or some agents, the phones stopped ringing last week. At Berkshire Travel in Newfoundland, N.J., owner Lucy Hirleman said calls and bookings up to that point had been consistent. Clients were either booking four to six weeks out or were looking ahead to August and later.

But last week, they were not booking or looking or calling. Hirleman called it "creepy, eerily silent."

Dale Eyerly Colson, owner of Travelstar in Westport, Conn., said her phone has been dead for weeks because of "war, war, war and terrorism, terrorism, terrorism."

She has sales on the books to Hawaii, Mexico and the like, but "no one is going to Europe because Americans, with their grasp of geography, know that if they strain their heads a bit, they can see Baghdad from Westminster Abbey."

Clients are all at Home Depot spending vacation funds on plastic sheeting and duct tape, she quipped.

Liz Sutton, president of Alabama World Travel in Montgomery, said business itself is good, but lots of it is booked at the last minute, and there is an emphasis on the Caribbean and Alaska. Those who don't want the Caribbean, she said, are sometimes opting for Mexico or the Baltics.

The agency has had some very busy days and some "silent days," but there have not been enough silent days to be worrisome, Sutton said.

Donna Hubbs, owner of D&D Travel, an independent contractor business in Bloomfield, Conn., said all clients are concerned about war -- they are "watching things" -- but her business seems to be pretty good. "Am I bucking a trend?" she wondered.

She said the heightened terrorism alert did not produce the angst she expected either.

Hubbs said cruise sales have picked up, but people are booking later and later. Her cruise sales now are for March and April, she said.

A little antsy

Ted Lawson, owner of National Travel Service in Charleston, W. Va., said February's bookings are down 15% to 20%. "I think leisure travelers especially are getting a little antsy as far as booking," Lawson said.

Flip Himmelreich, owner of CWT/Century Travel in Spokane, Wash., reported his agency is seeing more travelers avoid booking between 60 and 90 days in advance because "they don't know what's going to happen and don't want to be locked into putting down $3,000 or $4,000 on a cruise. People are waiting until they're in a comfort zone," Himmelreich said.

Chris Mize McMillan, CEO of Bonner Travel Service in Jackson, Miss., has her fingers crossed that war won't negatively affect a profitable group venture. Her agency is planning a trip to Spain and Portugal in September for the Mississippi Museum of Art. The promotional flyers will be sent to museum patrons this week.

"I have made doubly sure that deposits are refundable until June," McMillan said. "I'm worried that as soon as I get the flyers on the street, something's going to happen. You can't stop trying, though."

"Business as unusual"

Tour operators and cruise lines also are reporting late bookings, sporadic patterns, anxiety and uncertainty.

This year's wave season for cruise bookings, for example, was far below expectations for some lines, and the late-booking syndrome is often cited as the reason.

Larry Pimentel, chief executive of SeaDream Yacht Club, said, "Business is very good, even though the times are very precarious and the geopolitical climate is unfavorable."

He called it "business as unusual. Every day I come into my office and say, 'What shoe has fallen today.'"

And some of the booking patterns "don't make sense," said a spokeswoman for Crystal Cruises.

But she said business is good on "selected sailings," adding that people still are responding to good offers. "If the deal is compelling enough, there are travelers who are taking advantage of it," she said.

On the tour side, "The primary thing is late bookings," said Globus & Cosmos president Paolo Mantegazza. "People are not willing to commit. It gets worse as we get closer to war. But it's not just the war, it's the stance of our European allies. People think they are not backing us, and it makes people unsure of what kind of reception they will get in those countries."

Booking patterns are sporadic, unpredictable. "We'll have days of amazing booking volumes, then two days later everything cancels," said Mantegazza. "It's unbelievable. There are bookings out there, but you have to fight for them. I think it's the toughest market I've ever seen."

Several operators say they had a fairly healthy recovery from 9/11 in the early months of 2002. Then progress started hitting bumps.

"Business began with a bang in the fall," said Cyndi Zesk, marketing director for Collette Vacations. "It looked like 2003 would be a banner year. Then there was the threat of armed conflict and it leveled off."

"My sense is that people who want to travel are still determined to [do so]. We are seeing more close-in bookings than in any other year. People still are shopping and want to go, but they are holding off to make that final deposit. It leaves us optimistic that if the conflict is resolved in a short period of time, we'll see pent-up demand in April or May."

Everything "went soft" last week with code orange, according to Apple Vacations' Ray Daley, who said the close-in booking trend also is affecting his company. Daley said two-thirds of Apple's bookings are for departures within 60 days. On the plus side, however, the close-in bookings are solid.

"The people who are booking within 60 days mostly are coming through," rather than canceling.

Jittery road warriors

Even seasoned business travelers can get the jitters, according to the Association of Corporate Travel Executives.

A recent survey found that a third of ACTE members already have reduced international travel, and 82% say they will reduce it further in the event of hostilities.

Also 51% said their travelers have expressed concern for being abroad should hostilities break out.

Nearly all respondents said their companies have a contingency plan in place that included evacuating or securing traveling employees in the event of a terrorist attack or war.

Particularly sensitive to security concerns are the sponsors of student groups, said Michael Palmer, executive director of the Student Youth Travel Association, a trade group for operators serving the student market. "I know some schools canceled trips. It has clearly been a concern," particularly in the East.

It is possible that those student groups may stay home, Palmer said, especially if the U.S. goes to war with Iraq. "We saw the same thing with the Gulf War," Palmer said.

Securing landmarks

In addition to giving travelers the jitters, the orange alert raised questions about access to certain visitor sites.

"Our visitors shouldn't experience any changes at all," said a spokesman for the National Park Service, which operates such attractions as the White House and the Washington Monument, the Statue of Liberty in New York and the Liberty Bell and Independence National Historic Park in Philadelphia, and the Gateway Arch in St. Louis.

"The increased security is very visible, but that is not changing because of code orange," the spokesman said.

The spokesman, who would only discuss the security measures in general terms, described the enhanced security as being similar to that found in airports, including magnetometers and bag searches.

However, the spokesman said, "if we were to go to code red, a lot of things would change."

Nadine Godwin, David Cogswell, Jerry Limone and Michael Milligan contributed to this report.


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