Striding out in hard times
SO UK INCORPORATED IS OFFICIALLY IN RECESSION. We can expect a decline in economic activity, higher unemployment and a downturn in many business and leisure activities.
Truth be told, this will mean only a 4 or 5% decline; no catastrophe. Whats more, some areas will be more adversely affected than others. Many divers will simply choose to forget their woes and, come what may, remain determined to have that holiday break. Others may just opt to reduce any extravagance and select something more modest this year. So lets examine the evidence.
US activity should be a useful indicator. Reports coming from last Octobers DEMA show in Las Vegas indicated that sales of dive holidays were buoyant, and that Americans were as ever booking their trips several years ahead, and electing to go to faraway places.
Wakatobi, a select destination and marine reserve in Indonesia, was reporting good advance bookings for 2010 and beyond. Emperor Divers reports similar good advance US business for its ever-popular Red Sea liveaboards.
In the UK market, bookings over last autumns half-term were also keen, and those divers leaving enquiries to the last moment in the hope of picking up a bargain were largely disappointed to find operators fully booked.
Some operators, such as Regaldive and Longwood, disclosed that they were hit by the recent collapse of the airline XL. However, this was only temporary, and for the most part alternative seats were found reasonably quickly. Both companies are very positive about 2009.
THE TRAVEL TRADE AT LARGE reveals a rather mixed picture. Sales are holding up in some areas, particularly where direct and online outlets exist, whereas sales through high street agents are invariably down.
Fewer sales tend to be made to the experienced diver by the large operators these days. The major companies have switched from the more specialised dive-travel market to long-haul destinations, and then sell dive packages as an adjunct.
During 2008 we saw TUI, now part of the merged First Choice/TUI Group and a direct competitor to the merged Thomas Cook/My Travel, terminate the activities of Crystal Dive to concentrate on sales through its other subsidiary Explorers.
Interestingly, there has also been a downturn in visitors to travel websites, by as much as a fifth.
A major influence on the cost of many holidays is the sterling rate against the US dollar. The exchange rate fell 25 to 30% during 2008, automatically raising the price of accommodation, flights and so on where these are priced in dollars.
The UK pound has fallen to record lows against the euro, too. Currency-hedging by tour operators and airlines wont of course cushion them in the long term, although the substantial fall in oil prices and therefore aviation spirit since its 2008 peak will
Passengers should be far less likely to be faced with further flight supplements this coming year, and some operators have again started guaranteeing no surcharges.
Airlines have become much more flexible and prepared to reduce capacity in their weaker markets, so they are able to restrict supply and thus maintain price levels. British Airways has shown that it is expert at this lately. For instance, it now requires UK passengers to New York to transit via London, even if their flight originates in, say, Manchester.
Long-haul flights not priced in dollars may just see a reduction if oil prices stay low.
The effect of all this on the major dive destinations will be varied. Shorter-haul locations such as the Red Sea, where margins are relatively low and competition is high, are not likely to be much affected. Those divers who are not holidaying
in Sharm el Sheikh, Hurghada etc, but are staying at home in 2009, are likely to be replaced by those opting for a cheaper holiday and switching from longer-haul destinations.
One region where sales to British divers are likely to be poor is the Caribbean - if the pound stays as weak as it has been. The Mediterranean, where most of the better-known diving areas such as the South of France, Spain and the Balearics, Sardinia and Cyprus, are in the Euro Zone, may appear less attractive for the same reason.
Interestingly, the long-haul market, particularly to the Far East, still looks highly attractive. Flights should be no more expensive next year and, once you get there, most of the destinations offer cheap accommodation and diving.
Research shows that the primary reason why a diver selects a particular location for a holiday is the quality of diving - so divers are discerning, and prepared to venture further afield.
THIS TREND WILL CONTINUE. With more information available, and plenty of places from which to choose, divers know what they want.
There is also a movement to what I call Dive Plus holidays - that is, diving combined with culture or sightseeing.
Originally this might have been a Red Sea liveaboard holiday twinned with a brief excursion to the pyramids in Cairo. However, these days many more options are available, such as diving in Aqaba, Jordan and visiting historic Petra; scuba with manta rays and mola mola in Bali plus experiences of Balinese art and culture; or enjoying Cozumel island under water, followed by excursions to the Mayan temples of Mexico.
Relative newcomer to this niche market is Tim Beards Africa Dive & Safari, which does what it says on the tin. Specialising in southern and south-eastern Africa, Tim talks about how resorts in Inhambane, Mozambique are opening up now that there are regular flights from Johannesburg. Barra Lodge, for example, decided a while ago to base its prices on the local currency, so remains highly attractive. Africa Dive & Safari will also be adding Madagascar to its itinerary shortly.
Dive Plus also means that you get a better return out of the investment in a long-haul flight, by spending longer at your chosen destination.
In a similar vein, Dive Sportif can offer both diving and windsurfing holidays for those
passionate about their water sports.
DIVE WORLDWIDE HAS A MUCH-EXPANDED 2009 brochure and is enthusiastic about tailor-made packages to many worldwide destinations. Regaldives range of destinations has been steadily expanding, too.
Others developing include Dive & Sail Worldwide, which specialises in liveaboards, including the further-flung parts of Indonesia. Mark Shandur, its owner, has just commissioned a new boat, as he is confident of business expansion.
The tailor-made market, including the luxury end, is still seeing good business and expanding. New on the scene is GeoDive, which offers a mouth-watering catalogue of worldwide dive destinations.
Travel insurance is a must at any time, and there have been a number of recent developments in the dive insurance market.
Dive Master Insurance and Westfield continue as market-leaders and offer sound packages, though as ever divers must check policy details to see if what is on offer matches personal requirements. Its often best to buy insurance at one of the major dive shows, when significant discounts are usually on offer.
Two newcomers to the market are Tony Backhurst Scuba Travel Insurance and BSACs insurance provider Travel4Scuba.
Both offer competitive policies, though the former appears particularly good value, with an annual multi-trip worldwide (not North America) for a standard adult at £75, whereas the BSAC policy with 10% member discount is £91. Get several quotes, and compare the small print.
Travel insurance is good for covering the risk of cancellation, curtailment or injury/illness, but doesnt normally cover the situation in which your tour operator or airline goes out of business.
The various bonding schemes will normally step in to ensure that you are repatriated if abroad when any financial crash happens, but you can still lose any money paid in advance if you have not yet taken your holiday.
To minimise the risk of this, discuss with your insurers and tour operators what, if any, provision they make for such events.
Better still, book using a credit card, as your payment is often protected if you dont get goods or services you ordered.
It also makes sense to deal with operators you know well and know to be financially sound.
Longer-term, the travel association ABTA is now considering actively whether it should require its members to offer consumer protection.
So what should you look for Well, whatever it is, dont leave it to the last minute. Do your research;
be clear about what you want. Shop around, focusing on the dive-travel specialists, but be explicit about what you like and dislike.
Remember - better holidays are enjoyed by the more discerning diver...