Europe Always Astounds

written by | Posted on December 10th, 2012

Bled Lake, Slovenia.

From traditional European destinations like Great Britain, Germany, Spain and France to more off-the-beaten-path hotspots such as Romania and Estonia, in 2012 U.S. travelers headed to Europe in record numbers.

If what the tour operators are saying is any indication, a good reason travelers redi scovered classic cities like London, Berlin and Barcelona or discovered hidden gems in the Baltic States and Eastern Europe, was because of you.

“For the past months we have seen a rise in bookings through travel agents and this trend is expected to increase well into the next several years to come,” says Brian John, president & CEO of Intrepid Vacations (intrepid-vacations.com). “Consumers have become wary of the plateau of information found on OTA websites and prefer sitting with a professional travel agent that specializes and are experts in their destination of choice.

“Many organizations such as ASTA,” continues John, “have done well with creating awareness of the importance of booking with a travel professional and because of this we have seen a huge increase in travel agent-generated bookings and a reduction in bookings made by direct consumers. However, I encourage travel agents to become specialists and find their niche. With as much positive press as I have seen within the past several months, people are beginning to see that travel agents, in contrast to the OTAs, are more than just a booking channel. Travel agents are there to assist and advise their clients.”

“The travel agent continues to be absolutely key in luxury travel,” adds Rofia Larsson, director of marketing, Cox & Kings, The Americas (coxandkingsusa.com). “They are the best qualified to let their clients know what they cannot find on the Internet. Fortunately, savvy travelers have figured out that if they really want insider access and authentic experiences in a destination—including meeting and interacting with locals—they need a trusted travel agent.”

And what have travel agents been booking this past year for their clients headed to Europe? Sylvie Tannhauser, Wine & Culinary Travel Specialist, American Express Wine & Culinary Travel Insider, Brickell Travel Management, points to a few destinations beyond Western Europe. “Our clients are requesting destinations that are not crowded, are safe and offer good value. I have a lot of requests for Eastern European destinations—Latvia and Lithuania come in on top of the list. Travelers are seeking less-touristic/less-penetrated areas to experience local culture, flavors, history, and architecture, and to get more value [for their money].”

Although, Jennifer Halboth, director of channel marketing, Globus family of brands (globusjourneys.com), stresses that classic destinations had strong U.S. visitor presence in 2012, too. “France had a great year. We saw growth across the Globus, Cosmos and Avalon brands when compared to 2011. Plus, Spain had a stellar year.”

great britain
Speaking of traditional European destinations, it doesn’t get much better than 2012 for Great Britain, with the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, the London 2012 Summer Olympics, and the Paralympic Games. Mingling in with all the excitement that events of this magnitude bring was a flurry of hotel openings and re-do’s across Great Britain, as well as new attractions.

“I think for us the Olympics was really a fantastic opportunity to showcase the best that the destination has to offer,” says Karen Clarkson, v.p. of North America, VisitBritain (visitbritain.com). Clarkson adds that they knew going into it that visitor numbers dip for a host city during the Olympics, but even then they did see a 1 percent rise in visitors from North America January to September.

Welcoming all these visitors were new and newly improved hotels across England, Wales and Scotland, including the Bulgari Hotel in London (bulgarihotels.com), run by Ritz-Carlton, The Belgraves in London (thompsonhotels.com/hotels/london)—the first hotel in the UK by the New York-based Thompson Hotels—and The Wellesley, also in London (thewellesley.co.uk), a refurbished 1920s Knightsbridge townhouse and set to become the city’s first six-star hotel. Debuting this month in the capital city is ME London (melondonuk.com), part of Melia Hotels International. In Scotland, the Caledonion Hilton Edinburgh was reflagged as The Caledonian, A Waldorf Astoria Hotel (waldorfastoria3.hilton.com) and in the process received a restoration, while Wales saw the reopening, after a major facelift, of Brown’s Hotel (browns-hotel.co.uk), a 15-bedroom boutique hotel in Laugharne. If it’s attractions you need to keep eye on, think the new Harry Potter Tour from Warner Bros. Studio London, which opened in spring, and The Wales Coast Path that includes 70 beaches, 15 ports and innumerable coves. In fact, according to VisitBritain press material, Wales is the only country in the world where its entire coastline can be walked.

