Travel to Europe showed healthy gains in 2015, thanks in large part to a strong U.S. dollar. New tour product appealed to niche markets; new hotel openings enticed luxury travelers and new promotions piqued interest in some lesser-known destinations.
Agents, wholesalers, tour operators and hoteliers were for the most part, extremely optimistic about Europe travel this year.
Of course, not all headlines from the region were positive. Paris was rocked by the Charlie Hebdo shootings in January, and again by the tragic attack in November. In late summer, an attempted attack was foiled on a high speed Amsterdam-Paris train.
Enhanced security and extra precautions are a sign of the times in Europe. But they’re the new normal in most places. Travelers are a resilient lot; not easily deterred. Throughout the year, agents remarked that first-time visitors were especially eager to explore a more-affordable Europe. And frequent visitors were eager to venture beyond popular tourist destinations.
Here’s a look back on stories and topics Travel Agent readers were most interested in this past year.
Not surprisingly, river cruising tops the list. The segment continued to grow in Europe, both in terms of fleet expansion and market entrants. Several tour operators announced new or enhanced collaborations with established lines. Examples include the strategic brand alliance between Backroads and AmaWaterways; new A&K Connections River Cruise & Land Journeys on Amadeus Silver III and Avanti Destinations' first-ever river cruises, aboard CroisiEurope.
Top river cruise news items included last summer’s low water levels on the Elbe and Danube. A number of lines either cancelled sailings entirely or adjusted schedules to work around the problem in mid and late July. Those workarounds included ship swaps, motor coach tours, “bonus” excursions and future cruise credits. The vicissitudes of Mother Nature no longer lead to major disruptions in the river cruise industry.
The vicissitudes of the Greek economy did, however, cause some worry.
As the year began, tour operators and wholesalers were especially bullish about Greek sales. But by mid-year, attention was fixed on reports about civil aviation strikes, bank closures, cash withdrawal limits and protest rallies. All came as Greece struggled to renegotiate loans to the IMF, its future in the Eurozone hanging in the balance.
Despite fears that the tourism industry would collapse, tour operators and agents reported surprisingly few disruptions. That’s mostly due to the fact that credit card transactions continued without problems. And, the Greeks redoubled their famous hospitality to the vital tourist segment.
Nearby in Turkey, the hotel scene in Istanbul is attracting attention.
Noteworthy openings in the past year or so include the Raffles Istanbul. It’s located in a luxury shopping mall that also houses the country’s largest performing arts center. Also in a luxury shopping area is the Art Deco-inspired St. Regis Istanbul. And the Soho House Istanbul is next to the former U.S. Consulate building. There’s a private member-only club in the consulate that Soho guests can access.
Elsewhere in Europe, travel professionals with whom we spoke consistently mentioned two destinations: Spain and Portugal. Interest in both is on a definite upswing, with travelers venturing beyond the major tourist centers.
Portugal’s Douro River saw additional cruise lines enter the market. And hotels such as the Six Senses, which opened in the Douro Valley this year, are highlighting the region.
In Spain, luxury operators are entering the acclaimed Santiago de Campostela market. And Barcelona continues to hold its own as the country’s hippest hotel scene. Among the high-profile openings this year: The Hotel Cotton House. The 83-room Autograph Collection property is located in the 19th-century headquarters of the Cotton Manufacturers Association.
Other major luxury hotels to open this year are La Grande Maison Bordeaux; Kempinski Hotel Berchtesgaden, Germany; Mandarin Oriental Milan; The Gainsborough Spa in the UK; Villa Làrio in Lake Como; and Villa René Lalique in Alsace.
Airlines in the news this year included Lufthansa Group. Enhanced Lufthansa service to Frankfurt from New York’s JFK on flagship Boeing 747-8 aircraft was our most-read airline story. Another story that resonated with readers was Lufthansa Group’s decision to charge EUR 16 extra for tickets booked via GDS.
The group airlines (Lufthansa, Austrian Airlines, Swiss International Air Lines (SWISS) and Brussels Airlines) claimed the charge was needed to offset higher costs associated with GDS. The fee isn’t assessed against bookings made directly with the carriers.
The move is part of an overall shift of commercial strategy to focus on flight operations rather than ticket sales as a revenue base.
The new charge has been roundly criticized by agent advocacy groups since its implementation on September 1, 2015. It remains no doubt, one top story that will remain in the headlines in the coming year.