Image: Kuta Beach Devoid Of Nearly All Tourists
Eight months after Islamic militants blew up a nightclub on Bali with a car bomb that killed 202 people, hotels are trying to lure back travelers with an array of deals. Rooms at four- and five-star hotels can be had for $50 a night or less.
By Jon Bonné
msnbc.com

If you’ve been staring in disbelief at those tour prices in your weekend newspaper, you’re not alone. There are great deals out there — if you pick the right place and are willing to go. Of course, all deals come with a hitch.

Americans are still traveling this summer, but as some industry watchers predicted earlier this year, they’re staying closer to home and taking more car trips.

That’s despite airfares reaching record low levels, so low that most travel agents expect they’re about to rebound soon — which isn’t good news to a downturned industry struggling to get more folks in the door.

Some popular destinations have retained their appeal this summer. Mexico, for example, is still a draw — perhaps aided by the dollar’s relatively strong pull. (Even so, luxury resorts in Cabo San Lucas seem to be in a price war.)

But even close to home, the industry is struggling to capture Americans’ interest and money. Case in point: Disney World, where “discount” may be the only naughty word, is offering a seven-night stay inside the park for the cost of four.

“When Disney is discounting inside-the-park properties,” says Steve Hewins of Hewins/Carlson Wagonlit Travel in Portland, Maine, “you know the world is having problems with tourism.”

That said, there are always options for the intrepid explorer — at a premium. At Bestway Tours & Safaris in Burnaby, B.C., they’re offering tours to Afghanistan and the North Pole, and this October will lead what they describe as the first excursion tour to Iraq since the war ended.

“We make sure they do understand there are travel advisories out there ... and they should be quite clear about that and make an informed decision,” says Mahmood Poonja, Bestway’s managing director. “But we don’t really have to try to convince them to travel.”

Perhaps you’re not quite ready for that level of adventure, but deals are still around for some other destinations that should keep you from getting bored.

As an added bonus: You’ll freak out your mother-in-law. Don’t you know you can get killed out there?

EUROPE

The deals: England is its usual crowded self this summer, but other destinations — France and Ireland, especially — are offering terrific deals. Irish tours from Boston can be had for as low as $499 for six nights, with airfare. American Airlines has Paris for under $500. Air France is offering Provence for under $800. Cheap flights to Germany and Amsterdam are everywhere. On the other hand, Italy seems to be packed.

The catch: A combination of Americans’ overall fear of traveling abroad, combined with a bit of hostilité over the Gallic opposition to the Iraq war. The irony of course is that the euro is so strong against the dollar right now that it’s no bargain to be an American in Paris.

The French have launched a charm offensive with the tag line “Let’s fall in love again” — and are indulging in a bit of humble soufflé. By contrast, Italy seems to be absorbing its neighbor’s bad luck, with Americans packing the piazzas. “Anybody that might have been thinking about going to France is going to Italy instead,” says Nancy Strong of Dallas-based Strong Travel Services.

The barrier to Europe trips seems to mostly be an overall worry about heading far from home. Even President Bush made a brief stop on the continent — and shook hands with French leader Jacques Chirac. And if you’re one to hold a grudge, the deals to Ireland come without much geopolitical guilt.

TURKEY AND EGYPT

The deals: Istanbul, from the United States, for $599 to $699 with airfare. Land tours in Turkey to Cappadocia and Ephesus are available for well under $200. Egypt, including a Nile cruise and airfare from U.S. cities, for under $1,000.

The catch: One little war, a few bombings and everyone gets scared. Turkey has continually been a safe destination, but being entangled in the war and located next to Iraq has chased away most travelers. Even as the dollar slips globally, it has gained against the Turkish lira in the past six months. (If you can do the math, that is. One dollar gets you about 1.4 million lira.) Turkey’s economic slump from a couple years ago continues to linger, and expected aid from the Bush administration vanished after it refused to allow the U.S. military to open a northern front in the war.

