Go west, young holiday-maker

Even communist Cuba is not being left out of the tour operators' quest for ever more exotic locations. Jeremy Atiyah on what's big this year

IF YOU take any notice of an industry that only knows of two conditions, boom or bust, you will be glad to know that the travel industry says bookings for summer 1997 are booming. And if you are waiting to know where everybody else is going to be this summer before making up your mind, there are a few early indicators of where the crowds are (and aren't) going to be.

One thing that is clear is that more and more people are following the big tour operators and heading west. A lot of people who would not previously have strayed away from the Mediterranean are now looking further afield, partly because peak season in Europe equals low season in the Caribbean. Florida remains the most popular long-haul destination by a wide margin, with over half-a-million visitors from the UK. But probably a quarter-of-a-million people are going to the Dominican Republic this year as well, which means, for the first time, that Thomson Holidays (for one) are taking more people to the Caribbean island this year than to Florida.

"The Dominican Republic is such good value compared with other Caribbean destinations such as Barbados," explains Carol Bailey of Thomson Holidays. "And although a few years ago we still had problems with the basic tourist infrastructure, those early problems have now been ironed out. Another thing is that all-inclusives are now as popular for families with children as they are for young couples and singles."

The success of destinations such as the Dominican Republic reflects the relentless rise of the all-inclusive holiday in the Caribbean. Mexico is also experiencing a meteoric all-inclusives boom, with the two (highly un-Mexican) resorts of Cancn and Puerto Vallarta on the Pacific taking the majority of bookings. Even Cuba, one of the last bastions of the communist world, is now being descended upon by big tour operators establishing their all-inclusive resorts. The only place where it is possible that there might be signs of a backlash against the all-conquering all-inclusive tide is Jamaica, where the tourism experience, for tourists and locals alike, seems to be suffering under the cultural impact of it all.

The popularity of the Caribbean region is perhaps odd given that it is not an ideal summer destination: it rains a lot and the threat of hurricanes grows through August and September. The sunny Mediterranean can rest assured, however: its beaches will not be empty next year.

Summer sun brochures for the Mediterranean were issued much earlier this year and bookings are correspondingly much further advanced. According to Lunn Poly's estimates for the summer of 1997, which are based on bookings made by all its UK agents, by far the biggest single resort destination for British tourists will continue to be the Balearic island of Majorca, with Turkey coming up on the outside. As well as the Balearics and Turkey, the Canaries retain their undiminished popularity, as a cheap year-round destination.

While the beaches at Palma Nova, Olu Deniz and Las Americas will be seething as never before, those in Cyprus and Greece will continue to look a little empty, particularly when it comes to British visitors. Cyprus has political problems while Greece, until this year, had become rather expensive, though with a weaker drachma it is set to improve on the disastrous performance of the last two years.

If you have not booked anywhere this year on the supposition that you are going to pick up a last-minute bargain, beware: desperate price-cutting may be a thing of the past. Big operators such as Thomsons have announced that prices will rise as the season approaches, to avoid the situation of having to cut prices to fill seats later.

And for travellers heading further afield? South Africa and Australia are not quite destinations for mass tourism yet, with a large proportion of British visitors still VFR (Visiting Friends and Relatives), though with air fares to Australia at an historic all-time low - pounds 400 return tickets are now available from Austravel - young independent travellers are catching their opportunity to explore the southern hemisphere.

Charlotte Hindle of Lonely Planet feels that for independent travellers Africa is the up-and-coming area: "People are looking for new continents. South-east Asia and South America have been thoroughly explored but Africa is still unknown. Countries such as Malawi, Mozambique and Ethiopia are going to see a lot more visitors, I think." The lure of the Caribbean is also having an effect on independent travellers, with Lonely Planet's Cuba book outselling all their other titles at travellers' fairs this year.

Meanwhile the foreign country which British tourists will visit in the largest numbers will continue to be, as it always has been, France. Why then do French resorts not show up in the league tables of popular resorts? Presumably because visitors to France know best how to hide themselves away.

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