Tour firms offer sun, sea and serious savings

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THE ONSLAUGHT has been relentless. Sunday newspaper travel supplements have been stuffed with them, magazines have used their glossiest pictures to promote them and day-glo travel show presenters have urged us to have one last fin de siecle fling - the millennium package deal.

But not even Jean Michel-Jarre tinkling on his synthesiser as the new millennium touches the Giza pyramids, has tempted the great British public from their torpor. More than 300,000 end-of-year deals have remained unsold, prompting one of the biggest price-cutting wars among tour operators.

A 14-night break on the Canary Islands was being offered for pounds 139 by JMC Holidays - a saving of pounds 528. Thomson cut the cost of a Majorcan package by half to pounds 230 for two weeks.

Thomson, and rival company Airtours, indicated last month that millennium holiday sales had proved sluggish.

In the last few weeks companies have gradually been bringing prices down as a combination of cost and millennium bug fears kept end-of-year bookings low.

Industry experts estimated that around five per cent of up to six million scheduled winter holidays have yet to be sold - around 300,000.

Earlier this year, British Airways tried to assuage passenger fears that planes would not drop out of the sky on 1 January 2000 by setting its equipment to that date on one of its aircraft and taking to the air.

But it appears not to have allayed concern among the bulk of travellers whose reservations have been heightened by US state department criticisms of Y2K readiness of countries like Egypt, a popular destination with British travellers.

But prices, for routine holidays as well as the millennium packages, have also proved a deciding factor in a flat refusal by families looking to escape for the holiday period.

A spokeswoman for the Association of British Travel Agents said: "There has been a lot of discounting on some holidays and this has indicated that some prices for millennium holidays were fixed too high.

"Many short-haul European holidays, particularly self-catering ones, are still available for last-minute buyers who want to go away over the Christmas and New Year period."

Tour operators are now counting on bookings picking up during next year. Some have reported summer programmes are selling well and surveys have shown many people are planning a special holiday some time during the year to mark the millennium.