Travel Tanks

Travel Tanks

Passengers walk through a terminal at Reagan National Airport in Arlington, Va., last mont

It’s time you really think about travel, really. Because, it’s tanking.

The figures I know best are for Africa, and they’re stunningly clear. Beware of the elated travel reporting which always finds the trend is up … even when it’s down and recognize that most media stories are about the present, not the future. I’m talking about 8-10 months from now.

African lodges and hotels and safari companies are slashing prices, offering extraordinary deals, reducing contract rates. The last time this happened was in 2008.

The best statistic anyone can use to predict travel patterns is airline ticket prices. Worldwide and overall, prices are today 9 percent lower than two years ago. When restricted to only international fares, excising a little attempted spike that didn’t continue last month, fares are more than 15% lower.

Airlines know, and in a way, so do we operators. This moment reminds me of June, 2008. In June, 2008, I was heading a much larger company that was organizing more than 100 safaris annually to mostly East Africa.

Most North Americans booked the kind of safari we were selling at the time 8-10 months in advance of going. The highest season of the year was the end of December, so this holiday period was always chock-a-block full usually by the preceding Easter, another high season period.

And it was. Then slow but steady cancellation of confirmed bookings for December, 2008, had clearly begun by June, 2008. It wasn’t dramatic, but when I looked forward into 2009 it became terrifying.

We weren’t alone. Three years of substantial price increases by hotels and lodges were suddenly being reversed by unheard of specials. That might have been the signal that set off my own unusual scrutiny.

I called my counterpart in London and asked him to check European bookings. He came back a few minutes later surprised, and also terrified.

What was going on? The economies of the world couldn’t have looked better! Stock markets, home sales, consumer prices … everything was perfect for what economists at the time were saying would remain as sustained growth.

Even the wars in the Mideast seemed to be cooling.

Here’s the answer. Travel is an incredible leading indicator not just of the economy but let me call it the mindset of the world. When my British colleague and I noticed how dramatically bookings over a period of time were falling to East Africa, we knew that the world’s subconscious was worried … about something.

Well, we now know what it was, of course.

So as individuals planning your vacation, take heed. If your secure through world catastrophe, incredible bargains await you. Otherwise, hate to say, stay home for a while.