Italy, Greece and Turkey feel effects of Balkan crisis

NEW YORK -- Italy, Greece and Turkey are feeling the effects of an anxious American public leery of planning vacations in the vicinity of the Balkans, most operators and agents specializing in the three Mediterranean countries said.

Perillo Tours in Woodcliff Lake, N.J., is "off about 15% [to Italy] between the loss of new bookings and cancellations," Stephen Perillo, the company's president, said. The cancellations are on tours that travel throughout Italy, not on programs that visit just the Adriatic Coast, Perillo said, where U.S. air bases involved in the NATO air bombing campaign are located.

"If people are afraid for irrational reasons, they're not going to book the whole country. Some clients have asked us whether their visit would be marred by the sounds of NATO planes taking off. I mean, you can't combat perception," said Perillo.

Charles Schmitt, an agent with Free World Travel in New York, said forward bookings to Europe are down 25% at his agency. "The inquiry level for Italy right now is next to nil. Most leisure travelers are holding off on booking Italy. But none already booked have canceled," he said. "We're at the cusp of when people make the decisions for summer," Schmitt noted.

Violet Portaro, an agent for All Seasons Travel in New York, told TW she has three clients who are holding off on booking their trips to Italy. "They were planning to go to Venice, then drive to Rome and Naples in July and August."

But she added that other clients are going ahead with their travel plans. "We have three clients [who left] April 15 for Trieste. We do advise clients going to this area that they might hear NATO planes taking off from the base in Aviano, [Italy], which is between Venice and Trieste." Portaro said forward bookings are a little slower than last year at this time.

The operators Globus & Cosmos, Maupintour, Tauck Tours and Tourlite reported declines in the rate of new business to Greece and Turkey, as well as some cancellations of existing bookings.

A spokeswoman for Lawrence, Kan.-based Maupintour said bookings have slipped between 5% and 10% compared with the same time last year. The company has had cancellations for Greece and Turkey programs, but not at a rate high enough to force the cancellation of scheduled departures, the spokeswoman said.

At Globus & Cosmos, based in Littleton, Colo., chief operating officer Phillip Gordon said there have been "a few" cancellations to Greece and Turkey, and the rate of new bookings has slowed. "Where possible, we're encouraging people to schedule a tour later in the season," he said.

Peter Tauck, president of Tauck Tours in Westport, Conn., said sales of vacation packages to Greece are "relatively flat, with a few individuals choosing an alternative destination or canceling. Today, what we're seeing is no new demand, with a net of minus-one or minus-two bookings a day, which isn't critical," Tauck said.

It's a different story for Valerie Athans, vice president of New York-based Tourlite, who said advance bookings to Greece are down 20% at her company, compared with the same period last year. "Unfortunately, Americans appear to be under some misconception about Greece's location" with respect to the Balkan conflict, she added.

One operator, Chicago-based TourItalia, is not experiencing the same cautious attitude from its clients that the other firms reported. Company president Gino di Nallo said his clients "are not concerned at all."

"Until the State Department says something, we're telling people not to worry," he said. Forward bookings for the firm are "even better than last year," he said, and "Venice is as popular as ever."

A Delta Air Lines spokeswoman said the carrier has had some calls from concerned travelers "but nothing extreme. We have seen some spot cancellations of groups to Istanbul, Turkey, and some into Vienna, Austria, [which] is where we fly into eastern Europe."

According to Delta, cruise lines have told the carrier they are seeing their bookings fall off. A decline in summer cruise bookings to Europe would impact Delta, the spokeswoman said.

Meanwhile, the Association of Corporate Travel Executives issued its members an advisory about traveling to the Balkans region, but reported no major drop in travel to Europe overall. Earl Foster, president of ACTE and travel manager at Joseph E. Seagram & Sons Inc., a New York-based spirits company, said his firm is asking employees who are "flying in harm's way" to discuss the trip with the Seagram's risk management and corporate security departments. ACTE, based in Alexandria, Va., represents corporate travel managers, agents and suppliers.

A spokeswoman for Philadelphia-based mega-agency Rosenbluth International said the firm has seen "no slippage in terms of business going to Europe."

David Jones, Linda Humphrey, Jorge Sidron and Dinah A. Spritzer contributed to this report, which was written by Donna Tunney.

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