Austria posts 15% rise in U.S. arrivals in 1998

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INNSBRUCK, Austria -- The mood at the 24th annual Austrian Travel Business fair here was celebratory, as the country marked an increase of 1 million international arrivals in 1998 -- including a 15.7% surge in Americans -- following six years of declining visitor numbers.

The boost in American arrivals makes the U.S. the second-most important international market for Vienna, Austria's capital. The German market takes the No. 1 spot. Total arrivals for 1998 were 24.9 million, a 4.2% increase compared with 1997. Last year, 669,000 Americans traveled to Austria, representing the largest improvement since the Persian Gulf war recovery in 1992.

U.S. tour operators and agents attending the ATB reported record growth in their business to Austria. They attributed the growth to a host of factors such as the robust U.S. economy and a rise in the greenback's exchange rate from 8.5 schillings in 1996 to 11.5 schillings today.

Brenda James, executive vice president of Los Angeles-based Ski Connections, which reported a 25% increase in business to Austria last year, said the country provided the best value for European ski vacations. "Thirteen years ago, we sold a one-week trip to Innsbruck for $1,000 with air, transfers, accommodations and two meals daily; we're still offering it at this price," she said.

Austria's marketing practices were singled out by delegates as a force behind the visitor momentum. Patricia Sullivan Dimino, owner of Patrician Journeys in Livingston, N.J., credited much of her success with Austria to her participation in the Austrian Certified Travel Specialist program run by the Austrian National Tourist Office. The program launched an agent-referral service two years ago and now, Dimino said, she gets a few client referrals each day. "This helps because Austria's advertising has not been as intense as its neighbors, like Switzerland and Germany," she said.

Austria's relationships with its neighbors has boosted the music-oriented tours of Werner Schwager, president of Travel Planner International in Arlington Heights, Ill. "Interest in Austria is on the rise, but it is still superceded by the newer destinations of Prague and Berlin. Our best sellers are opera tours that feature Budapest, Prague and Vienna," he said, citing a trend that could be spotted in the dozens of U.S. tour brochures on display here, many of which package the three cities together.

U.S. tour offerings to Austria are up by 20% this year, according to the Austrian tourist office in New York. Many of the new entries will highlight this year's promotional theme, a tribute to composer Johann Strauss.

Michal Barzsap, president of ITS Tours in College Station, Texas, said the past five years have brought him a 60% to 70% increase in tour business to Austria. "Americans are beginning to be interested in the lesser-known towns and cities such as Linz and Klagenfurt; our business shows they want something more than the famous capitals of Europe," he said.

Austria's changing reputation on the international political scene also was on the minds of some delegates. Sandy Cutrone, owner of European Connection in Roslyn Heights, N.Y., said she lost business in the late 1980s and early 1990s from a key sector, the Jewish market.

After the election of Kurt Waldheim, who served as Austria's president from 1986 to 1992 and was accused of having ties to the Nazi party during World War II, Cutrone said many of her clients "wouldn't touch the country." "Now, [Jewish clients] are coming back," she said.

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