Millennium tourists have money to burn up in space

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The Independent Online
TODAY should have been the day that "hypertourism" took off. It was the scheduled departure date for a round trip to view the wreck of the Titanic from Russian mini submarines, open to anyone who could foot the pounds 20,000 bill. Sixty people were booked for five expeditions, only to have their "holiday of a lifetime" thwarted by an injunction from the American company which owns the salvage rights, RMS Titanic.

The abortive Titanic trip is just a tiny part of what has emerged this summer as a prime growth area for the tourist industry: exclusive expeditions costing five- and six-figure sums. While most Britons are enjoying cheap package holidays, John Brodie-Good, managing director of Wild Wings, the Bristol-based company which sold some of the Titanic tickets, has been busy selling seats on sub-orbital space flights and other trips deep beneath the ocean waves.

"For people with very, very large amounts of money," says Keith Betton, head of corporate affairs at the Association of British Travel Agents (Abta), "it is now possible to do outstandingly exciting things. Some people do it to exhibit publicly their wealth, to make an outrageous statement; others, say those successful in business, just want to take over a whole island for a family holiday."

Already pencilled in for next spring is a Wild Wings expedition to the Canadian Arctic, costing almost pounds 7,000 for eight days. "We'll have a dome built on solid ice," says Mr Brodie-Good, "and people will be able to descend in submersibles to see a ship called the Breadalbane, a 500-tonner that sank in 1853. We're also making an approach to view the Lusitania, which lies in Irish waters.

"The commercial space industry is in its infancy," he says, "but it's entirely realistic to talk of civilians taking space flights within five years, maybe less." A sister US company, Space Adventures, already offers flights with the Russian airforce in MiG-25s. In the past five years, 3,500 people have paid $11,000 (pounds 6,900) for the pleasure. From there they can admire the curvature of the earth from 80,000ft, while travelling at more than twice the speed of sound.

"We now sell the whole gamut of space-related adventures," says the company's vice-president, Eric Anderson. "We take people to space launches, and for $4,980 we offer zero-gravity rides in the Yuri Gagarin astro-training centre in Moscow." Space Adventures has already taken 45 reservations for a planned $90,000 trip to space itself, lasting two-and-a-half hours. (The deposit alone costs $6,000.)

The race for space has been fuelled by the so-called "X-Prize", a privately funded award of $10m to be the first team to fly to an altitude of 100km, carry three passengers, and repeat the flight within two weeks. Gary Hudson, one of those in the race with his "sycamore seed" design, says in this week's New Scientist: "After a few years we intend to sell to any comers. That would include space tourism firms."

Scott Fitzsimmons, vice president of Zegrahm Space Voyages, has already scheduled the first passenger flight for 1 December 2001. "We have 40 people booked," he says. "They will train for seven days, then travel to the official astronaut level. There will be two-and-a-half minutes of continual weightlessness before the retro rocket causes a benign re- entry into the atmosphere, to land at the National Test Pilot School at Mojave, Arizona." The cost is expected to be $98,000. "It's about taking space programmes out of federal hands, and allowing everyone to enjoy them."

Nearer to earth, much of the hypertourism is being driven, inevitably, by the millennium. Brad Roberts is the creative founder of First Light 2000. The company hopes to sell 250 seats on an airship, twice the size of a Boeing 747, to fly over the Chatham Islands, off the east coast of New Zealand. He hopes passengers will pay up to pounds 30,000 to witness "the first dawn of the third millennium".

The Ritz-Carlton hotel group is offering a "Millennium Experience", reserved for just one couple per hotel, which retails at a cool pounds 100,000. The perks involve finding an 18-carat gold Bulgari Chrono watch on your pillow, a chauffeur-driven Jaguar and a 24-hour private butler service.

Meanwhile, the Orient Express company last week launched its "Grand World Tour". Planned for April next year, passengers will pay pounds 38,000 each to travel through Europe and ride the Orient Express before catching Concorde to Australia. There they will be able to enjoy the inaugural journey of the Great South Pacific Express on Australia's eastern seaboard.

Keith Betton says: "This year 16 million people will go on a package holiday; another 10 million will go independently. We're a nation of holiday makers. What this tiny proportion of travellers want, able to spend these sums, is endlessly more exclusivity."

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