A Changing Tide?

Optimism blooms despite war, SARS and the economy

By: Lisa Jennings and R. Scott Macintosh

Maybe it was wishful thinking, but some travel agents last week were reporting a subtle shift a quiet mood change among the traveling public. World events continue to cast a shadow on the travel industry. The war in Iraq is far from over. Reports of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS, are increasing in China and Hong Kong even as health officials lifted the travel warning on Vietnam and Toronto. And the economic outlook remains largely dismal. But anecdotally, agents say that clients who have been delaying travel are starting to come out of the woodwork. And it won’t be long, they add, before the floodgates will open and that long-awaited pent-up demand everyone has talked about will have arrived. Yaye Karasawa of Travel International in Los Angeles said she has felt it. Her agency was extremely busy at the end of April, she said. “Now that the Iraq war has settled down they want to leave yesterday.” SARS continues to deter travel to Asia, and Karasawa said her clients are avoiding Paris as a result of tensions over the war. But the Europhiles are going to Italy instead of France, and South Africa also is selling well, she said. “‘And I have more people on cruise ships after this thing with Iraq than anything else.” Doris Jones, co-owner of Pete Ward Travel & Cruise Center in Lake Oswego, Ore., also saw business pick up at the end of April, especially in the higher-end leisure travel category. “Enough time has passed,” Jones said. “They’re either frustrated about staying at home, or they’ve decided it’s time to go on with their lives.” When asked which has affected her agency more - the war or SARS - Jones echoed many agents’ sentiments: “Along with the economy, it’s a real combination.” Sue Turner, owner of Vacation Boutique in Newport Beach, Calif., blamed “the whole enchilada” -- war, SARS and the economy for “flatlining” her business. A specialist in luxury FIT travel, tours and cruises, Turner said her affluent clients are complaining that their investments have taken a huge hit in the economic downturn so travel plans are on hold. Recently, though, they’re talking about travel more but “I’m not getting commitments,” Turner said. The war in Iraq may not be over but, when the U.S. alert status was lowered from orange to yellow, travelers apparently felt more at ease. Then SARS became a more pressing threat to some businesses. Peter Lacy, vice president of Go Away Travel in Toronto, said the SARS scare has the potential of being “bigger than 9/11.” “As soon as it started, we definitely noticed a slowdown in business,” said Lacy, whose agency, an affiliate of Global Network Travel in Los Angeles, handles a lot of travel to the South Pacific. “What we’re not sure about is how much the SARS issue is going to affect business,” he said. “Right now there is still uncertainty.” Anil Ramineni, a Los Angeles-based travel consultant specializing in India and Europe, said even his West Coast clients want to be routed through London to India so they can avoid SARS-affected nations. And Jeri L. Techman at Travel Express in Fresno, Calif., said she has seen corporate travel to China drop significantly. Also, her clients were wary of Toronto, which was briefly included in travel warnings. Still, she reports big bookings for Scandinavia, Russian cruises, Alaska and Hawaii, and honeymoon business is up. “While our leisure clients are planning three months out instead of six months, they’re still going,” said Techman. “So that’s good news.”