European travel bookings steady following Brussels attacks

Despite terrorist attacks in the past several months, European travel is still a favorite among U.S. travelers, though some seasoned vacationers are choosing options including destinations off the beaten path away from large crowds.

“We saw a quick downturn in bookings both last November after Paris and more recently in March after Brussels,” Betsy O’Rourke, chief marketing and revenue officer for Xanterra Parks & Resorts, told TheTravelPro. “In both cases, within three weeks guest inquiries and bookings climbed back.”

Gondolas and San Giorgio from Venice
Xanterra Parks & Resorts owns Windstar cruises, VBT biking tours as well as several other global travel and hospitality businesses. Overall, bookings remain below last year’s levels but the company sees bookings increase daily.

Guidebook author and TV travel host Rick Steves says European tours booked through his company, Rick Steves’ Europe, Inc., are approximately what they were in 2015. Steves is not surprised.

“Why would I cancel any travel plans to Europe when, statistically, Europe is far safer than walking the streets of any big city in the USA?” he said in an email to TheTravelPro. “America needs to get a grip and stop confusing risk with media-generated fear.”

He added that more Americans have been killed on the streets of Chicago this month than the total of Americans killed overseas since 9/11. According to the Chicago Tribune newspaper's website, 84 people were killed in the Windy City and its suburbs from April 1 through April 11.

O'Rourke's company is seeing some shift in the European destinations chosen by its clients.

“We have seen a real surge in interest in our European itineraries,” she said. “VBT has seen a big increase in Croatia and now Italy. Iceland is also very popular along with our cruises to other northern European destinations.”

Venice: new friends, the Grand Canal and the Ponte Rialto
One of the reasons European travel is appealing despite a travel alert issued by the U.S. Department of State in the wake of the Brussels bombings is because the cost of a euro is about 18 percent lower than it was two years ago. O’Rourke believes that, as air fares come down, those lower fares combined with the value of the dollar will cause bookings to stabilize.

The exchange rate for travelers spending U.S. dollars is off the historic lows of 2015 but it still very favorable at US$1.14 per €1 as of this writing. Of course, exchange rates fluctuate constantly. In 2014, €1 was worth US$1.39, so the dollar will go much farther today than it did two years ago.

While Steves’ statistics help put the overall risk into perspective, defense and security experts have long cautioned people visiting areas considered “hot spots” to avoid popular sites where large crowds congregate, as these make attractive targets for those bent on violence. According to the State Department’s travel alert, that can, unfortunately, mean almost anywhere large numbers of people gather.

“Extremists have targeted large sporting events, theatres, open markets, aviation services, transportation systems, and public venues where people congregate,” the alert cautions.

O’Rourke says her company is seeing bookings that seem to indicate that travelers are mindful of that reality, choosing roads less traveled and seeking out new and lower-profile destinations.

“Our itineraries on land and sea are off the beaten path, away from crowded popular tourist destinations,” she said, pointing to facets of two of their offerings that stay far from the madding crowds.

Boat and windmill in Zaandam, north of Amsterdam
“With VBT [biking tours], our guests are biking along small country lanes, staying in picturesque quaint villages and seeing the country they are visiting like a local,” she said. “With Windstar cruises, our small ships allow us to go into many hidden harbors and small ports that are wholly inaccessible to big ships and off the regular tourist routes.”

O’Rourke says her company uses guides that are nationals of the countries in which it arranges tours. As a result, guests have “[A] very intimate experience with local people, food and culture.”

American travel to Europe has long been subject to fluctuation, with reasons ranging from the Chernobyl nuclear accident of 1987 to the economic downtown earlier this decade to the Greek economic crisis of 2015 to the recent bombings in Paris and Brussels.

While acknowledging that security is in high gear, Steves points out that 400 million Europeans are working, learning from each other and doing their best to embrace life.

“By my reasoning, if you are concerned about the safety of your loved ones and you understand the statistics, you’ll take them to Europe tomorrow,” he said.

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Photos by Carl Dombek
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