One of the best parts of the annual New York Times Travel Show is wandering around the main floor of the Jacob Javits Convention Center and talking with representatives from all over the world. One never knows who one will meet—for example, of the many people Travel Agent met this past weekend at the show, we got to speak with such diverse people as South Africa’s Deputy Minister of Tourism Thokozile Xasa; the Brazilian Tourism Office's Director for East Coast Miguel Jeronimo; and American Express Travel Services' Senior Manager Ramesh (Nick) Raghavan. Everyone in the enormous room had two things in common: They had all braved brutal weather to be there, and they were all eager to see where the travel industry would go in 2010 and beyond.
Ms. Xasa was very eager to talk about how South Africa is growing as a destination, especially with sports teams holding major tournaments in its arenas. This year, the 2010 FIFA World Cup will take place in nine cities across the country from June 11 to July 11, bringing hundreds of thousands—if not millions—of football (oh, fine, soccer) fans to South Africa from around the world. She was especially excited to point out how the country is pulling together to welcome the World Cup. Major hotel groups are opening new properties to handle the fans and players (The Taj Hotel Cape Town and a One & Only have recently opened, a new Radisson has recently debuted in Johannesburg), and the government is helping small and medium enterprises to keep business going. “It's confidence,” she said. “They believe in the destination.”
Beyond sports tourism, Ms. Xasa said that the tourism board is looking to expand its offerings to encourage visitors from different markets. Health tourism and cultural tourism are both growing markets. "We don't just want to follow international trends only," she says. "We must stay unique."
Brazil is also set to explode as a sports destination: Next year will see the Military Games in Rio de Janeiro; 2014 will see the World Cup played throughout the country (unlike the World Series, the World Cup actually is played around the world!); and the 2016 Olympic Games will be held in Rio. To that end, Jeronimo said, the tourism board has marketing strategies in place through to 2020. Agents can take online training courses; new direct flights from Miami and Atlanta to Brasilia via American Airlines and Delta are taking to the skies; and there are deals aplenty to help whet appetites.
Naturally, 2009 was rough on all sectors of the travel industry, and even such giants as AmEx were not immune. “We experienced negative growth in ’09,” acknowledged Raghavan. But, he added, “2010 looks exciting. Customers are coming back—they want to travel! They’re burnt out after 2008 and 2009.”
To help encourage travelers, AmEx is developing new programs to offer rewards and points that will keep people moving. Some of the classic destinations, like the Caribbean and Hawaii, are making a comeback for American travelers, and he noted that Australia, Fiji and Dubai—which once seemed impossibly far away and expensive to visit—are becoming more popular as the values become better.
Still, travel may seem like a luxury (to some) rather than a necessary recharging of batteries, or a valuable cultural experience. “We’re still finding the psyche of the customer,” he said. “They don’t know what to do.” To that end, he believes it’s an agent’s job to encourage them. “Let them know it’s okay to travel,” he suggested.