Traveler Editor on War's Effect

April 3, 2003

Just when the travel industry seemed back on track, war broke out in Iraq. Now, many travelers are postponing their trips or canceling their plans altogether, sinking hotel and airline revenue. But war is no excuse to stay home, says Traveler Editor Keith Bellows. Deals abound, and many destinations are more affordable than ever. Here Bellows discusses what travelers can expect in the coming months, where to go this summer, and more.

Has France's tourist trade been hit especially hard since the French government opposed the war?

There's no question that fewer Americans are traveling to France, though it's difficult to give exact figures. But it's significant to note that fewer Americans are traveling anywhere abroad. People are watching the progress of the war and their pocketbooks. So when they travel, they will go at the last minute and take advantage of the astonishing deals that are out there right now. British Airways, for example, was recently offering flights from New York to Paris or London for less than $300 round-trip. All bets are off, though, if the SARS epidemic spreads and becomes more serious.

How important is American money to other countries and to the travel industry overall?

It depends on the country. Americans contribute a lot but not nearly as much as people think. Let's take France, for instance. More people from the Netherlands, Germany, and Britain go to France than Americans. And as the Chinese, for example, start traveling more, America will become increasingly less important. If you look at the impact of 9/11, you'll see that before this war started, tourism was back on track with year 2000 figures. Were as many Americans traveling? No. And fewer people were traveling to America. They were redirecting their trips to other places in the world. So it's a bit misleading to say that Americans have driven the world tourism industry.

Where are people going right now?

The usual suspects: the Caribbean, Canada, and Europe—because of the great deals right now. Eastern European countries like Slovakia and Croatia are reporting significant increases in tourism. That's because these destinations are inexpensive, unheralded, and in some respects, farther from the war action than other European countries. Australia and New Zealand are also very popular, and cruise lines are attracting a lot of business. Africa is doing well right now, because for many, traveling there is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Trips to Africa are usually planned at least a year in advance and they can be relatively expensive, so people are reluctant to cancel them. Americans will also pick trips close to home this summer. Oil prices could put a damper on their plans, but probably not.

How can travelers help protect themselves when venturing abroad?

Obviously, don't dress like a tourist. You want to stay away from hotels that are frequented by Americans. The idea is to look as inconspicuous as possible and stay away from areas where lots of tourists congregate. I would not, for example, travel to areas where squadrons of tourists climb on a bus and go from one place to another. That's just asking for problems.

How has the war affected the tourism industry thus far?

Traditionally most Americans have taken their summer trips by car. But this year we'll see a little wrinkle in that trend. As many of the major airlines cut their routes, either by going out of business or by significantly altering their travel patterns, Jet Blue and Southwest will snap up more of the market share by offering cheap flights. So it will depend on whether you want to spend nine hours driving from point A to B, or spend two hours flying for only $50 more. Hotels are significantly discounting their rates, and luxury hotels report that business is down by 15 percent or more. Places like Florida and Hawaii are offering big discounts. So the next step will be for some hotel chains to consolidate or go out of business.

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