Travel to Europe Improving

After a slow year, Americans appear to be returning to their favorite region in droves.

By: Lisa Jennings

After a slow year in which Europe’s share of U.S. travelers dropped significantly, Americans appear to be returning to their favorite region in droves.

War, fear of terrorism, declining strength of the dollar, and the struggling economy drastically slowed travel to Europe earlier this year. By April, some countries were reporting declines of as much as 30 percent from the previous year.

But the situation is improving as the U.S. economy appears to be gaining strength and the dollar gains against the euro. By the end of July, year-to-date figures for U.S. travel to Europe were only down 4 percent, according to the Office of Travel and Tourism Industries in the U.S. Department of Commerce.

And with suppliers in Europe rolling out an abundance of deals and discounts, U.S. tour operators in recent weeks have reported a surge in bookings through the end of the year and into 2004.

The increase is positive news for U.S. travel agencies, as well as European countries.

Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, U.S. travel to Europe has declined steadily despite the fact that the region remains a top travel-destination choice.

U.S. travel to France so far has suffered the most this year, in part because of clashing politics between the two nations over the Iraq war.

“The French are hurting more than the Brits, but not a lot more,” said Neil Martin, U.S. spokesman for the European Travel Commission.

Some tour operators said bookings to France continue to lag other European nations’, but the French Government Tourist Office estimates that arrivals for November and December will reach 2002 levels.

Overall for 2003, about 2.6 million Americans are expected to visit France, a 12 percent drop over the previous year, according to the French tourist office.

April was the worst month, showing almost a 30 percent decline, but improvement began in May and a slight increase is expected this month.

The United Kingdom also saw a drop in North American visitors (which includes Canadian travelers). By the end of April, North American travelers were down 13 percent over 2002 figures.

But by the end of September, North American travelers were down only 7 percent, indicating improvement.

And for the month of September alone, U.S. travelers to the U.K. were up 14 percent over September 2002.

“We are slowly pulling back, which is what we predicted,” said Sarah Long, media relations manager for Visit Britain in New York.

U.S. travel to Germany from January through August was down 8.6 percent compared with the previous year.

Victoria Larson, public relations manager for the German National Tourist Office, said, “We’re hoping that’s going to improve by the end of the year. We think it will.”

In a survey of American Express travel counselors released in October, popular destinations for 2004 included Italy, Greece and Great Britain, particularly London.

For travel throughout Europe, deals and discounts abound, particularly for early bookings into 2004.

Trans-Atlantic airfare can be found for as low as $287 (Los Angeles to London), and, as a result, package deals are offering more value for travelers’ money. Nordique Tours, for example, is offering a six-day Helsinki package for $399, including air (from New York on Finnair), three nights hotel and daily breakfast.

Intrepid last month launched a line of new tours to Europe and is offering an early bird special of 10 percent off all trips departing prior to May 31, 2004.

Both Trafalgar and sister company Insight Vacations are offering $99 companion fares for travel to Europe.

Trafalgar’s president John Severini said the offer “adds frosting to the cake” for Americans returning to Europe.

“What we’re hearing from agents is that this companion program is a huge lever and spark for getting travel back to Europe, which has already started to come back,” said Severini.

For the first week in November, Abercrombie & Kent had twice the number of bookings for Europe and European river barge tours as the same week in 2002 even though this year’s “Great Journeys of Europe” brochure had not yet been released, except on the company’s Web site, said Pamela Lassers, A&K spokeswoman.

Tauck World Discovery’s 2004 bookings were up 50 percent over the same period last year, said Kendra St. John, director of communications.

Italy and Ireland have been selling well, but France and Germany remain slow, said St. John.

St. John noted, however, that next year’s 60th anniversary of D-Day is likely to draw interest among U.S. travelers.

“We’ve seen some very good numbers to Europe,” said Scott Nisbet, executive director of customer acquisition and retention for Group Voyagers Inc., the parent company of Globus and Cosmos.

Italy, which remained strong through 2003 as a destination, was the No. 1 choice, replacing the United Kingdom, which has been the most popular destination for Globus and Cosmos for years, said Nisbet.

Bookings to the U.K. are improving, and bookings to Alpine countries, Spain and Ireland are particularly strong, he added.