War's Over Europe Is Hopeful

March 03, 1991|By Tim Warren and Jean Marbella

Spring and summer vacations to Europe were expected to be among the casualties of the war in the gulf, but now that the fighting has ended, industry officials anticipate many Americans may head across the Atlantic after all.

"We already have seen since the beginning of [last] week a major increase in telephone calls, visitors to our information centers and -- travel operators tell us -- bookings," said Michel Bourquier, chairman of the European Travel Commission, which represents 24 countries. "We are convinced that we will rebound very quickly. No one could take Europe away from Americans, not even Saddam Hussein."

The end of the war and the lifting of fears over traveling abroad convince him that Europe may host as many as 7.3 million American visitors by the end of this year, matching last year's record-breaking mark.

Others were less optimistic, yet heartened by the end of the war.

By Wednesday, when the war seemed pretty much over, Lufthansa, the German national airline, already was receiving twice as many calls as it had been getting in prior days, said spokeswoman Lucille Hoshabjian. It was a welcome turnaround for the airline, which had seen bookings drop by a third since January, she said.

The renewed interest in European travel appeared to be felt throughout the industry: Ms. Hoshabjian said a colleague at Air France told her they were similarly swamped with calls.

"For many, many reasons, not the least of which are humane concerns, we're very happy," said Sandy Gardiner, a senior vice president of British Airways. "And obviously from a business standpoint, we're delighted it's ended, and we can see a return to business as normal."

The airline yesterday reinstated its Concorde flights between Washington and London, which had been suspended during the war, Mr. Gardiner said. And further incentives may be in the offing as well to capitalize on the renewed interest in Europe, he added.

Despite early and positive signs, however, the turnaround may not be immediate, or perhaps complete. Although the end of the war should ease some concerns for traveling abroad, other stumbling blocks remain -- the recession in the United States and poor exchange rates for the dollar, for example, may continue to keep many Americans on this side of the Atlantic in 1991, some believe.

"I don't think we can switch back to normal in one or two days," Mr. Gardiner said. "It will take at least a month for things to shake out and for business to get back to where we were before."

"It's just been terrible," said an official with a European airline who did not want to be identified, referring to how bookings began dropping off since the beginning of hostilities in the Persian Gulf. "[With] the resolution of the gulf war, it could turn into a very good year -- bearing in mind that there is still a recession out there. But, boy, these are not good days."

"Most operators are down by at least 50 percent in Europe," said Craig Pavlus, president of TWA Getaway Vacations, which puts together land packages for travelers.

England seems to have been hit particularly hard. Bookings have declined so much that many hotels have been offering sharp discounts to lure reluctant tourists to their mostly empty establishments, and same-day tickets to hit plays have

been available -- a rare occurrence.

"It's a real industry problem," says John Lampl, director of public relations at British Airways. "Car rentals, hotels, restaurants -- consumption is down all over."

But it's precisely because of this industry slump that some travelers are going ahead with a European trip. Not only are many airlines offering considerable, almost unprecedented, discounts on air fares and various land packages, but there's the appeal of European travel without the usual crush of millions of tourists.

While no one would say that Americans will travel to Europe in anywhere near the numbers they did last year, several tourism officials said they had already seen an increase in bookings and interest in European travel in general since the beginning of the ground war in the Persian Gulf. And the quick resolution of the ground war should spark even further interest, some say.

"There's a lot of pent-up demand," said Clem Dietze of the Baltimore travel agency Dietze & Renner. "It's too soon to tell, but all this week the interest in travel has been increasing as it became apparent the war would not be a protracted thing."

Mr. Dietze says clients are inquiring about "the British Isles, France, Northern Europe. There's interest for the summer in Scandinavia."

Britain in particular seems to be courting the bargain-conscious traveler. British Airways has offered a host of cut-rate air fares for the spring, with discounts reaching 33 percent.

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