“We’d expect with the marketing money we’ve spent in the spring of this year and are spending in the fall at the moment, plus with the media coverage around the Games, agents can expect an uptick in inquiries from their clients,” says Clarkson.

The Belgraves in London.

And one of those places they might be asking about is an area of England that one of our writers, Sergio Ortiz, visited in March of this year, highlighted in our May 2012 issue, Devon & Cornwall: England’s Peerless Destinations. “That’s a great area of the UK that is largely untapped,” says Clarkson. “It’s got a wonderful rich heritage coast, which we call the Jurassic Coast, some fantastic and unique hotel properties, B&Bs, a great culinary scene, stunning landscapes and a lot of ties to some of our literary heritage, and as your writer would have experienced, very accessible from London.”

Sergio wrote in his onsite that, “Devon and Cornwall mean castles, rolling green hills sprinkled with sheep, quaint towns…friendly people—in short, faultless destinations containing the ingredients to cook up a perfect vacation.”

germany
Another Western European country that got high marks from U.S. visitors in 2012 was Germany. “Following a highly successful first half of 2012, the Federal Statistical Office has again reported encouraging growth for travel in Germany by U.S. visitors,” says Ricarda Lindner, regional manager, The Americas, German National Tourist Office (germany.travel). “The number of overnight stays from January to August was up by 3.8 percent compared to the same period last year.”

To help all those visitors get around, the German National Tourist Office launched the “Top 100 App,” which visitors can use to find out about the country’s top 100 tourist sights. And while they aren’t out sightseeing, visitors hung out at some new hotels, including Precise Hotel Potsdamer Platz (precisehotels.com) and Whim Hotels – Das STUE (das-stue.com/en) in Berlin; Swissotel Dresden (swissotel.com) and Themen-Hotel Altes Stahlwerk (altes-stahlwerk.com) in Neumunster.

Getting there, too, has been facilitated by new service from airberlin (airberlin.com). In May of this year, airberlin inaugurated nonstop flights from Los Angeles to Berlin, as well as from Las Vegas to Dusseldorf; and it upped its flight frequencies from New York to Berlin, as well as from Miami and San Francisco to Dusseldorf. Additionally, come March 23, 2013, airberlin will start operating nonstop flights from Chicago to Berlin, making it the first airline ever to provide a connection between this major U.S. metropolitan city and the capital of Germany.

“Germany has never been this popular and there are plenty of reasons—fantastic cities, engaging events and a fabulous infrastructure, to just name a few,” says Lindner. “Another factor is affordability, as Germany continues its success as a destination where visitors find great value for money especially in the travel basics such as accommodation and transport.”

One of the destinations that most draws visitors is Berlin, explains Lindner. “It’s still the No. 1 city choice for U.S. travelers.” To that end, this past year, Cox & Kings, in creating a variety of new tours meeting lifestyle interests, debuted the 5-day Berlin Holiday Markets, which Larsson of Cox & Kings stresses is for “serious shoppers” (departure in 2013 is Nov. 21).

Beyond Berlin, Lindner points to the German Alps, mountain ranges in mid-Germany and both Baltic and North Sea as places to vacation off the beaten track.

Lindner also signals out ancestry travel as a “trend we have been seeing, and German-Americans, at almost 15 percent of the U.S. population, make up the largest ethnic group in the U.S.” Leaf back through our issues to July 2012, and take a peek at Ancestry Travel: Family Roots & Routes, in which we highlight Family Tree Tours’ German offerings.

eastern europe & the baltic states
Speaking of the Baltic Sea, the Baltic States had a record number of visitors from the U.S. this year, as did other Eastern European countries such as Romania, whose numbers showed an impressive growth.

For example, Estonia saw a 25 percent increase in U.S. visitors year on year. “The Baltics continue to be more and more on travelers’ radars,” says Kensington Tours’ Nadiya Makarenko, Eastern Europe regional expert (kensingtontours.com). “The big push for this area comes from travelers who have seen most of Europe but are hungry for more. Travelers, especially from North America, love the idea of going to a region in Europe that has yet to be swarmed by mass market travelers.”

