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Trials for travel industry, treats for travelers

Are those faraway places calling your name? Now may be the time to answer, and grab a once-in-a-lifetime deal.
The Eiffel Tower is seen lighted in the colours of Turkey as part of events marking the 'Season of Turkey in France', in Paris
The Eiffel Tower is seen lighted in the colours of Turkey as part of events marking the 'Season of Turkey in France', in Paris Oct. 6, 2009.Gonzalo Fuentes / REUTERS
/ Source: Reuters

Are those faraway places calling your name?

Now may be the time to answer. The travel industry's 'annus horribilis' has opened some once-in-a-lifetime deals for consumers ready, willing and able to get away from it all, according to an industry expert.

"The last year was miserable, probably one of the worst for the travel industry," said William Maloney, CEO of the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA), the world's largest association of travel professionals.

"Airlines, hotels, tours, cruise lines. Everyone saw a downturn in revenue."

But while the recession lingers, Maloney says, consumers can clean up in luxury deals.

"We can't predict the rate of recovery," he explained. "But we're confident that in the first six months there will remain extraordinary values."

If there is any silver lining to the industry's woes, it belongs to the consumer.

"Prices have never been better," Maloney said. "Ordinary people now have access to luxury accommodations and inexpensive vacations."

A one-two-three-four punch sent the travel industry reeling in 2009, according to Maloney.

"First, (it was) the $4 per gallon gasoline increase, followed by the first round of what was then swine (H1N1) flu," he said.

"Third was the stock market crash and fourth was what we call 'the AIG effect," said Maloney, referring to disclosures that executives of American International Group enjoyed lavish junkets even as their company received an $85 billion-dollar taxpayer bailout.

"That really hurt the luxury end of the business," said Maloney, "Traveling by corporations became almost unpatriotic. Having a meeting in Las Vegas or Miami was seen as privileged and anti-social behavior."

Corporate travel accounts for one-third of business in the United States.

Newlywed and nearly dead
Maloney said Las Vegas, Florida, Hawaii and New York have been and still are the most popular vacation spots for Americans. But these days they're buying their tickets at the last minute.

"Lead times used to be months and weeks, now it could be days," he explained.

Low introductory prices are also luring more first-time cruisers.

"They used to say cruising was for 'the newlywed and nearly dead.' Now it's a family vacation."

All-inclusive resorts in the Caribbean, Cancun and Jamaica are also on the increase. Meals, and even beverages, are included and people like that, according to Maloney.

Experiential vacations are also increasing.

"Travel used to be, 'I've been to London, I've been to Paris.'" he explained. "Now it can be about playing golf or learning to cook. People will pay to teach English or restore a house."

Maloney is pleased that social media, such as Twitter and Facebook, are becoming platforms for sharing travel advice and suggestions. Despite the Internet revolution he said only about half of travel business is booked online.

Even in this devastating economy, Americans fly much more than they did a decade ago.

"Travel is in our DNA. We're a nation of immigrants. We're used to moving around."

So even with the possibility of a British Airways strike looming over a holiday season he describes as only as "OK," Maloney is confident about the future:

"Travel is a desirable commodity. If you stood on a street corner with a coat and offered it to passersby, 90 percent of them would pass it up. But if you stood there with an airline ticket ...