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Many see a rebound for international travel in 2010

At first glance, the pyramids of Egypt, the jungles of Peru and the safaris of South Africa may not seem to relate much to current economic travel trends that have sparked

Exotic locations such as the Egyptian pyramids at Gaza are gaining American travelers’ interest. Courtesy Collette Vacations

the term “staycation.” However, a rising demand for tours to more exotic corners of the globe continues despite other downturns in international travel.

Although many travelers are still seeking retreats in their own backyards, the World Tourism Organization projects that international tourism in Africa, Central America and South America will continue to climb.

One reason for this unlikely connection between recession and exotic travel lies in the fact that the desire to explore other cultures has not diminished, causing vacationers to save their money toward once-in-a-lifetime trips to far-off places such as Australia and Antarctica, versus two or three trips they may have taken elsewhere.

Because of this development and other trends, such as tempting deals, enticing promotional campaigns and government legislation, many travel experts remain optimistic about the future of international travel despite the recession and current downturn in the United States’ inbound and outbound traffic.

A bright spot in Bavaria: Oberammergau 2010

Travel to Europe could get a boost in 2010 as visitors from all over the world flock to Germany for the Oberammergau Passion Play.

Oberammergau is a small Bavarian village with one major claim to fame: Since 1634, the villagers have performed a re-enactment of Christ’s death and resurrection once a decade in fulfillment of a pledge they made when they were spared from the bubonic plague. Today, the Oberammergau Passion Play is the largest and best-attended passion play in the world.

The performances at Oberammergau take place five times a week from mid-May to early October, and in past years, they have seen between 400,000 and 500,000 attendees over that period. Though international travel has been down this year, many people in the industry are optimistic that this high-profile event will draw some visitors to Europe who might ordinarily have stayed home.

Tickets for Oberammergau went on sale in summer 2008. Tour operators in Europe and North America have been promoting Oberammergau packages since then, offering a wide array of trips built around attending the play. Many of the itineraries include visits to nearby countries, such as Switzerland, Austria and Italy; others go farther, taking travelers to other places of religious significance throughout Europe.

If the well-publicized Oberammergau Passion Play draws the kinds of crowds that it has in the past, 2010 could be the year that Europe — and international travel in general — sees a significant rebound.



The World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) predicts that although worldwide tourism activity noticeably dropped in the second half of 2008, 2010 should mark the reversal of this trend, with growing numbers of people dusting off their passports to sample some of what the wide world has to offer.

Opting for out of the ordinary

During 2008, when economic tidings seemed filled with doom and gloom, many Americans decided to stay within U.S. borders. The Department of Commerce determined that the country’s outbound market decreased by 1 percent from 2007, with overseas regions and Canada feeling the most dramatic declines, 1 percent and 7 percent, respectively.

Many global tour operators, such as the Globus Family of Brands, have taken this decrease in stride because of the continued interest in international travel despite the lower numbers.

“The only thing that has made this year tough is the economy,” said Jennifer Halboth, director of marketing for the Globus Family of Brands. “People want to travel internationally more than ever, but because of the economy, people are waiting. It’s been a tough year, but we’re not going to worry about it, because there is so much we can’t control. We are encouraged, because people are still booking travel.”

Although Americans took fewer trips in 2008, for the fifth consecutive year, they spent a record amount of money while traveling internationally — $112.3 billion, a spike of 7 percent from 2007.

Other records broken show that many U.S. residents still crave trips to more unconventional foreign destinations, with an increase of American travelers to Colombia, Israel, Turkey, India and Egypt. South America also set a regional record for U.S. outbound visits between 1999 and 2008.

Tour operators like Collette Vacations are quick to notice such changes in preference and alter their tours accordingly.

“There is a trend toward more exotic locations,” said Paula Twidale, executive vice president of Collette Vacations. “When people take the time to pull back on their expenses, their trips become more focused. They go to destinations they have always wanted to go. The more exotic locations have become more mainstream, such as Israel, Egypt, South Africa and Mexico.”

Victory cigars in the future?

Since Fidel Castro took over the government of Cuba in 1959, few Americans have been allowed to travel freely between the two countries. Recently, however, signs indicate there may be a chance the United States will lift the long-standing travel ban if the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act passes Congress.

Already this April, President Barack Obama lifted restrictions against Cuban Americans visiting Cuba that have been in effect since 1982. Travel to Cuba is now authorized for family members of Cuban citizens, government officials, academics and those who qualify for special licenses to enter Cuba.

The U.S. International Trade Commission estimates that 1 million Americans would visit Cuba a year if the travel ban were ended. Right after the bill was announced in April, the National Tour Association (NTA) declared its support.

“The NTA has supported this issue for many years, and we now stand strongly behind the passage of this legislation,” said NTA president Lisa Simon. “Americans should have the opportunity to explore the world unfettered by travel and currency restrictions, and we anticipate a very high demand for tours to Cuba through our tour operator members.”

Though it might be a while before all Americans have the option of smoking Cuban cigars in Cuba, more steps have been taken to make it possible in the future.


People seeking out nonmainstream locations often desire smaller groups and more adventure-prone activities, which is why tour operators such as Collette and Globus have developed brands marketed toward this clientele. Collette has even started cruises to Antarctica to ensure easy access for world travelers looking to check off the seventh continent.

Though the European countries still attract the most overseas vacationers, new group tours to South America make visiting places once thought too difficult to navigate now a breeze to book.

