Adventurer offers three different
voyages that visit the battlefields of Normandy. One, a 12-day
journey, includes visits to the American Military Cemetery; Utah
Beach, including the Airborne Museum in Sainte-Mere Eglise; the
Museé de Debarquement in Arromanches; the Patton Monument near
Avranches; Portsmouth’s D-Day Museum and more. Rates start at
$4,840, double, including all shore excursions and three nights at
the Churchill InterContinental in London. Departures are May 23,
May 30 (with a full day at Caen and Honfleur for the landing
beaches on June 6) and June 6.
Holland America Line
The Noordam is operating an 11-day Dover roundtrip departing
June 2. Ports of call include an overnight at Cherbourg, Saint-Malo
and Honfluer, France. Prices start at $1,539.
The Insignia, scheduled to makes its debut April 3, is offering
two-for-one fares from $2,499 per person on a 14-day cruise from
Lisbon to London. Ports of call include Honfleur, Saint-Malo,
Plymouth and Arromanches. Two-for-one airfares also are available,
priced at $650 per person from LAX.
Normandy Tourist Board
Normandie Mémoire 60ème Anniversaire
French Government Tourist Office