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Cautious, yes, but still traveling

By BOB JENKINS

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 8, 2002


We have changed, immeasurably.

We have changed, immeasurably.

America's 209-million adults probably have 209-million ways they feel different now about traveling than they did in their innocence of Sept. 10, 2001.

Many simply became afraid to travel. But while statistics show substantial declines throughout the huge travel and tourism industry, something within the majority of us has not yielded to fear.

Arthur Frommer, who wrote his first guidebook nearly 50 years ago, says this is because Americans feel entitled to travel.

Still, the past year has been a bumpy ride.

Researchers found that the viciousness of the terrorist attacks made many people think they had not been paying enough attention to what we held most dear: our families. For these Americans, the annual vacation became the occasion for a reunion or a multigenerational trip involving grandparents and grandchildren.

For other citizens, the targeting of big cities made those destinations, traditionally exciting adventures, seem fraught with danger. The crowds drawn to theme parks made some people view the attractions as possible targets for heartless enemies.

Consequently, many folks replaced these bustling destinations with a return to simpler times; vacations on farms and ranches, in national parks, at campgrounds and on rafting trips gained popularity.

Still other vacationers learned to squeeze stuff into the compartments of rented recreational vehicles rather than cram rollaboards to take on airplanes.

Whatever changes they made in their usual plans, most people continued to take some sort of vacation because, in the words of 32-year travel agent Kathy Sudeikis, "We had a need to get away -- we wanted to get away."

Sudeikis, national vice president of the American Society of Travel Agents, said by phone from Kansas City that uncertainty about the future meant "People began booking in a much shorter window, just three to four weeks" rather than several months before departure.

Travelers didn't want to commit a nonrefundable deposit for reservations, she said.

The worsening economy also has played a major role in plans to travel for either business or pleasure.

"In reality, travel for business was declining before 9/11," says Michael Batt, president and CEO of Carlson Leisure Group, with about 1,000 franchised travel agencies nationwide.

"Probably from March of that year until the attacks," Batt said from Minneapolis, "business loads were down 15 to 20 percent" from the boom of 2000. The travel industry was "beginning to feel the hangover, but 9/11 took a bad situation and made it worse."

The statistical evidence is dramatic.

Because many of us will never look at an airplane the same way we did a year ago, the number of passengers boarding airplanes for domestic flights was down 10.8 percent between June of this year and June 2001.

You know the result: Familiar names in the airline industry are announcing they have lost so many hundreds of millions of dollars that even after laying off thousands of workers and canceling plane purchases, the carriers still may declare bankruptcy.

Nor did long-troubled Amtrak benefit from the more widespread fear of flying. Through this June, railroad passenger loads were down 5.6 percent from last year. Once again, Amtrak petitioned the federal government this summer and got another multimillion-dollar congressional appropriation.

Because Americans stopped traveling in such significant numbers, hotel and motel occupancy was down 2.8 percent, from June to June.

Florida, where tourism is by far the No. 1 industry, has been staggered by the loss in customers, the jobs they create and the tax revenues they provide.

All of these commercial interests have turned to the basic lure to draw customers.

"It's a buyer's market," said Dr. A.J. Singh, assistant professor of lodging management at Michigan State University. "Everyone is discounting to bring in the travelers."

When interviewed in August, Singh just had returned from vacation. He had spent two weeks in Orlando, Daytona Beach and Miami Beach with his wife and their 10-year-old daughter.

"You can't get the researcher out of me," he said. "There were far more deals this summer than when I planned the same trip three years ago.

"Disney is the benchmark: If they are hurting, everyone is. But I was looking at long lines."

Carlson's Batt says that is because "Leisure travel is a lot more resilient to the economy. It is price-sensitive for the average person, who doesn't use the stock market to feel richer or poorer."

What's more, most Americans are not so suspicious about possible terrorism that they still need to stay closer to home, as they were last October and November, Batt said.

Batt, born in Wales, likened this to the German blitz of London during World War II and the IRA's terrorist bombing campaign in London decades later. In both situations, "It didn't take long before the people said, 'We must carry on.' They had no choice."

Americans, too, he said, came to the realization that we can't allow these terrorist attacks to change our lives.

Nonetheless, a survey of his company's travel agencies last month found that 74 percent reported reduced airline bookings of at least one-third for this Sept. 11, compared with that day's bookings last year.

That lingering fear would confirm the feeling of travel guru Frommer: "I continue to feel a certain trepidation, the possibility that something is going to happen."

He is editor of Manhattan-based Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel, a monthly magazine with sales of 500,000. "There is no doubt that the mood of the people in New York is much more serious now (than it was a year ago). I see it when I take the subway into work. People are not so happy-go-lucky."

He says casual conversation now focuses on a suicide bomber sent to New York, to a public place, rather than another airplane crash.

Yet, Frommer adds, "Every month that goes by without additional incidents sees increases in travel. Long-term trends in spending are remarkable.

"Travel per se is looked on as an entitlement. . . .

"If travel overall is down 10 percent from last year, that means that 90 percent of us have decided we won't let terrorists rule our lives."

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