Disastrous penalty shoot-out? Not everyone thinks so...

Glee is a rare emotion in the travel industry. The business of getting people from A to B and back again, and (with luck) enabling them to enjoy themselves, is indisputably more satisfying than, say, accountancy. Yet financially, travel is a dismal business to be in - especially when prospective customers insist on remaining in a corner of their nearest pub watching events on foreign football fields, instead of flying off to overseas beaches.

Within seconds of Portugal's winning penalty conversion last Saturday, Britain's travel industry cheered up. "It's excellent news for business," says Stephen Bath, joint managing director of Bath Travel. He began drafting in extra staff for his 67-strong chain of travel agencies while the tears were still flowing on the pitch.

"As soon as that light bulb went out on Saturday night, people started planning their holidays because they want something to look forward to. It's exactly the same after Christmas, which is why sales in January are so good. Simple psychology."

June spelled gloom for many in the industry. Enterprises from no-frills airlines to adventure-travel specialists experienced poor sales at a time of year that should prove profitable. Experience shows that the World Cup affects travel bookings far more than other sporting events - until the moment England's interest in the tournament ceases.

One penalty punt kick-started a surge in package holiday sales. "It's almost like watching a dam burst," says Keith Betton of the Association of British Travel Agents. "People sit on their cheque books until we win or get knocked out."

Germany 2006 is the first World Cup to take place in the new era, when the vast majority of flight bookings are made online. One consequence is that sales can be tracked minute by minute. Bookings dipped severely when England were playing, according to Tim Jeans, managing director of Monarch Scheduled. "During the games, you could see tumbleweed blowing down the virtual high street we have on the website. Web traffic slowed to less than a trickle. We're looking forward to a strong bounce-back."

BESIDES THE World Cup in Germany, the travel industry also feared that this might be one of those singular summers when a UK tennis player survives rather longer than the time it takes to walk from the car park to an outside court at Wimbledon. Happily for the industry, the initial success of the Scot Andy Murray at the All-England Club was followed sadly and swiftly by failure. That helps to explain how Ryanair reached a record 200,000 bookings last Monday.

Peter Sherrard of Ryanair says: "We've seen a dip in bookings when England have been playing and a corresponding rise when they are not." Now that the team are not playing anyone for four weeks, travellers have reverted to type, making an average of one booking for a Ryanair flight every 25 seconds.

SUNDAY BROUGHT intense heat and humidity to much of Britain. I talked to one airline insider about the news of Noel Forgeard's resignation as co-chief executive of Europe's leading aircraft manufacturer. My contact said the heat was so bad that he was "sweating like an Airbus executive".

Yet despite the warmth, the leading holiday airline Excel Airways reported higher sales. A spokesman Martin Lock says: "Normally when the weather's good, bookings ease off, but the call centre has been very busy."

British travellers have been boycotting Germany for six decades in protest against the Second World War. Could they do the same to punish Portugal over what some supporters saw as the unfair sending-off of Wayne Rooney? Mr Lock rejects the idea. "We've been allies with them for hundreds of years. People will still go out there because they love the place." His enthusiasm could be down to two things: he has a holiday planned in the Algarve, and his job is to fill planes to Portugal with happy holidaymakers.

Tim Jeans of Monarch Scheduled, who also has seats to spare on flights to Lisbon and Faro, says another destination is more vulnerable. Following the implausible outbreak of violence last week- end in St Helier, aimed at the large Portuguese community on the island, Mr Jeans believes prospective tourists "will be more put off by rioting in Jersey".

BRIDGING THE GAP

Travel may be chronically dysfunctional, but the industry manages to stage plenty of exciting events. This week alone saw the unveiling of the Adam & Eve Resort - billed as "the world's sexiest hotel" and located, oddly, near Antalya in Turkey - and Virgin Atlantic's inaugural flight to Montego Bay.

The travel business knows how to sweet-talk journalists. But at 10.30am on the same day as Sir Richard Branson's airline took off for Jamaica, we hacks were offered a rival enticement: not "visit the Virgin Clubhouse at Gatwick" but "arrive at Neats Court car depot". This was the rendezvous point for Monday's official opening of the A249 Sheppey Crossing, which is worryingly close to both Slaughterhouse Point and Deadman's Island.

The new bridge to the Isle of Sheppey is a great advance, though. The previous Kingsferry crossing had to lift for passing ships, restricting tourists trying to reach the island where Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn took their honeymoon.

Anyone lured by the link can visit Leysdown, site of the UK's first aircraft factory; the Elmley Marshes bird reserve; and, at the Whelan factory, get a guided tour of the South-east's biggest concrete garden ornament maker.

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