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Backpackers stay on the move amid crises

May 11, 2003|Lucy Izon | Special to The Times

THE war in Iraq, the SARS epidemic, the threat of terrorism and airlines in financial trouble are hitting the travel industry hard, but if history is any indication, none of this will stop youths and backpackers from traveling this summer. They are often the first to make it to undeveloped destinations and, after times of trouble, to get on the road again.

When I visited China in 1989, six months after the Tiananmen Square massacre, I didn't see any Western tour groups, but backpackers were there. When I visited Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia soon after those nations broke away from the Soviet Union, tourism was so undeveloped that visitors were being housed in office buildings. But backpackers were there.

Young travelers' resilience is evident again. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, "the students were the first to sign up and say, 'OK, I'm going,' " says Bart Littlefield of the online booking service Student Universe. "I think people decided that ... even if the [Iraq] war did go on for a while, it wasn't going to affect their travel plans."

"The recovery was quicker than we even thought it would be," says Heather Crosby, general manager of Travel CUTS, a Canadian student travel service.

STA Travel, which has 450 offices worldwide, is finding travelers more cautious. "Students are making plans but adopting a wait-and-see approach to booking," says Jesper Tejsen Lykke, vice president of product development.

Why are they so resilient?

"I think young people probably do have a higher tolerance for uncertainty," says Russell Hedge, CEO of Hostelling International-USA.

"There's a pent-up demand," Tejsen Lykke says.

"We've had two years of delays with Sept. 11 and security concerns, and the year before it was foot-and-mouth disease," Crosby says. "Students and youths, who as we all know have a sense of immortality, still want to go. Although not to the degree we would normally see by now, students are still coming in and saying, 'I'm going to Europe,' and committing to it."

"Graduates and students who would normally have summer internships have more free time and less to keep them at home," Littlefield adds. "Companies in this [economy] are finding it hard to come up with a few bucks for that discretionary employee."

So where are students traveling this summer?

HI-USA's Hedge says bookings are stronger in England this year than in the past.

Fear of terrorism may be keeping students away from Europe's major cities. "London and Paris used to represent 60% to 70% of our European business," Littlefield says. "Now, combined, they probably account for less than 40%.

"There's more interest in cities such as Florence [Italy] and Seville [Spain], which are both foreign study locations and not major capitals," he says. "More people are starting their trips in the country, or [small] cities like Edinburgh and Glasgow [Scotland], rather than heading to London right away. There's a wish to stay away from the big cities."

Destinations south of the border are garnering more interest. Littlefield says Student Universe, which had strong sales to South America and Latin America despite the downturn in travel, found Lima, Peru, attracted a lot of students over spring break and continues to be popular. Closer to home, there's more interest in the Pacific Northwest, including Portland, Ore., and Seattle.

"Our message is be prepared and be informed," says Hedge of HI-USA. "More than ever, we're recommending to travelers that what they really need to do is research their destination ahead of time, and they absolutely need to be aware of the issues that might affect them before they go."

Lucy Izon is a Toronto-based freelance writer and author of "Izon's Backpacker Journal." Her Internet site is www.izon


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