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It's the Year of the Big Homecoming

January 26, 1986|TONI TAYLOR | Taylor, an authority on the travel industry, lives in Los Angeles

If you're considering a vacation this year somewhere in North America, now might be a good time to start doing some serious planning.

The industry is gearing for a very heavy domestic travel summer, and that could mean trouble for tardy bookers. If things go according to expectations:

--Airlines will find it tough to handle the volume of traffic during peak periods. There will be long lines and probably a higher incidence of overbooking.

--Hotel space will be tight and the "sold out" notices will be posted weeks, maybe months in advance, especially at the more popular resort properties.

--Theme parks will be jampacked, also sightseeing coaches and man-made and natural attractions of every description.

--Demand for rental automobiles will outstrip supply at some locations during the summer season, particularly in heavily visited destinations such as New York, the New England states, right here in Southern California and, most especially, in the Pacific Northwest, near the action of Expo '86.

--The motor-coach tour industry will find its services in greater demand than ever, leaving less of a choice for those who book late.

Earlier the Better

So if you are one of those many millions of Americans thinking domestic vacation this year, you could be left out in the cold unless you make your plans early, the earlier the better.

Why are so many insiders betting that Americans will stay closer to home in 1986? Several factors point to that conclusion.

First and foremost, sadly, is the specter of terrorism.

TWA/Athens, the Achille Lauro, Rome and Vienna airport violence, London bobbies with automatic weapons, concerns about Libya . . . Americans are being subjected daily, often in living color, to news reports and rehashes of the potential danger of travel to Europe and, by extension, the rest of the world.

The effect has been to make many people nervous about traveling abroad. It has given them an urge to see their own country.

To adapt a mangled line of Yogi Berra's, as far as international travel is concerned, Americans are going to stay away in droves.

International Draw

On a more positive note, one of the factors working against overseas travel growth this year is the aforementioned Expo '86 in Vancouver. That delightful exhibit will draw from all over the world, of course, but the organizers are banking heavily on attracting U.S. vacationers.

Currency exchange rates are also going to make life difficult for international travel marketers this year, in particular those dealing in European destinations. The dollar just isn't going to buy as much in Britain and Germany and France as it did in the last few years.

If you get the impression from all this that Europe is likely to be the biggest loser, you're right. That continent has had five years in succession of huge--in some cases, record--increases in visitors from these shores, and the bubble has to burst sometime.

Had all things remained equal, the growth spiral was likely to slow down in 1986. With the other complications mentioned earlier, the diminishing appeal of European destinations is pretty well certain.

Growth Rate to Dip

There's no suggestion here, mind you, that Europe is dead as a vacation area. With its strong cultural and ethnic ties to the United States, it will always get its share of business from this market. But the gaudy growth rate will surely drop.

An indication of what's at stake is provided by some recent figures issued by the British Tourist Authority. In 1985 a total of 3.3 million Americans vacationed--or took business trips--to England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. They know it's going to be tough to hold onto that market.

That's why they--and others--will be spending more in this country on promoting and advertising to get your attention. Britain's figures are used here only to illustrate the importance of North American tourists to European economies; other countries have almost as much involved.

So make up your minds, folks. If you're going to join millions of your countrymen in seeing the United States and Canada, don't dilly-dally. If you do, you could find one of them sitting in your airplane seat, driving your rental car and sleeping in your hotel bed.

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