Travel business crosses fingers for Christmas
Travel agents are hoping that the holiday season will bring an end to the industry's slump following the September 11 attacks.
Bookings with Switzerland's biggest travel firm, Kuoni, collapsed after the terrorist attacks in the United States, forcing the firm to issue a profits warning -it says profits for 2001 will be just a tenth of the previous year - and to cut 500 jobs. It now expects a fourth quarter loss of around SFr57 million.
It's a problem affecting the entire industry; Kuoni's German-owned competitor, Thomas Cook, cut 2,600 jobs after suffering a similar drop in business. And tourists' reluctance to take to the skies also contributed to the collapse of Swissair and the Belgian carrier, Sabena.
But the industry is hoping that Christmas and the New Year will draw a line in the sand, allowing the sector to look forward to a better 2002.
"For a certain period after the attacks, people were not keen to travel but confidence is coming back," says Kuoni spokeswoman, Silvia Behofsits. "Christmas bookings with Kuoni Switzerland are even slightly up on last year."
Anywhere but America
Geographically some markets have suffered more than others. Behofsits says the United States and the Middle East have been particularly hard hit, with tourists opting instead for the Canary Islands, the Maldives and the Caribbean.
Sylvia Müller, who runs a small independent travel agency in Zurich called "All Ways Reisen", confirms the trend.
"The only people going to the States are those with family or on business. All the special offers for Christmas shopping trips to New York were cancelled after the attacks and the collapse of Swissair."
Small businesses like All Ways were particularly vulnerable to the fall-out from the September 11 attacks, but Müller says her agency is able to draw on the loyalty of its customer base.
"People have just changed their destination," she explains. "They're heading for Asia instead of America, Morocco instead of Egypt. I think our clients are well informed about the political climate and know where to go. They are not getting hysterical."
Nevertheless, business did drop off by between five and ten per cent in September and October, and Müller can only hope that the rush for Christmas sun will continue into the New Year.
The collapse of the national airline hasn't helped the outlook; Swissair has cut back on the number of destinations it serves., and fewer tourists have been coming to Switzerland as well.
"The incoming market has also been affected, though I have to point out that Americans usually visit in the summer," says Behofsits. "And as long as there are no new attacks, I am confident that people will return."
But with the United States now formally in recession, some analysts expect the Swiss tourist industry's woes to continue into 2002. They also point out that it took years for Americans to rediscover their travelling feet after the Gulf War in 1990.
Even though flights may be fully booked for Christmas, many analysts think the season will bring only a temporary respite for the industry. The year ahead is expected to be a difficult period for the whole sector.
by Michael Hollingdale
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