For 2017, tour operators are hoping to press the restart button for travel to Europe and have been rolling out promotions and incentives for transatlantic travel ever since the 2017 selling season kicked off in the fall.

The result has been a promising uptick in bookings for next year that has already provided some revenue recovery in the wake of a challenging year.

“The good news,” said Tom Jenkins, CEO of the European Tour Operators Association, “is that everybody is reporting extremely strong forward bookings for 2017, and indeed if you wanted a perfect scenario for Americans traveling to Europe, you have it here: a continent with availability and a hunger for business and a dollar showing the sort of muscular strength not seen for 30 years."

Jenkins made his remarks at the USTOA’s annual conference in Scottsdale, Ariz., earlier this month, where 82% of the group’s active tour operator members said in a survey that they anticipate a growth in sales in 2017.

In all, some 88% of members responded to the survey, which also revealed that 44% of members who anticipate an increase in sales next year are either “optimistic” or forecast a “boom year,” anticipating a sales increase of at least 7%.

Slightly more than a third (38%) of members who anticipate growth next year remained cautiously optimistic that sales will increase in the 4% to 6% range in 2017.

A close watch on Cuba

Cuba topped the charts as the most popular destination tour operators are seeing for 2017. In fact, in the USTOA survey, it emerged as both the No. 1 “hot” destination for next year and the top “off-the-beaten-path” locale.
But with a new administration heading to the White House in January, the impact on U.S.-Cuba relations and the progress that has been made in easing travel restrictions to Cuba remains unknown.

Photo Credit: The Malecon in Havana. USTOA members named Cuba the hottest destination for 2017.

According to USTOA president and CEO Terry Dale, it is a situation tour operators will be watching closely in 2017, given how much they stand to gain or lose from the ability to bring travelers to the Caribbean island.

“Yes, we’re concerned,” Dale said when asked about Trump administration policies that could impact travel to Cuba. “Yes, we’re reaching out to other potential allies. But we also want to wait and see. We don’t want to overreach. We see that some things that have been stated [by the president-elect] have already been rolled back.”

According to the USTOA, 29% of members anticipate that a further easing of U.S.-Cuba sanctions would help increase their annual revenue.

Beyond Cuba, tour operators indicated that a mix of more traditional as well as up-and-coming destinations are gaining the most traction for 2017.

Following Cuba, the nine destinations tour operators reported are hot for next year are Italy, Iceland, the U.K., Spain, Ireland, Australia, South Africa, China and Vietnam.

In the top 10 off-the-beaten-path or emerging destinations category, Cuba was joined by Iceland, Croatia, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Myanmar, Iran, Africa, Cambodia and India.

Along those lines, operators have been increasing inventory and introducing new product for unique destinations that are gaining in popularity such as Iceland and Iran. Abercrombie & Kent, for instance, will be bringing travelers to Iran for the first time in 2017 via its lower-priced Connections brand.

“Tourism is only just starting to flourish [in Iran] … a land rarely experienced by American travelers,” A&K said in a statement about the new itinerary.

Families, fitness and food

Baby boomers and retirees, those who have the time and money to travel the world, will always be the foundation of many tour operators’ businesses. But recently, tour operators and FIT packagers have reported that they are expending their offering for families, for more fitness-minded travelers and for foodies.

According to the USTOA survey, 81% of active members now offer family and multigenerational programs, 55% offer adventure travel itineraries and 49% offer culinary tours.

Intrepid Travel, for example, is doubling its family tour product in 2017 after seeing an 85% growth in demand for family travel in 2016 from the North American market.

The company has introduced two styles of travel geared toward family travelers, a Comfort and an Active Family line, for a total of 48 itineraries tailored to family travelers, or more than 20 new tours for multigenerational travelers.

Intrepid Travel has also experienced significant demand for its teen and pre-teen trips, designed for families with kids age 11 and up, which inspired the launch of teen trekking itineraries in Peru and Nepal, among other destinations.

Fitness and wellness travel, too, have become sought-after travel products in the packaged-travel space. For 2017, upscale packaged-travel company Red Savannah launched a health and well-being division called Zen, featuring 22 health retreats throughout Europe, Asia and Africa focused on detox, nutrition, weight loss, yoga, mindfulness, fitness, beauty and youth.

And regardless of where they’re going or why, tour operators consistently report that travelers continue to demand more meaningful, authentic and interactive culinary experiences along the way. 

Michelle Baran is a senior editor covering river cruise and tours.

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