Recession, Gulf crisis slow flow of tourists to Florida

December 02, 1990|By Orlando Sentinel

British tourists Jerry and Kay Bugden gave no thought to rising gasoline prices or the Middle East crisis when they began their Orlando, Fla., holiday two weeks ago.

In planning their vacation earlier this fall, the Bugdens' primary concerns were the bare basics -- a warm climate and a favorable exchange rate. They found both in Orlando, where the temperature in mid-November was in the mid-70s and the pound was fetching nearly $2.

"It's a very cheap holiday for us here," said Kay Bugden, as she and her family left the Disney-MGM Studios Theme Park. "Much more so than if we were closer to home in Europe."

Thousands of the Bugdens' countrymen will come to Orlando this year. Yet it is not likely that the area's booming international trade will offset the current and anticipated declines in domestic travel to the region.

The economic twins of a U.S. recession and the Persian Gulf crisis are dampening hopes of a strong holiday season for the tourism industry.

The future, as one industry executive said recently, is "one big question mark."

"It's not business as usual," said Bill Peeper, executive director of the Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau Inc. "We are seeing downturns where we have never seen downturns before. We are going to get a good dose of reality this year."

Domestic travel to metropolitan Orlando was 10 to 15 percent below usual levels this fall, and bookings for Christmas and the winter tourism season are lagging as much as 20 percent behind last year's pace.

Last-minute bookings could perk up travel during the holiday seasonand the new year. But overall, the area's tourism industry may hit a low not seen since 1974, when the oil shortage caused a plunge in travel to Central Florida.

Virtually every sector of the industry has been affected. Hotel occupancy has slipped 5 percent; cruise lines are giving away two-for-one packages; and attendance at theme parks has headed south.

Even typically recession-proof segments of the industry, such as the convention and meeting business, are experiencing a downturn this year. Ten groups recently shelved plans for meetings in Orlando, Mr. Peeper said, resulting in the loss of hundreds of room nights at local hotels.

As a result, optimism in some sectors is low for the remainder of the fall and coming winter months.

"Everybody is holding their breath," said Ron Heuer, vice president of tour operations at Premier Cruise Lines Inc. in Cape Canaveral. "It is not a rosy picture."

Not rosy, that is, if one relies on domestic travelers. For operators who bring foreigners to this country, business couldn't be much better.

The Far East, South American, European and Canadian markets are going gangbusters because of the favorable exchange rate and improved marketing of Florida.

Visitors from these countries are less worried than Americans about the looming oil crisis, and in some instances -- particularly among travelers from South American oil-producing nations -- they are benefiting.

Consider that:

*While climbing mortgage rates have hurt the British economy, it is still cheaper for British travelers to come to Florida than to vacation at another popular destination -- off the coast of Spain. British Airways reports that the percentage of seats booked on flights to Orlando International Airport is "very good -- in the high 80s or low 90s," said Margaret Vodopia, public affairs executive for British Airways in New York.

Companies that sell tour packages to Orlando say they have picked up additional Italian and German business from travelers who have canceled Middle East vacations in recent months because of tension in the Persian Gulf.

*Japanese pleasure travel has increased more than threefold to 5,000 visitors this year at Suncoast Representation Services, an Orlando tour operator that recently has worked to expand its Far East business. "We're anticipating exceptional growth," said president Laraine Frahm.

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