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If it means taking a plane, Americans don't want to go

By ROBERT TRIGAUX, Times Business Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 11, 2003

Even as we bid adieu to the jet-set, trans-Atlantic flights and $13,500 round-trip fares of the supersonic Concorde, we learn 71 percent of Americans currently are not interested in traveling overseas. A third of them attribute their reluctance to the weak economy and, secondly, to the Iraq war. So says a survey this week from the Travel Industry Association of America.

Now comes AAA Auto Club South, the Southeast's largest travel agency, reporting Thursday that its sales of airline tickets in the first quarter of 2003 dropped like a rock. Sales fell 35 percent from the first three months of 2002, a quarter that already was depressed for airline travel in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

"The numbers are not encouraging," acknowledges Gregg Laskoski, a Tampa spokesman for AAA Club South.

He's got that right. Airlines figures released this week show traffic fell 17.4 percent last week, with international traffic off 25 percent. When it comes to hopping on a plane of any kind these days, fewer folks want to fly. Period.

Which bring us to Florida's latest travel casualty: long-struggling Cypress Gardens. The 67-year-old tropical theme park near Winter Haven on Thursday blamed its lack of ticket-paying tourists on both the economy and the Iraq war. (See story above.)

At first glance, all these troubling travel indicators make Floridians dependent on tourist dollars shudder. Just under half of the tourists who visit Tampa Bay arrive by air.

But not all is lost. It seems that many U.S. travelers -- eight out of 10 surveyed by the Travel Industry Association -- who don't want to fly to another country still want to travel for leisure. By car or RV. In the United States or Canada.

Which may mean Florida could see a healthy surge of travelers later this spring and summer. Especially if the Iraqi conflict moves quickly from war to reconstruction. And if gas prices don't sneak much higher.

In Florida, regional tourism promoters already are scrapping for their share of driving vacationers. The St. Petersburg-Clearwater Area Convention and Visitors Bureau is expected to thaw its ad budget and spend $940,000 on advertising in April, May and June. The target? Potential tourists living within a long day's drive of Florida. That includes markets as far away as Ohio, Michigan and metropolitan New York.

Farther south, tourist bureaus from Fort Lauderdale and Miami to the Florida Keys are shifting more of their ad budgets from international to domestic markets since the start of the Iraq war.

Of course, Florida isn't the only tourist destination chasing potential travelers.

In Washington this week at a travel conference, Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin told how international travel to her city has fallen 30 percent since the Iraq war, while the city's hotel occupancy rate has dropped 8 percent since Jan. 1.

In response, Atlanta is coordinating with Nashville and New Orleans to market the Southeast to international travelers this summer. Atlanta also will focus its marketing dollars on attracting visitors living within 300 miles.

Will all that publicity north of Florida help or hinder the flow of travelers to the Sunshine State? During the summers of 2001 and 2002, most Americans picked Florida when asked by the Travel Industry Association which state they would like to visit most.

Let's hope the state remains a hot destination.

* * *

Military boot camps are on people's minds lately. But not boot camps for business start-ups. A two-day boot camp for entrepreneurs, inspired by last fall's successful camp run by the Tampa Bay Technology Forum and scheduled for this week, was postponed. The reasons? A weak economy. Boot camp instructors preoccupied with the demands of their own businesses. And -- who knows -- maybe even the grand distraction: the Iraqi war. Look for the boot camp to return later this year.

* * *

No, it's not your imagination. It is taking longer to find another job. Search times for unemployed Americans surged in the first quarter to a 17-year high of 4.2 months, says Challenger, Gray & Christmas, the international outplacement firm. The latest job search times have increased 24 percent from the first quarter of 2002, when it took 3.4 months on average to find a new position.

* * *

Anybody noticed lately how all sorts of mid-level nobodies at Enron are facing criminal charges, but the tip-top executives are nowhere to be seen? Of the 12 criminal charges filed as a result of Enron's collapse, only seven are against Enron insiders. Just one of those is against a high-level executive: the 78-count indictment against former chief financial officer Andrew Fastow. That's not the way it's supposed to happen. Will we ever see charges against former Enron chairman Ken "Kenny Boy" Lay and former CEO Jeff Skilling? Do the feds really think Enron investors and employees might forget?

-- Robert Trigaux can be reached at or (727) 893-8405.

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