Travel industry sees brighter '93, with reservations

January 03, 1993|By Alfred Borcover | Alfred Borcover,Chicago Tribune

With cautious optimism, travel authorities are forecasting a 1993 slightly better than 1992. That's the message from the U.S. Travel Data Center's annual Outlook Forum held recently in Washington.

An improved economy, of course, is the key to even cautious optimism for continued growth of the travel and tourism industry. Tourism, the country's third-largest retail industry, contributed $330 billion to the economy in 1990, the latest figure available.

Among the industry segments with somewhat bright outlooks are individual states, cruise lines, auto travel, Amtrak, lodging and adventure travel. The airlines are still trying to dig out of a deep economic hole.

According to a Data Center survey of state travel offices, 59 percent were expecting to end the year with an increase in visitors over last year. Almost 75 percent of the states surveyed were forecasting an even better 1993. The USTDA, which takes the pulse of tourism, is a research arm of the Travel Industry Association of America, a trade group.

What helped the domestic scene this past summer were the airline discounts used by 24 million travelers. The center's survey said that 9 million people would not have traveled without the discounts.

States derive much of their tourism business from auto travelers. To get a read on trends, the American Automobile Association surveyed auto travel managers at 35 American and Canadian clubs, representing more than 60 percent of the AAA's 33 million members.

The AAA noted that the choice of shorter, more modest vacations was the result of a flat economy, reported Thomas R. Crosby, managing director of AAA Travel Publishing.

Mr. Crosby said his managers and others "believe all-inclusive vacation packages will become more popular. Packages that include lodging, meals and activities account for 58 percent of vacations. More than two-thirds of the managers we surveyed agreed there will be an increase in demand for this type of package."

As the economy continues to shrink personal and leisure time, weekend trips should grow in popularity, Mr. Crosby said. "Although the average traveler will take shorter trips and be cost-conscious, they will take more of them and more to rural destinations," he said. Overall, the AAA club managers predicted an 8 percent increase in auto travel for next year.

The AAA's weekend prediction ties into the outlook projected by the lodging industry. "Weekend escape makes up the third-largest component of lodging leisure travel," said Barbara Wickliffe, director of marketing, planning and research for Best Western International. "Nine percent of U.S. lodging nights are spent for weekend escapes, and this figure has remained steady for several years."

Perhaps the brightest segment of the travel industry is cruising. According to Cruise Lines International Association, nearly 4.4 million North Americans will have taken a cruise vacation in 1992, a projected 10 percent increase over last year.

"The industry has enjoyed double-digit growth on average since 1970," James G. Godsman, CLIA president, told the forum. "Assuming the current rate of growth is maintained, cruise ships are looking forward to welcoming up to 8 million passengers annually by the year 2000."

Mr. Godsman said 12 ships had their debut in 1992, representing more than 11,000 new berths, double the capacity in 1980. The total, he said, should reach 120,000 by 1995.

Among the other bright pictures painted by Mr. Godsman: "While CLIA's research indicated that the over-60 population still makes up one-third of the cruising population, the 25-40 age group continues to be the fastest-growing segment, even as baby boomers pass into middle age [50 percent of today's cruisers are 45 years old or less]."

Mr. Godsman suggested that, as more travelers discover they can afford to take a vacation, they learn they can afford to cruise. "The number of cruisers earning moderate incomes [$20,000 to $40,000 annually] is greater than any other income group [41 percent]. As well, 50 percent of today's cruisers earn $45,000 or less per year."

Amtrak, plagued by a strike and the incredible bargain airfares during the summer, did not do as well as expected. Lynn Hoffman, an Amtrak economist, said its 1992 passenger volume was 4 percent below last year's. "Amtrak is projecting an 8 percent increase in passenger miles," said Ms. Hoffman, with the expectation of an improved economy.

Self-service ticketing, Amtrak golf packages and new passenger cars on some Amtrak routes in the East are among the improvements planned for 1993.

As for the airline industry, David A. Swierenga, assistant vice president of the Air Transport Association, a trade group, said the important issues affecting the airlines in 1993 and beyond are cost-cutting and a return to profitability. He said the airline industry is expected to break even next year, forecasting a 3 percent rise in international and domestic passenger miles.

A newer segment of the industry, adventure travel, reflected positive signs. "The American public will continue to get off the beaten path in record numbers," said Jerry Mallett, president of the Adventure Travel Society. The society, a marketing firm, assists countries, regions and companies in promoting adventure travel and ecological tourism.

"In the U.S. there are 8,000 outfitters to assist the public in their quest for adventures," Mr. Mallett said. "This industry, for the most part, did not exist in 1950."

Growth, of course, is what every segment of the travel industry, or any other industry, is looking for. When Americans feel comfortable that their economic life is stable, you can bet leisure travel will pick up.

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