Sun and sand but don't mention war

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The Independent Online
THE BROCHURE promises a destination where you can spend your 'precious leisure time in a new, dynamic and entirely different way'. Even by the normal standards of holiday brochures, the glossy hand-out from the Croatian National Tourism Office (slogan: 'Small country for a great holiday') is an outstanding example of the obfuscatory arts.

While most tourist offices are busy playing down the hazards of polluted beaches or pickpockets, Croatia's is playing down the war. The Minister of Tourism, Niko Bulic, says with commendable cheeriness: 'Croatia was one of the safest places on the Mediterranean coast this year'.

Undeterred by strife, plenty of buyers were attracted to Croatia's stand at last week's World Travel Market at Earl's Court in London. It was among some 3,300 travel companies and tourist offices from more than 140 countries which gathered to whip up business in a rapidly changing market.

The cheap package holiday to the Mediterranean no longer dominates the British travel industry. Such traditional favourites as France, Spain and Greece are no longer simply fighting each other for customers - now they all face long- haul rivals. The newcomers include the Lebanon - slogan: 'What other destination offers skiing in the morning and swimming in the afternoon' - and Vietnam: 'pearl of the Orient'.

Indeed while the package holiday business continues to have problems - 17 operators have collapsed so far this year, according to the Civil Aviation Authority - economic gloom has not deterred the British from travelling abroad.

Over the past decade the number of trips made abroad by British people has almost doubled - from about 17 million in 1980 to more than 33 million last year, itself an increase of three million on 1991, when travel was depressed by the Gulf war.

But specialist holiday companies say that this growth has been no help to the package industry because it has failed to understand that many holidaymakers want more than Mediterranean sun and sand.

According to the Government's International Passenger Survey, the number of people taking non-package holidays grew during the Eighties from 7.7 million to 13.7 million. Meanwhile, the number of people buying inclusive packages rose from 6.2 million to 12.5 million in 1988 but fell away to 10.6 million by 1991. The 1988 record has yet to be broken.

Britain's second biggest tour operator, Airtours, has changed to meet the new demand. It will run a special Cuba programme next summer, and this week confirmed that it would be running regular charter flights next summer for the first time to the Cayman Islands in the Caribbean.

Britain's biggest specialist ticket agency, Trailfinders, which sells 225,000 air seats a year, says that by far its most popular destination now is Australia. And the fastest-growing in popularity: 'That's easy - it's Vietnam,' said the agency's Gayle Macmillan.

While Trailfinders says that its business is growing by 10 per cent a year, Journey Latin America's turnover has expanded by more than 20 per cent in the past 12 months. 'There's no recession in our market,' said its managing director, Chris Parrot.

The failing economy and mortgage worries have played their part in the slump in package holiday sales, but the seeds of the industry's downfall were sown by the operators themselves, according to their critics. Ignoring changes in taste, they have continued to concentrate on selling a product that has changed little in substance from the Sixties' tower block hotel package.

While retailers of food, furniture and fashion have been building businesses by appealing to customers' sophistication and self-image, the main travel chains market a product whose sole attraction is deemed to be its cheapness.

In the past five years the United States has emerged as a leading holiday destination, but little else on the travel agencies' shelves offers anything significantly different to what was available a decade ago.

Britain's biggest agency chain, Lunn Poly, says that next year Spain, the traditional favourite, will be the main destination. It is attracting 60 per cent of bookings, followed by Greece with 13 per cent, the US with 6 per cent, Cyprus, 4 per cent and Portugal, 3 per cent. If left to the main retail chains, it would be some time before the Lebanon or Vietnam made an appearance in the top ten destinations.

Neil Taylor of Regent Holidays of Bristol says that the travel industry has been too slow to recognise the trend towards individual travel and away from groups. 'Eighty per cent of our business is now putting together individual trips - we used to do mostly group packages,' said Mr Taylor.

Reflecting the growing taste for lesser-known destinations, Regent now does most of its business in taking clients to the Baltic States, Vietnam and Cuba. 'People want to travel - they just don't want to buy the sort of holidays being offered by most travel agencies.

'The big travel agencies and tour operators ought to realise that it is time to change. The trouble is that many of the people running these businesses have been in it since the Sixties and they are locked into offering the same thing. They don't know how to sell a more flexible product,' said Mr Taylor.

Chris Kirker of Kirker Holidays, and chairman of the Association of Independent Tour Operators, points to Paris for a concise example of the changing taste of the traveller. 'Go to Euro Disney and you see that it is struggling; go to the Musee d'Orsay and you will see the huge queues waiting in line for a chance to see the current exhibition of the Barnes Collection of paintings.'

The mood of this week's World Travel Market suggests that the future shape of the travel industry is more Matisse than Mickey Mouse.