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HIGH ANXIETY FOR TRAVELERS
THE WAR, SARS, THE ECONOMY AND FEAR OF TERRORISM WILL KEEP MANY VACATIONERS CLOSER TO HOME THIS YEAR -- AND NEARBY DESTINATIONS STAND TO BENEFIT

The war in Iraq, terrorism, the lingering effects of 9/1 1, SARS, a poor economy, airline bankruptcies, unemployment and job insecurities, business travel cutbacks -- these calamities visited upon the tourism industry read a bit like the litany of plagues visited upon Egyptians when they refused to allow Jewish slaves to leave Egypt.

One local travel agent joked with a touch a gallows humor: "What's next? An invasion of frogs?"

Since Sept. 11, 2001, domestic U.S. airlines have lost $18 billion. The Air Transport Association estimates that airlines may lose another $10.7 billion this year. Hundreds of thousands of people in the travel and tourism industry have lost their jobs.

In China and, to a lesser degree, other Asian countries, the tourism industry has virtually dried up at what is normally the height of the tourism season because SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) is still out of control, with new cases and deaths every day.

Despite what travel officials euphemistically refer to as "these challenges," surprisingly there is room for optimism. Indications are that this summer will be a good one tourism-wise in Buffalo and the rest of the state. Many people will choose to vacation closer to home. And the Canadian dollar and the Euro are up, making it cheaper for both Canadians and Europeans to travel in the United States.

"We are cautiously very optimistic about our prospects for the summer," said Richard Geiger, president and CEO of the Buffalo Niagara Convention and Visitors Bureau. "Our summer promotion -- the I Love New York One Summerlong Sensation -- offers something for everyone. We offer good value. There is a strong population base within an easy drive of our area. The war is over, and we are seeing positive trends."

Our neighbors to the north in Toronto are pulling out all stops in an effort to bring back tourists to a city decimated by an outbreak of SARS, which is now under control. There have been no new cases in more than three weeks, and the World Health Organization removed the city from the list of areas infected by SARS on Wednesday.

Now the city is trying to lure visitors back. Taxes on accommodations have been reduced from 12 percent to 7 percent (which can be refunded at the border) and the 10 percent tax on attractions such as Ontario Place, the Toronto Blue Jays and Toronto's Wonderland has been rescinded through Sept. 30.

The ripple effects of Toronto's SARS woes have been felt across Canada and here in Buffalo, with bus tours hit hardest. Last weekend tourism ministers from provinces across Canada met to map out a plan to bring tourists back to the country's largest city. What happens in Toronto affects everyone in the country, from the potato farmer and lobster fisherman in Prince Edward Island in the Maritimes to adventure outfitters in the Yukon.

Prince Edward Island tourism minister Jeff Lantz said that as Toronto's restaurant business declines, Prince Edward Island feels the effect in a reduced demand for seafood and potatoes. Statistics Canada reported that SARS has cost Canada's economy more than $1.5 billion (Canadian). Some 12,000 jobs in hotels and food service were lost in Toronto in April.

The situation was so bad that the Holiday Inn on King Street in the downtown entertainment district gave its reservations department a new name -- the cancellations department. The hotel had expected 84 percent occupancy in April but saw only half that. So far May is not looking much better. One third of the hotel's staff has been laid off.

The effect of the SARS outbreak in Toronto extended beyond the city. The Taboo Resort, Golf and Conference Centre, formerly the Muskoka Sands Resort, on Lake Muskoka in Gravenhurst is an hour and half north of Toronto. It is the home golf course of 2003 Masters champion Mike Weir. There were a number of cancellations of meetings and individual visits in April.

"Fortunately, most of the meetings were rebooked for later in the year," said David J. Smith, a consultant for the resort. "There were some people who were even afraid to drive in the vicinity of Toronto. But we are now looking forward to a good summer. Toronto is on the rebound, and many Canadians will be staying closer to home. We still are a very good value for American visitors, despite the recent upswing in the value of the Canadian dollar."

R.J. Koch Travel Agency in Kenmore regularly operates bus tours to Toronto and Stratford, Ont., for a day of theater and dinner.

"When the Toronto travel advisory was on, some people canceled," explained Deborah Poland, senior travel agent at the agency. "People were certainly concerned about SARS even for our trips to Stratford.

