Thomson traditionally has about 30 per cent of the inclusive tour market, but has lost market share on advance bookings for the forthcoming summer season, which accounts for four-fifths of its business. Figures for sales since brochures were launched last summer suggest that Airtours, Britain's second-largest operator, is narrowing the gap on Thomson. Airtours, which launched its programme ahead of Thomson, has gained a couple of points to 19 per cent, while Thomson has slipped back to 29 per cent.
Overall, about 9 million people are expected to take a package holiday from Britain this summer - the same as last year. After a disastrous summer in 1995, in which the top 30 tour operators collectively lost pounds 10m, capacity has been reduced and prices increased.
Richard Bowden-Doyle, Thomson's deputy managing director, said last-minute "Square Deal" holidays had declined from 20 per cent to below 10 per cent of Thomson's business, and called for the industry to reduce such offers still further: "Square Deals have no place in the market place. They must be killed stone dead."
Spain remains the most popular destination for British package holidaymakers. The Dominican Republic has seen an increase in visitor numbers of 50 per cent over the past year, and has overtaken Florida as the leading long- haul destination among Thomson customers.
The company believes, however, that most travellers will remain conservative in their choice of destination. Predicting holidaymakers' habits in 2009, Mr Bowden-Doyle said: "Never mind all this nonsense about Vietnam and Lebanon - they'll all go to Spain."
Yet evidence from a travel fair in London at the weekend suggests that tourists' horizons are expanding. When the Independent Traveller's World exhibition closed last night, the organisers said visitor numbers had increased by a quarter on the same event last year to 15,000. Helen Caldwell, exhibition director, said: "Our experience shows people are desperate for information on places other than Spain."