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 The Brancatelli File

joe WILL TRAVELERS
PLAY IT SAFE IN 1994?


BY JOE BRANCATELLI

December 30, 1993 -- Sad but true: All too much of 1994's travel landscape is likely to be in the less-than-steady hands of the world's politicians.

Will the Arabs and Israelis forge a lasting peace and make the Middle East safe for travel again? Wither Russia? Can China and South Africa, so recently considered politically incorrect vacation destinations, convince Americans to come see for themselves? Will the endless circle of violence in the Balkans spread to neighboring states in Western Europe?

"What's hot for 1994 are the destinations where people feel they'll be safe," says the president of one major American tour operator. "Travelers are justifiably concerned for their physical safety and they've learned that political instability rarely makes for a safe or secure travel environment."

Nothing proves that point better than the bloody tragedy in the former Yugoslavia. As recently as three years ago, the nation was a consensus choice as one of Europe's best travel bargains. Does anyone visit that troubled collection of fiefdoms now?

Russia, unfortunately, may be the Yugoslavia of 1994. No one predicted an easy transformation to a free market and an open society in the erstwhile "evil empire," but October's ghastly political violence has taken the shine off Russia as a destination for leisure travelers. If elections scheduled for December lead to more televised turbulence, no one but must-fly business travelers will be making the trek to Moscow or St. Petersburg in 1994.

Visiting Eastern Europe, all the rage these last two years, will also be less palatable in 1994. Hotel, dining and car rental prices are escalating at a dizzying pace in the former Eastern Bloc countries and many travelers will find a visit to Prague, Budapest or Warsaw well beyond their 1994 vacation budgets.

But there's much-needed good news emanating from the Middle East. Israel's wary rapprochement with the Palestine Liberation Organization, and Jordanian moves to the bargaining table have created some real hope for peace and stability in the historically unstable region.

After decades of shying away from the Middle East, travelers may even seize on the illusion of progress as a reason to pay a visit. Many experts believe 1994 is the year travelers finally decide to plan their long-deferred trips to the region. Although the fractious nature of Arab-Israeli politics makes an abrupt return to terrorism and military action an all-too-plausible scenario, travelers seem eager to act on their pent-up demand for the Middle East's cultural, historical and religious sights.

Even Egypt, plagued in 1993 by a well-publicized wave of religious violence targeted directly at tourists, may regain some popularity in 1994. Besides, the combination of low prices and magnetic tourist attractions make Egypt too compelling to bypass for very long.

At the other end of African continent, South Africa is beginning to draw attention as a destination again. Now that the white minority government finally seems committed to comparatively rapid majority rule, a vacation in South Africa no longer seems like an unthinkable option for American travelers. The ever-present possibility of a widespread resurgence of black-on-black communal violence could sour visitors on a South African trip in 1994. But an extended period of relative calm would make the destination extraordinarily attractive to adventuresome vacationers.

Another tourism outcast, China, is poised for a major revival in 1994. To a surprising degree, American travelers already have forgiven Chinese authorities for--or simply forgotten about--their bloody suppression of the Tiananmin Square demonstrations in 1989. After five years of shunning China travel as a sign of our national displeasure with the repressive activities of the Chinese government, Americans now seem anxious to resume their pilgrimages to the Forbidden City, the Great Wall and Shanghai. Also growing rapidly: travel to Tibet, where even Chinese officials admit the tourism infrastructure is groaning under the weight of the influx of visitors.

Not so lucky is the Indian Subcontinent. Travelers will stay away in 1994 because of the lack of a stable social and political climate. A resurgence of militant--and violent--Hindu nationalism in India has soured skittish Americans on the possibility of a visit. And the almost inevitable political turmoil resulting from Pakistan's bitterly contested national elections in October has frightened off even intrepid travelers.

Closer to home, the islands of the Caribbean should be more popular than ever in 1994. The reasons are simple: The area is warm--and safe. Faced with unstable situations around the globe, American travelers may well opt to play it very safe and soak up the sun in our metaphoric backyard.

Which leads to the inevitable question: Is this finally the year for Cuba? Any defrosting of the political climate will bring an immediate influx of tourists to cash-starved Cuba, but Americans anxious to see the island after a generation of cold war aren't waiting for an official thaw. To skirt U.S. laws that prohibit trading with Castro's enfeebled empire, a small but growing number of Caribbean travelers are buying all-inclusive, prepaid packages that allow visits to Cuba without ever spending a dime on the island.

Here at home, 1994's travel outlook revolves around Florida. Despite the eerie specter of violence, travelers just can't get enough of the place. Bookings plummet whenever another tourist is stalked and killed, yet separate surveys recently conducted by the American Society of Travel Agents and the non-profit Travel Industry Association indicate Florida will remain the top destination for domestic vacations.

One last, admittedly loopy, thought in this most political of travel years: The Dan Quayle Museum has opened in Huntington, Indiana, the former vice president's home town. After a visit to the museum, you can also take a self-guided tour along the Quayle Trail, a 9-stop pilgrimage tracing Quayle's life and times in Huntington.

Of course, visiting safe, serene Huntington and drinking in the glory that was Dan Qualye might be playing it a bit too safe.

THE 1994 PRICE PREDICTOR
What price travel in 1994? Unplanned short-hop domestic flights may be affordable for the first time in years because many airlines have overhauled their services and fare structures to lure travelers out of their cars. On longer domestic flights, watch for a regular series of short price wars requiring 14- to 28-day advance purchases. ... Internationally, transatlantic flights will remain the best bargains during the fare wars. Transpacific flights will be slightly better deals in 1994 than in previous years because traffic continues to be far below the airlines' expectations. Exceptions: Australia and Hawaii, where so many flights have been dropped that prices may rise. ... Domestic hotel room rates will edge up in 1994. The nationwide oversupply of rooms is slowly being absorbed and very few new hotels are opening. That will embolden hoteliers to raise their prices by 5-10 percent. ... Rental-car firms are cutting the size of their fleets and especially reducing the number of subcompact and compact cars they stock. They hope these tactics will push up prices and force travelers to book larger, pricier cars. Expect to pay $30-$50 more for a weekly rental in 1994, except in hypercompetitive markets like Florida and California.

This column originally appeared in Travel Holiday magazine.

Copyright 1993-2007 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.