Airtours chief to set up new base in US

David Crossland, chairman and founder of the UK's second- largest tour operator, Airtours, is moving to America to oversee the company's international expansion programme. The move is bound to fuel speculation that Mr Crossland is seeking to strengthen ties with Carnival, the US cruise company which owns a near 30 per cent stake in Airtours and is widely expected to mount a full bid for the group.

Mr Crossland's decision to move from the UK marks an important change in Airtours' strategy, heralding a push to expand its international operations.

"Mr Crossland is going overseas to develop Airtours' business over there. He will travel extensively from his base in America. It shows that Airtours is not perceived as just a UK tour operator anymore. It is an international business," said an Airtours spokesman.

Mr Crossland will live in America for at least two years, but he may stay indefinitely. He will be based in California.

Among Mr Crossland's first tasks will be to reverse the decline in the company's North American business, which lost pounds 1.2m in the six months to March compared to a profit of pounds 2.9m the year before. Overcapacity has dogged its Canadian business, leading to depressed prices and mounting losses and adding to speculation that Airtours may be forced to exit this market.

Airtours also incurred start-up losses at its California tour business. But Mr Crossland is understood to be keen to rapidly expand the US business, building up its cruise business and entering the time share sector.

Mr Crossland will also look for acquisitions. Last month Airtours paid $20m (pounds 12m) for Californian tour operator Suntrips. More US purchases look set to follow. Mr Crossland is also likely to target South America and the Far East.

Last month Lars Thuesen, former deputy chief executive of Airtours' Scandinavian business, became the new head of the group's UK tour and retail business which has paved the way for Mr Crossland's move to the US. Airtours has no plans to close its Lancashire headquarters and move lock, stock and barrel across the Atlantic.