U.S Travel & Tourism Today: Vacationers Staying Closer to Home; Industry Combats 'Bunker Mentality'

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U.S. Travel & Tourism Today

Postcards from public relations professionals involved in U.S. travel and tourism today give mixed impressions. "Bunker mentality" and fear of terrorism, brought to the fore by the Persian Gulf War, have undermined an airline business already besieged by recessionary, financing and labor woes. Fear of flying has had a ripple effect, with cities, resorts and regions highly dependent on fly-in traffic losing business in 1991.

PRJ checked with more than 24 practitioners in hotels, convention bureaus, transportation services, and firms serving T&T clients around the country for this report. Among other factors, they noted these key trends affecting domestic business:

* A coalition of travel-related professional associations is mounting a positive campaign to promote "Travel -- The Perfect Freedom," a term coined by Theodore Roosevelt. Public relations professionals are charged with implementing this crisis management strategy.

* More Americans today are planning to drive to vacation spots this year, rather than fly. This "closer to home" travel will benefit destinations withlots of local traffic potential, such as Philadelphia, while hurting more remote spots like Hawaii.

* Regardless of wartime concerns, recession and other problems, such as the mosquito alert in Florida, are factros hurting tourism levels at some locations.

* After the initial war scare, some businesses, such as cruise lines, rebounded. Above-average cancellations quickly gave way to heavier bookings by the end of January. In fact, a group of cruise lines launched a major promotion after the Gulf War began. (See sidebar, page 18.)

* Before ware broke out, rail travel was on the upswing. Wartime fears about flying have accelerated that trend.

War hurts tourism

Domestic travel and tourism were especially hard hit in the early days of the Gulf War. Some people figured that air travel anywhere was unsafe, and much of what they saw or read fed that fear. Others considered it unpatriotic to take a vacation during wartime. And rising fuel costs added to hardships some consumers faced due to war call-ups or other income loss.

Another factor, especially for world-class hotels and internationally popular destinations, is the sharp decline in international air travel. Japanese business travelers and vactioners, for instance, have been advised not to fly during the Gulf War. In places like Hawaii, such visitors account for as much as 20% of the income from tourism.

While there are definitely bright spots on a war-clouded horizon, many travel and tourism interests are experiencing serious problems. Attendance at Colonial Williamsburg, VA, for instance, is about 10% below normal. Hawaii is hurting too, with mainland traffic down about 10% and business from Japan down nearly twice that amount.

Domestic air travel has declined, although not nearly as much as was rumored or feared. According to the Air Transport Association of America (ATA), which surveys 15 major U.S. carriers, domestic passenger traffic in January 1991 was down .9% from January 1990. International traffic fell 8.8% for the same period.

However, the big drop in air travel did not occur until after Jan. 15, the U.N. deadline for Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait. Thus, the January figures may not give a true picture of the severity of the decline, pointed out Kathleen Henriques, manager, communications, ATA.

Industry faces other problems

Even though the numbers are not disastrous, the airlines industry is under great stress, with bankruptcies and widespread layoffs. The publicity person for one airline declined to be interviewed, saying it was "premature" to discuss how he would cope. "We're making decisions every day. What we decide today, we might change tomorrow," he admitted.

Prospects seem brighter at Delta Air Lines, which recently bought several former Eastern Airline gates in Atlanta and Los Angeles. …