As predicted, Europe summer travel up

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NEW YORK -- Travel to Europe this summer was as brisk as tourism officials had publicly predicted in spring, with the healthy economy, strong dollar and special events bolstering the boom.

A spokesman for the 30-member European Travel Commission (ETC) here said summer and fall increases over 1999 will be in the 5% range based on preliminary figures, in line with a projected 12. 2 million arrivals for 2000.

"We're happy with the growth but it was limited by air capacity, which was tight this summer," the ETC spokesman said. "The airlines were operating with 80%-90% load factors, which is really high, so we believe the growth might have been even greater if the seats had been there."

The largest industry sales increases were reported by operators who focused on Oberammergau, the once-a-decade Passion Play held in Bavaria, Germany.

DER Travel Services in Rosemont, Ill., for instance, reported a 406% jump in its group business and an 86% increase in FITs this summer.

A spokeswoman said the growth was not atypical for the German-owned operator in an Oberammergau year, although it was the first time DER offered FIT packages to the event.

The spokeswoman also attributed heavy volume to the Jubilee Holy Year in Italy; well-publicized millennium events in Great Britain, and the strong U.S. dollar, which is worth about 25% more than last summer in the 11 European countries that tie their local currency to the fledgling euro.

Central Europe is also in the midst of an arrivals surge following a mediocre summer last year when travelers stayed away because of the war in Yugoslavia, according to Bob Drumm, president of Keene, N.H.-based General Tours.

The firm, which has numerous offerings to central and eastern Europe, is showing a 30% summer increase for escorted and FIT programs to Germany -- where it offered Oberammergau programs -- as well the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary.

"We tripled traffic to Hungary," said Drumm. "This reflects the growing trend of Americans to focus on one country for a more in-depth experience than they were seeking in the past.

"We also did well with the Expo 200 in Hannover, Germany," said Drumm. "We sold out every departure that included the fair."

General Tours' success contrasts sharply with the overall attendance at the fair, which at press time was only 35% of the 263,000 daily attendance originally predicted by organizers.

Meanwhile, Drumm said that the firm's Danube cruises sold out this summer, good news for the company since "last year they were in the dumps because of Kosovo."

However, Drumm's Russian cruise sales continue to be 50% lower than they were in the mid-1990s, a high point in Russian tourism. Subsequent economic woes, an internal war with the republic of Chechnya and overall negative press have caused some travelers to stay away from Russia, Drumm said.

"But Russia is still showing signs of life. Our land-only escorted programs there are up 50%; people taking these trips are much less conservative than those who take cruises. We're going to add three new land programs next year," he said.

Farther west, Italy is benefiting from its move down the list of the most expensive countries to visit in Europe, said Mauro Galli, president of Chicago-based Tourcrafters, an Italy specialist.

"A couple of years back, Italy was the most costly country in Europe for visitors," said Galli, "now it's four or five." Galli's business is up by 20% to 30% this summer.

He also noted that more airlift was available to Italy this year, including American service between Chicago and Rome.

Trafalgar, a major escorted tour operator, was also bullish over summer sales.

Maureen Van Metter, vice president of marketing at New York-based Trafalgar Tours, said the firm's business was up 30% so far, and fall bookings are "currently ahead by 20% over last year."

Commenting on the source of the growth, Van Metter echoed the DER spokeswoman's list of contributing factors, including Oberammergau, a strong economy and the value of the dollar in Europe.

On the FIT side, Michael Henderson, president of Continental Airlines Vacations in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., said summer volume and fall bookings were up 18% to 21% for Europe, with an increase of 57% year-to-date over 1999. The operator's top-selling destination is Great Britain, which is featured in 40% of its packages.

Henderson admitted that much of the increase could be due to the fact that Continental Airlines Vacations only started focusing on Europe this year, two years after launching packaged getaways. The tour operator also increased its European gateways to 17 this year from 12 in 1999.

"Our biggest challenge this summer was the enormous success of load factors to Europe. The robust economy and the absence of major overseas crises has really heated things up," he said.

Henderson didn't put much credence in the theory that a strong dollar caused more people to cross continents.

"People make the decision to travel based on what money that have, not what it will buy," he said, noting that fares went up a modest 5% to 8% this year for transatlantic travel.

European rail showed less dramatic increases this summer, with an improvement of 5% over 1999, a spokeswoman said. Best-selling country passes included France and Switzerland, which were both up by 9%, followed by Italy which grew by 8%.

"We think Europe will continue to be strong for the balance of the year in light of the great promotional fares that are coming out now for fall travel," the spokeswoman said, alluding to the traditional fall air sales to Europe that began last week when US Airways reduced roundtrip prices to several gateways.

Sample fares start as low as $348 from Philadelphia to London (Gatwick) for travel in October.

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