|By Sara K. Clarke, The Orlando Sentinel,
Fla.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Apr. 20, 2010--The Icelandic volcano that threatens to choke jetliner engines already has cut off the daily flow of thousands of new vacationers to Orlando.
England and Germany, now under a haze of volcanic ash, are two of the biggest markets for the area's tourism industry. And while some flights from northern Europe may soon resume, it still could be weeks or months before things return to normal.
"There are so many thousands of [displaced] travelers, and so few seats to put them in," said George Hobica of Airfarewatchdog.com, a website that tracks fares and provides travel advice. "A number of people are going to just cancel their trips."
Western Europeans as a group spend about $3.8 million a day in Central Florida, according to estimates from the Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau. The agency says that nearly 38,000 Western Europeans are visiting the Orlando area on any given day -- and they each spend about $100 a day on things like food, accommodations and entertainment.
Airline arrivals and departures have been at a standstill in many parts of Europe since last Thursday. European Union transport ministers agreed Monday to partly reopen Europe's skies and said they expect a progressive increase in the number of flights allowed. But later in the day a new ash cloud was reported to be threatening the United Kingdom, further complicating the situation.
In the meantime, vacationers stranded in Central Florida are being told they may not be able to get a flight home until the end of the month or even later. Having already wrapped up extended vacations here, many of those travelers are now watching their spending.
"We're trying to find the cheapest accommodation going," said Mary Gumley, an English tourist who was at Orlando International Airport on Sunday. Before her return flight to London's Heathrow airport was canceled, she had been spending freely, she said, "sort of not worrying about money, thinking, 'Stick it on the plastic.' But now, it's quite scary."
In a sour economy where any business is good business, Central Florida's tourism-related businesses are offering to help stranded tourists with everything from free meals to free theme-park admissions.
SeaWorld announced that stranded tourists could visit its three Florida parks at no charge; several thousand or more took the resort up on its offer over the weekend. Walt Disney World weighed in Monday, saying stranded guests could get a one-day park-hopper pass and free parking by showing a canceled plane ticket or expired boarding pass at guest services. Wet n Wild and Universal Studios also are offering free entry to stranded guests. Universal is offering hotel discounts to current guests who need to extend their stay.
In Longwood, Journeys at Alaqua is offering to free family-style lunch and dinners. In Kissimmee, 1st Choice Vacation Homes is charging $75 a night for four-bedroom town homes in its Venetian Bay resort.
"Everybody's pitching in," said Brian Martin, a visitors' bureau spokesman.
The big concern for local tourism is whether the volcanic eruptions could have a long-term effect on travel from some of the region's biggest leisure markets.
According to the British Geological Society, when the volcano EyjafjallajÃ¶kull last erupted, in 1821, the activity continued intermittently for about two years. If it remains active sporadically this time, too -- and ash clouds continue to pose a hazard to jet-aircraft engines -- it could influence people's travel decisions, Hobica said.
"If it were something like that, where it kind of shut on and shut off, it would really discourage people from making plans," he said. "People don't like unpredictability, especially with travel."
Periodic eruptions could prompt European tourists to start choosing vacations closer to home, with destinations accessible by rail. That would definitely be bad news for places like Orlando, which are a trans-Atlantic plane ride away.
If travel resumes, it's possible the impact could be limited.
Scott Smith, an instructor in the University of Central Florida's Rosen College of Hospitality Management, compares the situation to the string of four hurricanes that hit Florida in 2004. While concern among tourists was intense at first, vacationers were soon back to booking trips in the middle of hurricane season.
"People were all in an uproar about hurricanes for a year," he said. "Two years later, people don't even remember."
Sara K. Clarke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 407-420-5664.
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