Egypt has similar image problems with American visitors, along with the additional concern that tourists are occasionally targeted by extremists: A 1997 attack in Luxor killed 60 tourists, which severely hobbled tourism there. Authorities are more vigilant, but the worries linger.

A current State Department travel warning across the Middle East doesn’t help, either.

Of course, the Egyptian economy largely hinges on tourism, which makes for grim times in Cairo even without the brew of political crises around it. For those Americans who do go, deals are to be had: A dollar now gets you over six Egyptian pounds, nearly 50 percent more than a year ago.

THE MEDITERRANEAN

The deals: Cruises through here are allowing you to sail like royalty for a pittance. The tony 100-passenger SeaDream yachts have been offering week-long passage for $1,900 a person, all inclusive.

The catch: Proximity to the Middle East. Even without a specific concern, location is hammering cruise operators here. SeaDream lets passengers postpone up to one day before sailing, citing “unsettling times.”

There’s no specific news to drive the concerns about the Mediterranean, but there’s been plenty of bad news out of the region: Egypt and Israel on one coast, Morocco and Tunisia on another. When it comes to a pricey vacation, geography seems to get blurred a bit.

By contrast, travel agents say cruises to the Baltic are full this year, so it’s not just heading overseas that may be giving Americans the jitters.

HONG KONG

The deals: Cathay Pacific has stunning round-trip airfares from the United States — under $700 from Los Angeles, for example. Tours operators are listing prices that seem surreal — with some listed under $600, including airfare. Hotels have also gone deal-crazy, with some four-star rooms available well under $100.

The catch: SARS. The mysterious virus filled world newspapers with images of mask-wearing residents and empty streets. The World Health Organization warned against visiting, essentially choking off outside travel, but reversed its warning after cases appeared to peak in May.

Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific cut its flights by nearly half and still had trouble filling its planes. Tourism dwindled away to almost nothing, with hotels and restaurants all but empty.

But the WHO’s lifting of its advisory was a major help, and got the regional government into gear. The Hong Kong Airport Authority offered discounts of up to 50 percent on its landing fees. Officials offered up $1.3 billion in economic stimulus.

They also spent $128 million to “relaunch” Hong Kong’s image, much of it on a marketing campaign to get word out about its newly healthy status. As Lillibeth Bishop of the Hong Kong Tourism Board put it: “Good news does not make it to the headlines.”

Meantime, public health officials have taken extra steps to ensure there’s no recurrence, such as checking the temperature of passengers when they step off a plane in Hong Kong’s airport.

BALI

The deals: The whole of Indonesia’s island paradise seems to be a bargain. Rooms at four- and five-star hotels can be had for $50 a night or less. Cheap tours to local landmarks abound — if you can get there. Airfares are still expensive, starting at $1,200 or more — though you can include it as a stop on pan-Asia packages offered by Malaysia Airlines and Cathay Pacific for under $1,000. Singapore Airlines also has a special Bali package.

The catch: Images of a packed Bali nightclub in flames after a bombing last October are seared into the heads of the traveling public. Though local tourism officials are trying to revive their business and lobby nations such as Australia to lift their travel warnings, getting visitors to arrive at Denpasar airport remains a difficult task.

The blast, which killed 202 people, was allegedly arranged by Islamic extremists and Indonesian officials suspect the militant Jemaah Islamiyah group of plotting it as a way to lash out at Westerners. Most of the dead were Australian tourists. A suspected mastermind is currently on trial.

But the impacts linger. Only one-third of the projected number of tourists have returned, and many Balinese remain out of work, the local economy shriveled by its dependence on tourism. Like many tourist destinations, there was little diversity to the economy and the absence of foreigners is simply devastating to local residents.

It’s not just Bali: The State Department isn’t hot on Indonesia at all. It has allowed families of Jakarta embassy staff to return, but warned in April against travel, saying “the potential remains for violence and terrorist actions against U.S. citizens and interests.”

As for getting there, the biggest problem may be the cuts in trans-Pacific flights due to SARS, which makes it a bit more difficult to get to a transfer point. Within Asia, it’s not hard to find a fare to Bali for a couple hundred dollars.

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