31 OCTOBER 2001

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Fear of flying dents the travel industry

By Ray Abdilla

Most of the local travel agencies have been hit by a fall in sales because people have become afraid to fly following the terrorist acts of 11 September and the ensuing war.

The general picture seems to indicate that most of the Maltese will spend their Christmas holidays in Malta.

Over the past few years, a growing number of Maltese have widened their horizons and taken holidays abroad, especially in summer and at Christmas, but the recent atrocities appear to have stalled much of that travelling.

Some travel agencies view recent events as something of a blip, saying that from the middle of this month work began picking up again. A Hamilton Travel spokesman said that soon after the September bombing the workload slumped heavily but after a few weeks people started booking their holidays again.

He added that people are still booking trips to the UK, even though it is heavily involved in the dispute with Afghanistan. But they are much more sceptical about going to the US.

In fact, Hamilton Travel used to organise group tours to America but they have stopped them for now due to the current situation.

Some travellers are, however, cautious about England as a destination.

Mark Farrugia from Untours Travel admitted that the morning flights to Gatwick are suffering. Recently Air Malta cancelled a number of the 8am flights to Gatwick because of poor bookings.

Travel agencies are receiving information from Air Malta to phone people who have booked for Gatwick and put them on the Heathrow flight instead.

Mr Farrugia said that the travel agency he works with is suffering on two accounts – partly because people are afraid of flying, but also because Air Malta has increased the fares.

"Bookings are even down for the Sicilian fair, Fiera dei Morti," he said.

He highlighted the fact that in the past, extra flights have been laid on for 30 October and 1 November.

"This year there is a great chance that even most of the scheduled flights will be dropped," Mr Farrugia said.

Regarding the fairs Mr Farrugia spoke about what other airlines are doing to beef up their workload. Lufthansa are offering a one ticket free for a companion who travels from the United States to Europe.

If one departs from 14 US gateway cities to more than 100 Lufthansa destinations in 35 countries for the price of one, one can get two tickets. Besides a free ticket when one purchases a have flown on Lufthansa two for one ticket to Europe, one will receive a complimentary HP 21.5xi digital camera, featuring a 2X digital zoom and image enhancing software – a retail value of $199.

In the last three years some 60 new travel agencies have opened their doors to the public and the number now stands at 240. If you multiply that by 2,000 it exceeds the population.

Many individuals who are organising tours to different places without having a licence. This goes against the law but they keep in doing it because foreign airlines sell them tickets without even verifying who they are. High airport taxes are not doing the business any good. "Extra Holiday’s’ have suffered since the introduction of these high rate taxes.

Many travel agents many a time decrease the prices for some of the destinations but these special fares do not always work well because paying more than Lm25 tax to fly to England will again put the price up even if the ticket costs just Lm79.

Another competitor for the local travel agent is the internet. Mr Farrugia said that many locals are browsing through the internet and booking a holiday.

The estimated number of Maltese going abroad in 1999 increased by 12,806 or 7.7 per cent and reached 179,547. Although the MATA have no records at her disposal it looks like as if last year the number has reached the 200,000 mark.

If this slump in travel continues the figure could go down to around 130,000. Following trends established in earlier years, August is usually the preferred month for travel for both Maltese nationals as well as other passengers. But December January and February was also on the rise.

Meanwhile Air Malta has announced that it will be offering limited capacity return flights to Amsterdam, Athens, Brussels, Milan, Munich, Rome and Vienna for only Lm59. These special offers are valid for a minimum stay of three days or a Sunday and a maximum of 14 days. Departure from Malta is permitted between 12 November and 19 December 2001.

These fares are exclusive of taxes, fees, charges and insurance premium surcharge. Children pay 67 per cent of the adult fare and infants not occupying a seat, 10 per cent of the adult fare.

Air Malta will also be increasing its flight programme to Zurich following Swissair’s withdrawal from Malta route, flying four times a week instead of the original plan of two flights a week.

This is not the first time that Air Malta stepped in to fill a vacuum created by the withdrawal of services as the airline had taken similar steps in the past following British Airways suspension of UK routes, Australian Airlines’ closure, and the recently Balkan Airlines from Sofia.

The decision taken by Air Malta is aimed at sustaining the tourism market from and to Switzerland as well as to offer frequent direct flights to Zurich for the Maltese travelling public. The number of tourist arrivals from Switzerland amount to more than 20,000 per year.

John Saliba, Marketing Manager and PR spokesman for Air Malta, pointed out that most airlines around the world are struggling at the moment. "There is a fight for survival and to keep the rhythm one must be flexible," he said. "Although times are difficult at the moment, we are still optimistic because Malta is a safe country."

He conceded that there had been some criticism because Air Malta put up its fares by three per cent, but stressed that one had to bear in mind just how much the insurance has gone up.

"But although this happened we also slashed some prices for Europe," Mr Saliba said.

Air Malta’s PR and Marketing manager also said that whilst he believes that the bombing of the world trade centre was undeniably a factor that hit the travel industry hard, one must also remember that the world economies have been very fragile as of late.

The Business Times, Network House, Vjal ir-Rihan San Gwann SGN 07
Tel: (356) 382741-3, 382745-6 | Fax: (356) 385075 | e-mail: editorial@networkpublications.com.mt