The tour operator, in fact, created the 8-day Baltic Exclusive, which visits Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, to meet this demand. And Makarenko stresses that an escorted tour to this area of Europe is still the way to go. “People are still ‘nervous’ when it comes to traveling in Eastern Europe. There is a greater likelihood of a language barrier. Travelers are unsure what to expect, but our travelers feel much safer and they get to unravel some of Eastern Europe’s hidden pleasures that you might miss when going solo.”

And Eastern Europe as a whole is on the minds of U.S. travelers if the numbers coming out of the Romanian National Tourist Office (romaniatourism.com) are any indication. According to Simion Alb, executive director for the tourist office, “Travel from the U.S. to Romania has increased during the first eight months of 2012 by 12.1 percent (an increase which is twice greater than the increase recorded in 2011 vs. 2010).” The reasons for this in part, Alb says, is that there are “more U.S. tour operators offering tours to Romania and air access from Western Europe to Romania is less expensive and there are more flights.”

The New Swissotel Dresden in Germany.

Kensington Tours, too, is seeing a steady climb of travel to Eastern Europe year over year. “Countries such as Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary and the Baltics,” Makarenko says, “are among the most popular countries, with Romania and Bulgaria slowly gaining popularity.”

In our January 2012 issue, in the Hot European Tours for 2012 piece, we interviewed Marc Kazlauskas, president of Insight Vacations (insightvacations.com) about the operator’s new Eastern Europe brochure and back then he said, “We feel there is huge growth potential in Eastern Europe and it’s a perfect place for an escorted tour.” More recently, he mentioned to us that, “I think Eastern Europe has such a huge appeal for the U.S. market because it was a place that for so many years we couldn’t go. For so many Americans, Eastern Europe is still a place that still seems relatively undiscovered and this is exciting to people.”

In Romania specifically, Alb points to “Transylvania and Bucharest as the country’s best known attractions for the U.S. traveler. But the Painted Monasteries in Bucovina, Mamamures, Romania’s most colorful and unspoiled rural area, and the Danube Delta are becoming more and more popular.” Adding to the hotel landscape, Alb says, is a notable trend, with many historic mansions and hotels being renovated and now welcoming visitors.

Globus, too, saw a positive growth in Eastern Europe. “The destination definitely outpaced Europe overall,” says Globus’ Halboth. The operator introduced four new tours to Eastern Europe in 2012, including the 9-day Bohemian Dream, which visits Budapest, Bratislava, Vienna, Cesky Krumlov and Prague.

“Consumers have become wary of the plateau of information found on OTA websites and prefer sitting with a professional travel agent that specializes and are experts in their destination of choice.”

Brian John, President and CEO,
Intrepid Vacations

of special note…
Of course, that’s just a sprinkling of European offerings. Another hotspot that was top of mind included Greece, a destination that was on Intrepid Vacations’ radar with a new air-inclusive fall and winter vacation package, Athens, Greece Fall & Winter Getaway, with departures through March 2013. And it was deals like this, says Brian John, president and CEO of Intrepid Vacations, that lured U.S. travelers to Greece this year.

View of the Aegean Sea from Fira.

This was a good year to travel to Greece, he says. “Aggressive price slashing by many airlines and hoteliers encouraged people away from other, more costly destinations and may have easily tempted those holiday makers that were looking for a cheap alternative.” He does point out however, that, “Given the problems the country was facing, our predictions were not good for Greek tourism and our initial forecast was that for the summer of 2012, there would be a significant drop in bookings of about 15 percent. However, the season was not as bad with only a 5 percent drop in bookings and we expect that percentage to level off in 2013.”

From sun-splashed Greece we look north to icy Iceland, home to one of the year’s hottest travel developments…the lure of those “Northern Lights.”

The Aurora Borealis got center stage this year, with many tour operators saying it was—and is—a must-see. “A new trend we saw over the past year,” says Cox & Kings’ Larsson, “was an increase in travelers requesting trips to Iceland, which has become a very hot destination recently, especially in light of NASA’s recent report about the Aurora Borealis. We even created a new itinerary, the 5-day Iceland: Aurora Borealis, around this, as 2012/2013 will be the best time in 50 years to view the Northern Lights.” Departure dates are available through April 2103.

Kensington Tours, too, says it’s time to follow the light, as it “will be shining brighter than ever,” says Makarenko. She recommends the operator’s 7-day Aurora Adventure Northern Lights itinerary, available through March 31.