Independent travel agents report a strong sales start to the year, with a survey of AITO Specialist Agents revealing bullish confidence in the year ahead.

The AITO survey last week found 62% of agency respondents “extremely” confident about sales for 2011 and almost half (46%) reporting a “good” or “extremely good” start to January.

The strong beginning to the year followed “an encouraging rise in bookings in 2010” according to AITO Agents chairman Oliver Broad. The same survey found 89% of AITO Agents believe their business is increasing due to a return to agents among consumers fearful of being stranded in the event of any problem.

The results led the AITO Agents, who are allied to the Association of Independent Tour Operators (AITO), to declare the theme of their Agents Domestic Conference in Warwickshire at the weekend as “Back to the travel agent”.

Almost three quarters of those surveyed reported an increase in enquires year on year and 57% said bookings were up.

AITO chairman Derek Moore acknowledged a comparison with January 2010 meant little given the appalling start to sales a year ago. However, he said: “The omens are good. The level of sales is better than in 2007 and that is heartening. Two years ago, it was all gloom.”

Robert Broad Travel reported “a fantastic last week”, with director Nathan Collins telling Travel Weekly: “It was one of our busiest weeks ever.”

Earlier, Oliver Broad told the conference: “AITO agents are the boutique sector of the travel industry. We can pick and choose who we book our clients with because we know whose product is best for which client. Our figures indicate that for many, going back to the travel agent is now the way they book their holidays.”