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.
For instance, for those traveling from April 6 to May 20, a round-trip ticket from New York to London can cost $481 with a midweek departure and $521 for a weekend departure. The usual rates: $718 and $778, respectively, Mr. Lampl said. A Washington-to-London ticket goes for $501 (midweek) and $541 (weekend). The ticket must be purchased by March 15.
Mr. Pavlus of TWA Getaway Vacations said his airline, which has been hit hard by rising fuel costs and other repercussions of the gulf war, is offering a variety of land-based packages at considerable discounts -- up to 50 percent off for England packages and up to 70 percent off for Europe-based plans.
TWA's most popular package is its London Theater Week plan, which includes six nights' lodging, a ticket to two plays of the client's choice, daily Continental breakfast, half-day sightseeing and discount coupons for restaurants and museums. The cost is $348 in the spring and fall, $388 in the summer, double occupancy. "It's hard to get just the hotel for that price in London," Mr. Pavlus observed.
According to Robin Prestage of the British Tourist Authority, several hotel chains in England are offering discounts as well. One chain, Rank Hotels, is offering discounts of up to 50 percent through August for those who book by April 30. A room usually offered for 105 pounds would go for $105, a major saving as the exchange rate is about $2 to the pound.
PTC Spokesman Bruce Haxthausen of Air France predicted his airline will have "very good packages and air fares available" for summer travelers.
Although shopping around will uncover discounts on air fares and hotels, several travel officials pointed out that the weak state of the dollar could negate some bargains. "People hear of situations where
things are so expensive that two people are sharing a cup of coffee," said Mr. Sears of Olympic Airways. "For first-time travelers, it's scary. The recession is still there, and the dollar is still weak."
"People have to be prepared that the dollar is not faring as well as it has been against European currencies," said Mr. Dietze of Dietze & Renner. "I tell clients that food and drink will run about 30 percent higher than it would be in Baltimore."
Several airlines and national tourism offices have been holding off on announcing major promotions until the war was over.
Mr. Bourquier of the European Travel Commission said vacation planners should watch for a major advertising campaign in the coming days with airlines competing for your business.
Tourism officials have been doing their "homework," developing various scenarios for summer travel depending on the outcome of the war, he said. The end of the conflict this week was just about the best case scenario, he said, coming as it did before the important summer travel season.