Prices get exotic as the travel trade cashes in on 2000

Millennium holidays will cost a packet, writes Suzanna Chambers
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The Independent Online
IMAGINE: THE clock strikes midnight and you are standing on a moonlit beach, the warm waters of the Caribbean at your feet, a glass of champagne in hand. Where better to see in the millennium than a five- star hotel in Barbados which promises miles of deserted white sand (and which will also burn into your pocket a hole so big it will stay with you well into the next century)?

Glossy brochures advertising luxury holidays for the millennium are already on the travel agents' shelves. Holidaymakers are being offered an unprecedented range of exotic trips - from spending midnight with iguanas on the Galapagos Islands, to cruising the Southern Ocean to Antarctica - at greatly inflated prices.

For example, a 15-night cruise on board the five-star Marco Polo to Antarctica via the Falkland Islands will set you back a five-star sum: pounds 4,895. Too expensive? Then why not try a week cruising the Pacific, a comparative snip at pounds 3,340?

Trailfinders, one of Britain's leading travel agents specialising in long-haul trips, is so concerned about finding its clients good deals for New Year 1999 that it has set up a millennium committee to protect their interests. "The committee is trying to get as much information [as they can] from the airlines and accommodation we use across the globe, to put together a policy," said Trailfinders spokeswoman Sue Moscow.

One of the biggest unresolved questions is precisely what travel operators are planning for the millennium. Many airlines have not yet told agents the number of flights they will be providing and are unwilling to commit themselves. Some have not even decided whether they will operate at all around the holiday, because of fears over the impact of the millennium bug on booking computers and aircraft navigation systems.

"They will have to have put together their packages by January. All the booking systems will have to be up and running 11 months before the millennium," said Ms Moscow.

But from the millennium packages already on offer, it is easy to spot the trend: they aren't cheap. BA Holidays' 1999/2000 brochure shows millennium price-hikes of around 20 per cent, compared with the same trips this December. Seven millennium nights at the five-star Royal Pavilion hotel in Barbados will be pounds 3,095 per person, no extras included. This year it would set you back only pounds 2,495. Similarly, a 14-night stay in a hotel in the Maldives is being offered by travel agents Kuoni for pounds 1,806, which is 34 per cent higher than the identical holiday this year, at pounds 1,200.

A five-night break in Iceland with Arctic Experience over 31 December 1998 will cost pounds 592. However, the same tour for just three nights over the millennium would be pounds 935 per person - an increase of 37 per cent.

Steina Palsdottir, Arctic Experience's executive director, said prices were being bumped up by airlines and hoteliers. "They have all got to get their staff to work. It's the only millennium that we'll see."

But according to Ms Moscow, things are not that clear-cut. "Every airline and hotelier has a different policy. Not every airline has put its prices up, and this what the millennium committee is trying to clarify."

Some of the extra cost will be to pay people to work during what may be the party of a lifetime, she agreed. "But mostly it seems to all be about supply and demand."

In many of the more far-flung destinations, Ms Moscow added, Christianity is not practised, so the millennium will not be a special public holiday.

Opportunism is a large element in many price increases. Indian hotels, for example, are most unlikely to be paying staff extra wages, but prices will go up because hoteliers and tour operators know people will be prepared to pay extra for a "special" destination.

It might be expensive for travellers, but for travel agents, the millennium period could turn into a nightmare. "Logistically it is a difficult thing to organise," said Ms Moscow. "We have to build the information up and then consider what people are willing to pay for. It's a unique event. People weren't travelling for the first millennium."

And don't count on last-minute bargains, she warned. "Flights at that time of the year are always full and I don't think airlines will put up their prices by so much that they won't sell. Prices of seats are fluid. They change all the time, depending on how the market is going."

Keith Bennot, head of corporate affairs at Abta, the Association of British Travel Agents, said inflated costs were to be expected. "You'll get hoteliers thinking they won't be around for the next millennium and that they must make the most of it," he said. "Everyone in the supply industry will increase prices to take advantage of it. You can't really avoid it."

His advice to would-be millennium tourists: "Don't go anywhere really exciting."