In 2011, tour operators were hit hard by the Arab Spring, which resulted in a large loss of business to the region. In 2012, with an eye toward recovery, many are looking to replace that business with robust domestic and family bookings.

Home sweet home

It's no small coincidence that tour operators have been beefing up their domestic itineraries with everything from new branding and marketing strategies to adding more departures. For many, North American travel is a bright spot in an international portfolio of destinations that have been struck by political or natural disasters or cost-prohibitive airfares.

For example, Globus rebranded its national parks itineraries for 2012 as GoParks Tours to reflect the brand's new partnership with the National Park Foundation, the fundraising arm of the U.S. national parks, which will now receive a portion of revenue from Globus' park bookings.

Globus is seeing growing interest in its national park itineraries, sales of which were up more than 20% in 2011. And the company has noted that it anticipates positive sales of North America itineraries to continue into 2012.

Tauck has also put more marketing muscle behind its domestic tours, having started a collaboration with documentary filmmaker Ken Burns in 2011 that will continue into 2012, with itineraries that reflect the themes of Burns' series on the Civil War, baseball, jazz and the national parks.

Tom Armstrong, corporate communications manager for Tauck, noted that while five to seven years ago North America bookings "were typically either flat or down compared with the prior year," the business has rebounded in the past two to three years, and in 2011, "North America bookings [are] up double digits and roughly parallel with what we're seeing in Europe."

Great Wall of ChinaAdditionally, Canadian tour operator G Adventures (formerly Gap Adventures) has assembled 55 itineraries throughout the U.S. and Canada for 2012, marking the first time since the company was founded in 1990 that it is doing tours in North America. And while the new program is geared primarily toward the inbound travel market (see below), the product is also being marketed and sold in North America.

Quietly exotic

With ongoing political activity in North Africa and the Middle East stalling recovery there, operators are seeing an uptick in other exotic destinations as alternatives.

China, for instance, which experienced a slowdown during and after the 2008 Beijing Olympics, is reportedly rebounding along with Southeast Asia and other Asian destinations.

Operators have also reported increased interest in destinations throughout the rest of Africa and are seeing strong bookings throughout South America, as well.

Even a few niche destinations have been gaining momentum. After U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's visit to Myanmar in November, operators started to see increased interest in travel to the nation formerly known as Burma.

A&K responded by creating three programs to Myanmar for 2012. And General Tours World Traveler added a new Visions of Burma itinerary to its 2012-13 brochure. It is currently one of the most-viewed tours on the company's website.

All in the family

Tour operators continue to tout the resiliency of family and multigenerational travel heading into 2012.

Collette Vacations launched Collette Family Vacations for 2011 with nine itineraries. It is expanding the program into 2012 with 10 itineraries, ranging from tours throughout North America to a Kenya safari trek and a Panama family adventure.

Trafalgar is also bullish about its family offering, which it launched two years ago and continues to represent significant growth opportunities for the tour operator.

For 2012, Adventures by Disney eliminated its Gateway Collection, lower-priced tours that included more free time. Instead, Disney's tour operation is adding a 10-day Greek Odyssey itinerary for 2012 that includes Athens, Santorini and Crete.

Adventures by Disney also noted that it is "happily continuing to offer and operate our Egypt trip." The Pyramids, Pharaohs & Ancient Treasures itinerary includes Cairo, Aswan, Luxor, the Nile and Sharm al-Sheikh.

Incoming!

It's hard for tour operators, even those that have traditionally focused on the outbound travel market, to ignore the potential onslaught of inbound travelers from markets such as China, India and Brazil.

For 2012, G Adventures launched North America product primarily targeted to the inbound market, which the company expects will make up about 90% of the North America tour business.

Other large operators, including Globus and Collette, have also said they are eyeing source markets such as China and India and how and whether to cater to them.

In the interim, the National Tour Association continues to operate and finesse its China Inbound Program, a list of tour operators approved to work with the swelling China inbound market.

Air scare

One of the biggest challenges for tour operators in 2012 will be the rising cost of airfare, as fuel surcharges continue to soar.

In an effort to curb sticker shock, many have been encouraging agents to get their clients to book as early as possible. Trafalgar, for example, launched its summer 2012 Europe product six weeks ahead of schedule in an attempt to combat cost-prohibitive airfares.

The industry is also grappling with the potential effects of the U.S. Department of Transportation's full-fare advertising requirements, which go into effect on Jan. 24. MLT Vacations, for instance, already updated all its package prices to include all hotel and flight taxes and fees, rather than separately disclosing them, in advance of the DOT's deadline.

And other wholesalers and packagers are planning to follow suit, even as the U.S. Tour Operators Association is working with the DOT to try to gain more clarity on the rules, how they are implemented and what impact they will have on operators.

For news on tour operations and wholesalers, follow Michelle Baran on Twitter @mbtravelweekly.

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