Travel between the U.S. and Europe is growing in both directions, though the number of U.S.-bound visitors has been growing faster than the increase in travelers from the U.S. to Europe.
In 2011, 16.9% more Europeans visited the U.S. than Americans visited Europe. And those Europeans on average spent 24% more per person in the U.S. than Americans spent in Europe, according to the most recent Trans-Atlantic Report, which cites data from the U.S. Department of Commerce.
For U.S. travelers heading to Europe, “the numbers are up, just not as much as the numbers going in the other direction,” said Neil Martin, managing partner at Donald N. Martin & Co., which promotes destinations in Europe and publishes the Trans-Atlantic Report, a twice-monthly report launched after 9/11 to track transatlantic traffic trends. (Click on the image, left, for a larger view of a chart of the number of travelers between the U.S. and Europe.)
According to the Commerce Department, the number of U.S. travelers to Europe in 2011 increased about 3% compared with 2010.
Collection methodology changed midway through 2010, which makes a straight-ahead comparison impossible, but Martin said the increase in travelers to Europe from the U.S. is confirmed by reports from Europe’s national tourist offices.
For comparison, nearly 12.7 million Europeans traveled to the U.S. in 2011, representing a 5.6% increase over 2010.
While it’s difficult to make a direct comparison because of the 2010 shift in Commerce Department methodology, the trend in greater numbers of Europeans traveling to the U.S. than Americans traveling to Europe has been occuring over the past few years, according to Martin.
“In the last couple of years, the economic news has been worse in Europe than in the U.S. for the Americans. If that were a factor, you should see more Americans going to Europe than Europeans coming to America,” said Martin.
According to U.S. tour operators, while the economic news in Europe might not be a deterrent for European consumers and travelers heading to the U.S. in growing numbers, it is seen as a deterrent by some American travelers who might not be going to Europe because of it.
“Europe is not in the best of spotlights,” said Nico Zenner, president of Brendan Vacations. “Even with a big advertising or promotional campaign, you cannot undo bad news. … It’s not necessarily comforting to say there’s some instability. Europe has had its fair share of bad news.”
The high cost of airfare to Europe this summer and the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games hasn’t helped much either.
“Folklore says that an election year is never a great year for tourism coming out of United States into Europe,” said Tom Jenkins, executive director of the European Tour Operators Association. “Unfortunately, folklore appears to be proving right this year.”
Jenkins, like many in the travel industry, noted that this summer is practically a bust for leisure travel to the U.K., given the hubbub surrounding the Olympics.
“There is some anecdotal evidence that a lot of the bookings that would normally go to London have gone to Paris and Amsterdam instead, but removing London from the product offering, which is what has effectively occurred for 20 days, has had a knock-on effect throughout Western Europe,” said Jenkins.
He also said that traditional stalwart Italy is experiencing challenges, an observation echoed by tour operators that sell the region.
Additionally, few can deny the drop-off in tourism to Greece as the destination teeters on the verge of economic collapse and faces a decision on whether to exit the euro zone.
And while ongoing protests against austerity measures in Greece haven’t served as great publicity, at least one tour operator sees the potential “Grexit” as an opportunity for cheap Greece vacations on the horizon.
British tour operator Thomas Cook said it expected to see a surge in bookings to a higher-value Greece if it leaves the euro zone, Reuters reported.
“If Greece exits [the euro], for the tourism industry it could be very profitable,” interim chief executive Sam Weihagen told Reuters after Thomas Cook posted a first-half loss on May 31.
And while travel to Italy and Greece appears to have been negatively affected by economic uncertainty in those countries, Marc Kazlauskas, president of Insight Vacations, said that Insight has seen an uptick in several countries, including France, Portugal and Spain.
“Even though Spain is one of the economic-issues countries, we’re seeing great numbers,” he said.
But Kazlauskas acknowledged that “there are concerns” in Europe overall.
Despite the challenges the continent faces as a destination, the European Travel Commission, an organization that works to promote Europe, remains optimistic given the year-over-year increase in travelers from the U.S. to Europe last year and in the first quarter of 2012.
“I believe the interest of traveling is all the time on a pretty high level,” said Jan Rudomina, the U.S. representative for ETC. “This is the reason we expect an increase of travel [to Europe] this year.”
And while the economic news out of Europe might be off-putting for some Americans, Jenkins noted that there are some benefits to U.S. travelers hopping the pond in the near- to mid-term.
“This year with a stronger dollar and a weaker economy in Europe, Europe is becoming a very attractive tourism proposition for the U.S.,” said Jenkins, adding that “we’re anticipating strong last-minute bookings and a stronger 2013.”
There’s no question that Europe has always been and will likely always be, if not the top international destination for U.S. travelers, among the top international destinations coveted by Americans. But other destinations are gaining, including the U.S. itself.
“There shouldn’t be any big secret that Europe is losing a little bit of ground,” Zenner said. “There’s a bigger mix of destinations that up until not that long ago you wouldn’t go to. ... They give Europe a run for their money. Specifically, this year when Europe is going through a more challenging time.”
Follow Michelle Baran on Twitter @mbtravelweekly.