In the months since the November terrorist attack in Paris and the March bombing of the Brussels airport, Americans did something that may seem counterintuitive. They went to Europe more, with travelers up 5 percent in April, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Travel & Tourism Office.
Most of those trips were probably booked well in advance, as international travel usually is, and these numbers predate the June terrorist bombing in Istanbul and the Bastille Day truck attack in Nice, France. But airline data, tourism statistics and the reports of travel agencies and tour operators show international travel is alive and well, though it may be shifting to countries such as Spain and Ireland in the European Union, as well as farther-flung destinations such as the Galápagos Islands, even as travel to closer-to-home destinations such as Canada and the national parks surges.
“It’s not a great year to have France as your No. 1 destination,” said Norman Howe, president and chief executive of the high-end tour operator Butterfield & Robinson, which historically conducted most of its trips in France. This year, Italy has supplanted France, where the company’s business is down 10 to 15 percent. “In France, there was a sustained cycle of events starting around last November, and, the reality is, these days we’re not falling off a cliff, but there’s a cumulative effect.”
One place that has benefited among Butterfield & Robinson’s clients is North America, where business has doubled. Trips have surged to Newfoundland, Quebec and British Columbia. “Canada’s a triple whammy,” Howe said, citing its popular new prime minister, the favorable exchange rate and its reputation as safe.
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At Abercrombie & Kent, Europe still did well this summer, especially Italy and Spain. “We’ve seen very, very few cancellations in areas specifically impacted by terrorism issues in Europe,” said Keith Baron, a senior vice president. “We have seen a slowdown in new business to those areas.”
It’s hard to pin terrorism fears to the spike in interest in America’s national parks, especially given their widely publicized centennial celebration this year, but traffic has jumped for several operators, including Austin Adventures.
“As we talk to guests, many who have families, they are not giving up on Europe, but are just looking closer to home for now,” wrote Dan Austin, the owner of Austin Adventures, in an email. “Europe was the only region where we saw a dip in bookings. Everything else across the board was up, with domestic travel seeing the biggest increase. For us, domestic travel definitely picked up the Europe fallout.”
Bookings at Ovation Vacations, a New York agency that specializes in luxury travel, went to Italy, Spain and Greece, while its France business fell by 43 percent. Having suffered its own downturn in the last few years related to bankruptcy concerns and refugee traffic, Greece rebounded strongly. Still, the biggest gains were domestic.
“In my market, our people are going to travel,” said Jack S. Ezon, president of Ovation Vacations. “They may just change where they’re going this year. They said, ‘All right, I can always go back to Paris. Why go this year? This year, let’s explore something new.’ For so many of them, new and exotic became the Grand Canyon. Some have been to Luang Prabang or the Irrawaddy River and the Mekong, but they’ve never been to Arizona.”
Airlines have done their part to stimulate European travel by dropping prices. The airfare prediction app Hopper found that this August, relative to August 2015, airfares dropped the most to Europe, by 22.5 percent, compared with other regions, including domestic.
“We’ve seen incredible discounting to Europe over this last summer, and we’re still seeing traffic being weak,” said Patrick Surry, chief data scientist with Hopper. He said that European searches were down by nearly a quarter over last year, with Mexico, Central America and United States destinations picking up that slack.
Still, Europe has bright spots in places like Spain and Ireland. In the first half of the year, the online travel planner Expedia found its air traffic rise 20 percent to Madrid and Barcelona, Spain, and 33 percent to Dublin.
Confirming those trends, Tourism Ireland said its year-to-date traffic from North America was up 18 percent in the first five months of the year, with year-over-year growth of 80,000 more North American visitors in May alone. The Tourist Office of Spain showed an increase of international visitors in June, up 12.7 percent over June 2015. For the first six months of 2016, Americans accounted for nearly 900,000 visitors to Spain, an increase of almost 8 percent over the same period last year.
“In every crisis there’s an opportunity,” said Ezon, who has sent many clients to Spain – Ibiza, Majorca, Andalusia – and, for those interested in food, the Basque region. “The iconic cities in general – London, Paris and Rome – are down. People are drawn to secondary cities for safety concerns.”
Nonetheless, the Virtuoso network of luxury travel agencies found that eight of its top 10 vacation destinations booked this summer were in Europe, including France at No. 3 (Italy and Britain were one and two, with Spain at four). The biggest gainers in terms of year-over-year bookings were Tanzania (98 percent), Portugal (88 percent) and Ireland (58 percent).
Whether the impetus is to see Arctic glaciers before global warming shrinks them or to go remote, Scandinavian traffic has picked up with some operators, ranging from Abercrombie & Kent, on the high end, to SmarTours on the more affordable end.
“The overall trend of interest in the northern realms – Norway, Iceland and our Northern Lights trips – is continuing and may be a result of fears of terrorism or simply a discovery of these fantastic destinations,” wrote Barbara Banks, director of marketing and new trip development for Wilderness Travel, in an email.
“Iceland is hot,” Ezon said. “It’s again perceived as safe by a lot of people because it’s so off the radar screen.”
The concept of what’s exotic is a relative term, but long-haul air traffic to Asia has been slowly growing over the last few years. In South America, Metropolitan Touring, a major operator in the Galápagos Islands, reported strong growth among North Americans, up 11 percent June through the start of September versus the year prior.
“We say that it’s close, tolerant and safe,” said Tamara de Karolys, commercial director for Metropolitan Touring who works closely with North American travel agencies. “Most of the time we’re in the same time zone and have the same currency. It’s a nature-based bucket list destination. We have an opportunity here.”
More exotic destinations such as Africa and Vietnam have also gained at Butterfield & Robinson. “There are no lack of challenges in these other places, but they don’t have that specific one,” Howe said. “The anti-terror component makes other issues seem small.”