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2007 Tour Trends: Report from USTOA

December 18, 2006 By: Jennifer Merritt Travel Agent

PHOENIX—"It wasn't fantastic, but it was a good year." This statement from Bob Whitley, president of the United States Tour Operators Association (USTOA), seems to best sum up the overall atmosphere of the New York-based organization's annual conference, held in Phoenix this past weekend. Though many tour operators reported strong business growth for 2006, a handful expressed an eagerness for an even better 2007. Bob Whitley

"For one thing, the number of U.S. passport
holders continues to rise," says Nikos Tsakanikas, chairman of USTOA and
president and CEO of Homeric Tours. "The price of gas is down and major
airlines have posted significant gains as they recover financially or emerge
from bankruptcy. Last summer the average transatlantic load factor was a
healthy 83 percent and the London
bomb plot and resulting security hassles did not appear to deter

In a survey released at the conference by USTOA, more than
60 percent of members reported strong growth through 2006, with tour operators
achieving sales that surpassed 2000, considered a banner year by many. Western
Europe tied with Central Europe, the Baltics and Russia for destination packages
with the highest year-over-year growth in 2006. Over 50 percent of USTOA
members once again reported Italy
as the top international destination for tours and packages. Domestically, California and U.S. national parks topped tour
operators' lists for the first time. Nevada
Stresses Adventure

Whitley was optimistic that 2007 would bring an end to the
much-maligned legal battle with Far & Wide, which in 1998 began acquiring
travel companies and in 2003 declared bankruptcy. "We're feeling really
good right now," he says. "We have a lawsuit against the officers and
directors of Far & Wide to recover the consumers' money and I feel like in
the next six months or so, we're going to have good news to report."

Tour operators at the conference reported strong consumer
interest in two niche areas over the past year: river cruises and responsible
travel. Whitley categorized river cruises as the motor coach of the future.
"We created a new operation to cater to river cruises," says Phillip
Gordon, president and CEO of Globus Family of Brands. "We're seeing
potential to go from one product experience to another, but motor coach is
still going strong."

Sustainable tourism—travel that involves volunteering or
giving back to host communities or countries—seems to be more of a burgeoning
trend. "It's a bit of a stretch at the moment, but I see it growing,"
says Bronwyn Wilson, president of Australian Pacific Touring. "There's a
ground swell among consumers wanting to make sure they are not altering the
sites they visit. It's absolutely profitable and people want to do it,"
echoes Harry Dalgaard, executive vice president of marketing air, car and
hotels for Rail Europe Group.

At the conference, USTOA named its board of directors and
officers for 2007. New board members include Ron Letterman, chairman of Classic
Vacations; Ed Neer, president of Aberdeen Tours; John Stachnik, president of
Mayflower Tours; Jim Barsch, senior vice president of Pleasant Tours; Charlie
Ball, president of Princess Tours; and Dalgaard of Rail Europe Group. Both Ball
and Stachnik also were named officers for 2007 as vice chairperson and
treasurer, respectively, joined by Homeric Tours' Tsakanikas as chairperson and
Kevin Eakin, president of Travel Connection, as secretary.

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