"In a perfect world we might be having trouble filling our buses because 'Lion King' and 'Mamma Mia' have been playing for so long in Toronto. 'Mamma Mia' broke records when it played here in Buffalo, so many people have already seen the musical. We are waiting for dates for 'The Producers,' which we don't have yet and thus can't sell those trips."

She predicts that Toronto will feel the after-effects of SARS for a long time. The WHO travel advisory certainly affected bookings at her agency, which experienced the worst April on record in terms of bookings.

"The war and the economy also had an effect," she said. "We had booked many people for spring trips to Florida and Las Vegas, but business was slow in April. Air fares are very good and cruises remain a tremendous value. Honeymoon bookings are big now, and the Caribbean is a long-time favorite with couples. It is viewed as a safe destination by both couples and families."

AAA of Western and Central New York operates a travel agency that books trips around the world and group tours that include bus trips to Ontario and Toronto.

"We have seen more car travel than usual," said Wally Smith, vice president of AAA. Due to the SARS outbreak, "we canceled one of our theater trips to Toronto, and people rebooked for later in the season. Ontario has always been one of our most popular destinations, and as SARS is controlled, travel there will rebound.

"People are waiting longer to book vacation travel, and there is greater availability even at the last minute," Smith said. "Our traditional vacation destinations, which include Orlando and Williamsburg, Virginia, continue to be very popular."

Up in the Adirondacks the entire region has seen an upswing in visitors since Sept. 11. "After that tragic day, people were looking for a safe place to get away, and we are within driving distance of major metropolitan centers," explained Steve Piatt, communications manager for the Lake Placid/Essex County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

"Columbus Day weekend in 2001, real estate agents were besieged by people wanting to buy property up here. We have five championship golf courses in our area, and we are popular with Canadians in the Ottawa and Montreal areas."

James McKenna, president of the Lake Placid CVB, predicted it "could be quite a summer" because of pent-up demand and the attractiveness of the area as a safe family destination.

The Finger Lakes area also is expecting a good summer, since the area is a drive-to destination, a family area and a popular stopover for visitors traveling across the state on the way to Niagara Falls or the New York City area.

"Our winter season was up 2 to 3 percent because of the good snow conditions at Bristol Mountain," explained Pat Charland, vice president, marketing, for Finger Lakes Visitors Connection in Ontario County. "We are looking forward to a good summer also."

In Rochester visitor numbers were up 4 percent in 2002 over 2001, and officials are expecting a good summer season.

Buffalo-based Delaware North Companies, a global leader in hospitality and food service, expects a very good summer, as well. The firm serves millions of travelers each year in some of the country's top parks and historic destinations.

"Delaware North operations are spread throughout the country, from Niagara Falls to Yosemite National Park, giving us a unique snapshot of the travel industry," explained Dennis Szefel, group president of Delaware North's Hospitality and Entertainment Division.

"Furthermore, our properties offer travelers the chance to rediscover the beauty of the American landscape, explore the historical significance of our national parks or simply reconnect with their families in times of great uncertainty."

Delaware North's properties include the country's oldest continuously operating cruise line, the Delta Queen Steamboat Co.; lodges in Yosemite, Grand Canyon and Sequoia national parks; the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex and the Astronaut Hall of Fame in Florida and the food and retail operations in the country's first state park in Niagara Falls.

"Certainly, our national and state parks are viewed as safe, secure places, and they are generally drive-to destinations, which are popular with many travelers," Szefel added.

Richard Kahn, a spokesman for the Caribbean Tourism Organization, said that region has experienced a surge in bookings in the past couple weeks.

"While the war was going on, the entire travel industry was sitting on its hands waiting, but now the phones are ringing off the hook," he said. "There are always bargains in the Caribbean during the summer, and this year there will be even more good values. We offer what Americans want -- safety, a friendly place, good values, a good variety of attractions and activities for families.

"We are seeing the beginning of a recovery in the region," he said. "People had postponed or canceled trips, and now they want to travel."

TABLE: What's in and what's out in travel

Trips to the Far East are out.

Camping in Letchworth State Park is in.

Trips planned months in advance are out.

Last-minute vacations are in.

Two week or longer vacations are out.

Weekend trips are in.

Exotic, high-priced destinations are out.

Close-to-home locales are in.

Long airline trips are out.

Driving vacations are in.

Leaving the kids home is out.

Family reunions and multi-generational family trips are in.

DEBORAH WILLIAMS is a freelance writer specializing in travel issues.