A few weeks of promising summer sales in January were  followed by a slowdown in February and an abrupt decline this month amid signs of falling consumer confidence.

Bookings for the season to date are near to 2010 levels and it’s too early to draw firm conclusions. Last year began badly because of heavy snow, recovered in February, was well up in March, then went off a cliff in April during the ash crisis. However, signs for this summer are sufficiently poor to cause concern.

Travel trade analyst GfK Ascent reports summer 2011 sales to date now 1% down on the same time a year ago, after being 5% up year-on-year at the end of January.

Sales through the high street, call centres and online remained 1% up overall at the end of February, although they were down 8% for the month. They plunged more recently, with a 16% shortfall in the seven days to March 12 compared with the same week in 2010.

GfK Ascent managing director Sarah Smalley revealed the figures to a Travel Weekly Destination Connect seminar for tourism boards and destination marketers last week.

Smalley reported a contraction in sales of long-haul holidays alongside a sharp rise in average prices – reflecting the increased cost of oil and rise in Air Passenger Duty (APD). Medium-haul sales were also down, but short-haul bookings were up as holidaymakers return to the eurozone and traditional destinations.

Short-haul turnaround

Spain and the Spanish islands are the major winners so far, after short-haul sales were the big loser last year when numbers fell by almost one-third on 2009 and mid-haul sales rocketed by 55%.

By contrast, the 1% increase in sales to the end of February was driven by short-haul bookings – up 12% year on year at the start of the month while medium-haul was down 6% and long-haul down 8%.

Spain was up 6% at the beginning of February, the Balearics up 13% and the Canary Islands 16%. Greece was also up on last year by 8%.

Unsurprisingly, sales for Egypt were down and Tunisia flat for the season to date, due to the upheavals in the countries. But Turkey was also down 4%.

Much of this could be due to price. GfK Ascent reports the average long-haul selling price this summer up £87 on a year ago.

But figures for Turkey also show a sharp increase in average price, up £44 on last year compared with a £27 rise to the Canaries, £17 to the Balearics, £18 to mainland Spain and £13 to Greece.

Smalley said: “The high street continues to command significant share.” High street outlets had almost two-thirds of the market to the beginning of February, although this share will undoubtedly fall as the season progresses. Direct sales were up 6%, according to Smalley.

She added: “Bookings to Egypt have been 50% of last year’s figure for the past two weeks [to March 12], but that is still 5,000 a week, suggesting some people will still travel regardless of the situation if the price is attractive.”

Holidays are a priority

Abta chairman John McEwan, chief executive of Advantage, said: “The big issue is consumer confidence”. However, he added: “I’m confident the main holiday remains a priority for people.”

Joanna Edmunds, managing director of Kuoni UK, said: “It will be another difficult summer. Everyone is unsure about their job. The change has been sudden.”
But she added: “There are still plenty of people travelling and demand remains at the top end of the market.”

Winners and losers in 2010 and 2011

Summer 2010 bookings year on year

  • Short-haul -32%

  • Medium-haul +55%

  • Long-haul +11%

Summer 2011 bookings year on year*/average sales price

  • Short-haul +12% +£14

  • Medium-haul -6% +£25

  • Long-haul -8% +£87

* Season to end of January

Summer 2011 destinations: bookings year on year

  • Spain +6%

  • Balearics +13%

  • Canaries +16%

  • Turkey -4%

  • Greece +8%

  • Egypt -15%

  • Tunisia +1%

* Season to end of January