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The World Beckons, and American Travelers Can’t Resist

Times Staff Writers

Facing war, scorn, terrorism, a tentative economy, a weak dollar and daunting transatlantic fares, hundreds of thousands of American tourists have come to a resounding conclusion this summer: They don’t care.

They’re going on vacation, and they’re going overseas, in numbers not seen for years. By every major measure and against indicators that would suggest a different picture, U.S. leisure travel abroad is surging.

“I had no hesitation about coming here, though every adult in my life was cautious,” Ashley Thomas, 22, of Reseda said one recent day at the Louvre in Paris. “My philosophy is: I can’t live in fear. I’m the perfect age for Paris.”

This increase in Americans headed abroad has startled the travel industry, which peaked in 2000 and early 2001, suffered billions of dollars of losses after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, then limped through two years of fitful recovery until this swell began. In the days leading up to the Fourth of July weekend, industry leaders were still struggling to explain the numbers.

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Maybe, some say, it’s simply a matter of national cabin fever, a populace tired of staying home. Or maybe, others suggest, the prototypical American tourist is transforming from nervous neophyte to savvy traveler.

“I’ve never been so busy in my life,” said Ada Brown, a travel agent for 28 years and owner of Seaside Travel in Long Beach.

“It’s becoming almost impossible to get air space,” she said, although that’s partly because some airlines are still flying lighter transatlantic schedules than they were before Sept. 11. “We’ve got some people, we’ve been trying for a week to get them to Italy.” This, she added, is despite summer round-trip fares from Los Angeles that frequently top $1,000.

Like many close observers, Brown starts her explanation with the words “pent-up demand,” can’t cite a tipping point and scoffs at the idea of the Athens Olympics, scheduled to begin Aug. 13, as a factor in the boom.

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In fact, said Ed Daly, a European regional analyst at IJet Travel Risk Management, which advises multinational corporations, many people view the Athens Games as “a magnet for terrorism.”

A Surprising Surge

Yet travel industry veterans report soaring bookings throughout Western Europe, many of them made after the March 11 train bombings in Madrid that killed nearly 200 people.

Louanne Kalvinskas, co-owner of Distant Lands travel store in Pasadena, is among those who have plunged ahead: Three weeks after the Madrid bombings, she signed on for a weeklong Elderhostel art history seminar in the Spanish capital. She arrived in May, along with five other Americans, and enjoyed an essentially perfect stay, troubled by neither the prospect of further terrorism nor broad Spanish disapproval of U.S. moves in Iraq.

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Daly says the more visible security forces in many European nations provide psychological reassurance.

“People feel more comfortable and confident when they see a greater security presence,” he said.

Europe is the leading destination for Americans heading overseas. British tourism officials said nearly 1 million Americans arrived from January through April, the most for that period since 2001. In Dublin, Irish tourism officials said first-quarter arrivals from the U.S. were up 22%, the biggest increase in four years. Even in France, whose opposition to U.S. policies in Iraq prompted anger on this side of the Atlantic, first-quarter arrivals from America were up 10%.

The decision to travel means “people are coming to their senses,” said Edward Hasbrouck, who holds the title of “travel guru” at San Francisco-based travel agency Airtreks.com and is the author of “The Practical Nomad,” on around-the-world travel.

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“They may be skeptical the first time someone says, ‘You can go to places where the American government is unpopular,’ ” Hasbrouck said. “But the 10th or the 50th time they hear, they finally begin to believe. The word’s getting out: It’s still a wonderful world.”

It’s also a world that relatively few Americans have sampled.

The proportion of Americans holding active passports has hovered around 25% since before the terrorist attacks, the weakening of the U.S. dollar and the widening of protests against the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq.

For many foreign observers, that statistic reemphasizes the image of Americans as a people looking more inward than outward.

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For travel industry executives, other numbers hold greater interest these days:

* Montrose Travel in Montrose, one of the 50 top-selling travel agencies in the U.S., reported foreign bookings were up 126% through June 6 this year from the same period last year.

