Tour operator to cut Disney link as visitors stay away: Firm cites high cost as reason for poor bookings as European theme park heads for first-year loss. Frank Barrett reports

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The Independent Online
AIRTOURS, one of Britain's biggest tour operators, is planning to end its Euro Disney programme because of poor bookings. The news that the country's third biggest package holiday company is seeking to drop its 'selected operator' arrangement with Euro Disney is a severe blow for the troubled Paris theme park.

Euro Disney, which opened at the beginning of April, admitted last week that it is likely to lose money in its first trading year. Financial experts are forecasting that Euro Disney, which predicted immediate profits when it floated its shares three years ago, will continue to suffer losses. The share price has fallen from 1684p in March to 973p yesterday.

Originally, Euro Disney hoped to attract 11 million visitors in its first year but it seems unlikely that it will able to meet the average figure of 30,000 visitors a day that it needs. Some experts suggest the park will attract only 8 or 9 million visitors in the first year.

George Marcall, marketing director of Airtours, said that its Euro Disney packages were not selling. 'Euro Disney is just too expensive. For a weekend package to Euro Disney you are likely to spend pounds 103 a day; for a 14-night package in July to Disney World in Orlando, Florida, you will spend between pounds 35 and pounds 40 a day,' Mr Marcall said.

Airtours' other main reason for pulling out is its concern about the weather. 'Who will want to go to Euro Disney on a wet day in November or a foggy day in January?'

Mr Marcall also criticised Euro Disney's attitude to dealing with tour operators and the way it markets its product.

'They want to exercise too much control over the way I can sell it,' he said.

The UK travel business was surprised at the rules and regulations imposed by Euro Disney over the use in brochures of Disney photographs and other publicity material. Only operators who commit themselves to a substantial level of business can use photographs of the park.

Other operators have accused Euro Disney of failing to understand the way the European travel business operates, in particular the popularity of coach holidays. An executive of a London-based coach operator said that when it opened, Euro Disney had no facilities for coach drivers or couriers, who had to spend all day on the bus.

'It's a ridiculous situation. On many days there have been more coaches in the car park than there are cars. The Euro Disney people simply say that in Florida nobody comes by coach.'

The most frequent complaint from visitors to Euro Disney is poor service, particularly in the hotels, where people have reported taking up to two and a half hours to check in to a room.

The company recruited a large number of people shortly before opening and sought to train them on the job: this seems not to have been a total success. There are also reports of dissatisfaction among staff at employment conditions.

Concern about visitor numbers caused Euro Disney management to trim hotel prices for the off-season, offering rooms at its cheapest on-site hotel, the Santa Fe, for Fr450 (pounds 47) per night instead of Fr550, with other reductions at more expensive hotels.

The most pressing problem for Euro Disney is its failure to attract sufficient numbers of French visitors. The company had estimated that over half of visitors would be from the home country but figures released last week indicate that of the 3.6 million people who have been to the park since its opening, only 1 million were French.

A spokeswoman for Euro Disney said that the company had been 'very pleased' with Airtours' bookings for the park. 'They haven't told us what they plan to do next year.'

(Photograph omitted)

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