Friday, May 28, 2004

More Americans setting off again to explore world



By Brad Foss
The Associated Press

Sharon Jones will travel abroad this summer for the first time since the Sept. 11 attacks.

"Last year I was still frightened and had no desire to do that," said Jones, of Columbus. Now, eager to dip her toes into international waters again, the part-time teacher will take her son and daughter-in-law to Cancun, Mexico.

"This is mama's treat," said Jones, who shelled out $4,500 for a weeklong, all-expenses-paid trip.

With more Americans like Jones putting aside concerns about terrorism or the economy and giving in to their wanderlust, the international travel industry's prospects look brighter this summer.

"There is a lot of pent-up demand that is being released right now," said Mark Masuda, vice president of supplier relations at Plymouth, Minn.-based Carlson Wagonlit Travel Inc., the world's second-largest travel firm.

It is too soon to tell whether that trend will be significantly affected by a warning from the Bush administration, just days before Memorial Day weekend, that al-Qaida is determined to launch an attack in the United States in the next few months.

Because many Americans postponed trip-planning last spring, when major combat in Iraq was under way, comparing travel demand this summer with a year ago can be somewhat misleading. Moreover, traces of the industry's recent struggles remain - most airlines have yet to regain profitability and consumers are still using the bargain-hunting skills they honed when money was tighter.

Mark Travel Corp. of Milwaukee, which specializes in trips to Mexico and the Caribbean, said bookings are up 15 percent to 20 percent compared with last year.

"Keep in mind, though, that last year at this time we had just declared war in Iraq and numbers had fallen off the cliff," said Tammy Lee, vice president of corporate affairs.

Many Americans are spending more than they did a year ago, travel agents said, either because they're booking higher-end trips or because availability is tighter and companies are able to boost rates.

"Those who wait to the last minute to book," Lee said, referring to a strategy employed by bargain hunters in recent years, "will not be getting the good deals that they saw a year ago."

While bookings have been better than expected, particularly to Europe, where the weak dollar makes it more expensive for Americans to travel, it will likely be another year before revenues reach the levels of summer 2000, a benchmark for the industry's good times, according to Scott Supernaw, vice president of sales and marketing at Tauck Inc., a Norwalk, Conn., tour operator.

Indeed, travelers are not opening their wallets without careful consideration of what they get for their money. Supernaw said the company's reservation agents are spending more time on the phone with customers than ever before as travelers analyze trip itineraries line by line and verify that published brochures are accurate.

"They're making a decision that's probably more like the way they buy a car," he said.




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