* International air traffic on U.S. carriers, though still behind the banner numbers of early 2001, was up nearly 20% through May compared with the same period last year. U.S. airlines say traffic on international flights is growing more than twice as fast as on their domestic routes.

* At the U.S. State Department, the volume of passport applications, more than 23% ahead of last year, is on track to set a record for the fiscal year. More than 8.4 million are expected to be issued this year.

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This burst “sure has surprised me,” said Tom Hale, founder and president of Berkeley-based Backroads, which takes about 13,000 travelers yearly on cycling, walking and multi-sport tours worldwide. “I really thought the trend we saw last year -- staying close to home -- would continue.”

Instead, Hale said, Backroads’ bookings for European trips this summer are up 50% from last year; bookings for winter trips to Latin America and Asia are up 80%. The company is on track to surpass the revenue record it set in 2000, Hale said, even though its bookings for North American trips are down slightly.

Upbeat news on the domestic economy must have played a role in this, Hale said. But he added, “I think people are maybe starting to be a little more pragmatic about what the likelihood of one of these [terrorist] events is.... Several years ago, that Madrid bombing would have had a big effect on travel to Europe. But it didn’t.”

Meanwhile, the State Department’s most recent “worldwide caution,” issued April 29, says that it remains “deeply concerned about the heightened threat of terrorist attacks” against Americans abroad.

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Resisting Fear

“If something’s going to happen, it’s going to happen,” said Michael Raimondi, a Los Angeles business owner browsing the Flight 001 travel store on West 3rd Street with daughters, Stella, 3, and Francesca, 7 months.

Raimondi, planning a 1,000-mile bicycle ride in France to raise funds for a hospital, said he refused to let terrorists change his lifestyle. Yet, once he gets out on the road with his cycle, he said, “I’m not wearing a USA cap, that’s for sure.”

Leslee Salrin of Long Beach, a 49-year-old mother headed for Italy, counts herself in the same camp.

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“Know what didn’t influence my decision? Fear,” Salrin said before her late June departure for Rome. “If something’s going to happen, it could happen here or it could happen in Italy. But I have a 13-year-old boy, and this is possibly the last year he’ll be willing to be seen with his mother. It’s going to be Max and Leslie’s Wild Adventure in Italy this summer.”

Rick Steves, guidebook author and European travel authority, reported in a recent e-mail from Switzerland that he had seen greater security than ever in Europe this summer, along with widespread scorn for U.S. foreign policy. That includes hoteliers “letting their politics be known to their American guests” and Canadians who seem “particularly proud to be Canadians” this year, Steves said. But most Europeans, he added, “have an amazing ability to not hold individual citizens accountable” for their government’s actions.

Analysts also have found increased interest in the Southern Hemisphere, from Latin America to New Zealand to Africa.

“It seems like everywhere you look, we’re on the verge of Armageddon, and yet our numbers are strong,” said Ann Bellamy, president of Glendale-based tour operator African Travel Inc. “For June and July, I’d say we’re up 20%" over 2003. Her customers, she theorizes, “are just sick and tired of being on this perpetual yellow alert.... And they’re doing something that they’ve always wanted to do.”

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But experts say a crisis such as an economic downturn, a reemergence of the severe acute respiratory syndrome outbreak in Asia or a new terrorist attack on tourists could cool this ardor.

“I think people are holding their breath, taking a calculated gamble” on traveling abroad again, said Reid Wilson, a psychologist specializing in anxieties and a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s School of Medicine.

Another big terrorist attack and “a lot of these fears are going to come roaring back,” he said.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Travel on the rise

Preliminary air travel data indicate a trend toward increased travel for 2004.

Air traffic on U.S. carriers, January through May

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(in billions of revenue passenger miles)

*--* Domestic International Total 2000 70.2 190.7 260.9 2001 73.3 191 264.3 2002 64.1 173.5 237.6 2003 57.9 173.1 231 2004 69.4 188.1 257.5

*--*

Flights represent business and leisure travel.

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Source: Air Transport Assn.

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Times staff writer Susan Spano contributed to this report from Paris.


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