“Europe is still our bread and butter, but we’ve also seen an increase in travel to South America, the South Pacific and Asia,” said Halboth.
Halboth said

The current economy is generating once-in-a-lifetime deals to places such as England. Courtesy Globus Family of Brands

that although Globus has developed special programs for adventure-seekers in exotic locations, many groups traveling to such destinations want to see tried-and-true places like Buenos Aires, Argentina; Hong Kong; or Beijing.

“So many haven’t traveled to those parts of the world that they think, ‘I may never get back here, so I’m not going to do something too off the beaten path,’” she said.

Baiting the hook

With all these great locations, the question becomes how to attract the hesitant traveler who can’t determine whether to hop on an outbound plane or stay put.

Inbound recovery could be a simple vote away

The United States welcomed 58 million foreign visitors in 2008, despite a 6 percent drop in fourth-quarter arrivals to the country, according the U.S. Commerce Department. The overall 4 percent increase in traffic visiting the United States since 2007 still has not rebounded from pre-Sept. 11, 2001, numbers, which means the nation remains behind other countries’ international visitor numbers.

“The U.S. Commerce Department projected we will be down 8 percent this year in travel to the United States,” said Kristy Chandler, director of communications for the U.S. Travel Association (USTA). “We had 633,000 fewer overseas visitors in 2008 than in 2000.  That means we haven’t captured many of the new travelers who are starting to travel internationally since September 11th.”

Studies by USTA cited a list of probable causes for this dip in inbound movement, including a complicated entry process, a perception that the United States is unfriendly to tourists and a lack of advertising to other countries.

“Right now we aren’t spending anything to promote the U.S. when other countries are spending millions to promote themselves,” said Chandler. “I think there is a lot of competition for the travel dollar worldwide, and we need to give ourselves every advantage.”

One way the USTA plans to make that happen is through the Travel Promotion Act, which will direct $200 million into luring foreign visitors and improving communications about U.S. entry policies. Oxford Economics estimates that the bill, which is cosponsored by more than half the Senate and is expected to pass before the year is out, will generate $4 billion in new economic stimulus each year.

“The bill is expected to bring in 1.6 million new international visitors a year,” said Chandler. “We have to take a proactive role in welcoming visitors to the United States. Overseas travel creates a significant way of generating tax revenues and creating jobs in the United States.”

Though the United States joins other countries in forecasting a dip in international guest numbers for 2009, the bill is encouraging to many travel organizations in the country in their hope for unprecedented growth in the years to come.

“If you think you can travel now, you should, because you will never see deals this good again,” said Halboth. “It’s the perfect storm for the traveler. We are seeing the international deals bringing in the sales, because it is such a great opportunity.”

Record-low international cruise prices, door-to-door transfers, air-inclusive trips and buy-one-get-one-passenger-free deals make dream vacations hard to pass up, even for the cautious. The importance for many tour operators becomes getting the word out about slashed prices and the benefits of group travel.

“People that have been thinking of putting off their plans may decide to go, because we are offering them great deals today,” said Twidale. “International destinations can cost fuel charges, bad currency exchanges and other hidden fees, but with an escorted tour, the customer gets more value for their money when they go to those destinations.”

Tourism agencies for countries like Switzerland also try to highlight their savings to potential travelers, as well as emphasize the aspects of the country that put it on the map in the first place. For example, Switzerland Tourism’s latest campaign, titled “We do everything to make your holidays perfect,” touches on the country’s attention to detail and cleanliness. One image portrays an alpine farmer fixing a cowbell to ensure it has the right pitch.

“In these difficult economic times, we don’t want to pull back,” said Mirko Capodanno, Central United States and Canada manager for Switzerland Tourism. “We want to let our tour operators and group leaders know that if you come to Switzerland, we go the extra mile to make your stay in Switzerland perfect.

“Everything in Switzerland is known for being on time and tidy. We want to take that a step further and prove that.”

Switzerland Tourism’s campaign to attract international travel focuses on some of the country’s most famous attributes, such as its cleanliness and beauty.

Courtesy Switzerland Tourism

A Closer Look Tours, which books tours exclusively to Mexico, is taking a similar approach by focusing on some of the core qualities that generated more interest in the region initially, such as the cultural background of the country. This technique differs from concentration on deep price cuts.

“Our train of thought is when you make drastic discounts, it says your product was way overpriced in the first place,” said Colin Caparros, director of operations for A Closer Look Tours. “We continue to show how much Mexico has to offer with culture, history and natural wonders. We are trying to educate people on all that’s down there to go see.”

Mexico has had a harder time at promotions during the current economy than other countries because of the H1N1 virus media coverage, which caused a crash in tourism numbers this spring.

“Things are starting to turn around, because people are realizing the swine flu scare and security threats were blown way out of proportion,” said Caparros. “People are booking again. We’re more of a cultural experience of Mexico, so the nature of our customers is that they are more aware and informed than many others, which helps.”

Although setbacks in travel from virus threats and economic recessions have made 2009 a tough year for international travel, a projection by the WTTC in March still predicts a turnaround by 2010 and a growth of 3.6 percent in the world’s travel industry over the next 10 years.

“People are starting to wake up and realize they haven’t traveled in a year, and they are ready to go,” said Halboth. “I see international travel exploding in the next couple of years. There is a lot of pent-up desire to visit Europe. People are also chomping at the bit to experience places like South America and Asia.”

According to the National Travel Leisure Monitor, one of four American leisure travelers believe vacation is a birthright, especially among the younger generation. Statistics like these and the ease, affordability and desire for international travel keep many travel industry experts expecting people’s passports to stay in action for years to come.