Summer sales were looking increasingly healthy before volcanic ash spread over Europe, with a 3% year-on-year rise in bookings in March, according to market analyst GfK Ascent-MI.
The strong performance last month left bookings for this summer just 2% down on the same time last year, compared with a 4% shortfall at the end of January and 6% at December’s close.
Medium-haul destinations appeared the big winners, with the latest figures suggesting these now account for 57% of the UK summer holiday market – a remarkable shift largely driven by the poor exchange rate with the euro.
Monthly bookings through high street agents were flat year on year and remained 2% down on 2009 to date in line with the overall market.
However, GfK Ascent-MI managing director Sarah Smalley said: “This is a strong result as many commentators were predicting doom and gloom for summer bookings.”
Direct bookings in March showed a 5% rise on a year ago, reflecting the sector’s increased share of the market as the summer season approaches.
The data suggested the imminent World Cup continues to have little effect on bookings, with sales for June departures 2% down on March 2009 – on a par with the market.
The picture for the closing winter 2009-10 season appeared less rosy as March saw a significant decline in bookings – down 16% on a year ago – leaving the season 12% down overall on 2008-09.
However, early sales for winter 2010-11 improved in the month.
A 5% increase year on year in March brought the season’s bookings to 9% down on a year ago compared with a 16% shortfall at the end of February.