Going Nowhere

French elementary-school teacher Adele Pesnot had been looking forward to visiting California for months. In December, she and her older sister, Alice, booked a trip for April to take in the sun and (movie) stars of Los Angeles and San Diego. But by February they were beginning to have second thoughts. Worried about the state of Franco-American relations and traveling during the Iraq war, they canceled their U.S. trip, opting to go to Florence instead. "I guess we didn't want to take any chances," says Pesnot. "With all the airports and the distance we'd be traveling, we got nervous. Staying within Europe just seemed a bit more sensible. And with Italy, we don't even have to fly--it's just a train ride away."

Never mind renewing that passport or packing the antimalarials. More and more would-be travelers are taking their vacations at--or at least near--home. Exotic holidays to parts unknown suddenly seem frivolous and unnecessarily risky.

Weary of war, wary of SARS and terrified of terrorism--not to mention broke--millions of travelers are shelving plans for long flights to distant lands. Instead they are arranging low-key, low-cost, low-stress holidays, in their own regions and often in their own countries. For many, that means driving instead of flying and visiting remote, wide-open spaces instead of crowded (read: germ-infested), popular (read: terrorist-targeted) urban attractions. "Staying at home is the new going away," according to the tag line for VisitBritain, a government ad campaign designed to promote England to the British.

The trend toward homebody travel is evident all over the world. In Italy, 85 percent of holidaymakers will stay in the country this year--a 20 percent increase over last year, predicts the tourism consulting firm Trademark Italia. While 82 percent of Americans plan to take at least one trip this spring or summer, only 29 percent of those have expressed interest in heading abroad, says Cathy Keefe of the Travel Industry Association of America (TIA). At the same time the number of pleasure trips taken domestically by Americans has increased from 679 million in 2001 to 691 million last year--and is forecast to top 705 million this year. Britain's monthly domestic tourism figures were up 51 percent in 2002 over 2001. Last Easter, Karen McLaughlin and Tom Chamberlain of Norwich vacationed in Prague; this year they drove to London instead. "We weren't too keen to fly anywhere," says McLaughlin.

Wealthy tourists are just as likely to travel close to home as middle-class ones--they just spend more when they do. Peter Grubb, founder of the Idaho-based river-rafting company River Odysseys West, says that bookings on international trips "even to places that one would not perceive as being risky--Ireland, Holland, France and Germany"--are down 50 percent, while his U.S. business is up 15 percent. And the company's most expensive domestic trip--a $1,700, six-day rafting excursion down Idaho's Salmon River--is experiencing its strongest demand ever, perhaps because people feel safer in the wilderness. Upscale hotels in Hong Kong have also reported increased interest in packages for locals. The landmark five-star Peninsula Hotel recently launched a popular new $400 weekend deal that includes two nights in a junior suite with a candlelit room-service dinner and Rolls-Royce pickup.

Some would-be tourists are, literally, just staying home. During Japan's traditional Golden Week holiday, from April 29 to May 5, the number of Japanese flying abroad from Tokyo's Narita Airport fell by a whopping 47 percent over last year, and domestic air travel by 3 percent. "I pretty much gave up on getting away during the Golden Week," says Haruko Nishioka, who canceled plans to travel to Guam because of the U.S. war with Iraq. "I decided to just stay home." Veteran American traveler Jane Jarosch had planned to go to China this month with some friends to walk on the Great Wall and cruise the Yangtze River. But because of SARS, she decided to postpone the trip--indefinitely. "We're adventuresome, but we're not foolhardy," she says. "I want to go when it's safe." For Jarosch, that will be when the World Health Organization and U.S. Centers for Disease Control declare the epidemic over.

For some, the canceled plans are permanent. Hong Kong publicity executive Desmond Chung, who scrapped a trip to Angkor Wat and Malaysia because of SARS, recently bought himself a new TV, a second DVD player and dozens of new discs. Now he's contemplating a new sofa and art for his dining room. "I am always in my apartment now, so I just want to make things around me better," he says.

Others say they're taking a wait-and-see attitude. "More than 30 percent of Britons haven't made their holiday arrangements yet," says Lawrence Bresh, head of marketing for VisitBritain, which encourages Brits to "cycle along an old railway trail, canoe through a forest's river rapids, trek over moorland"--all without leaving home. As of late April, 45 percent of Americans intending to travel this spring or summer still had not booked trips, according to TIA. The upside: travelers willing to wait until the last minute can take advantage of cut-rate hotel rooms and airfares.

For Americans, the urge to stick closer to home goes back to September 11. "Part of the psychology of 9-11 in our country was that it focused people on the most important things in life, which are family and friends," says Grubb, who often gets calls to organize reunion trips of loved ones. Other travelers have been more deeply affected by SARS. After Singapore and Malaysia banned Chinese tourists last month, Beijing announced that the annual May Day holiday would be shortened, then indefinitely banned all tour groups, inside and outside the country. "Everything stopped," says Lu Zai, a manager of one of Shanghai's largest travel agencies. "We weren't prepared for it at all." Among the only Chinese proceeding with their vacation plans are a new generation of backpackers (sidebar).

For Latin Americans, SARS only added insult to a tourist trade already deeply injured by an economic slump. Last year Brazil received 20 percent fewer tourists than in 2001--largely because so many Argentines couldn't afford to leave home. "After a year of uncertainty, many of our customers were just starting to travel again," says Romy Daher, who handles foreign-bound Brazilian tourists for Queensbury Travel Services. "But with renewed terrorist threats, Iraq and now SARS, those heading to the U.S. and Asia have plummeted." Brazilians who are still taking vacations are sticking closer to home, heading for the remote tip of South America. "The Chilean ski resorts ought to be jumping with joy," says Daher.

Homebody travel offers tourists a rare opportunity to get to know their own countries or regions a bit better. This year southern Italians are expected to take advantage of the serenity of Emilia-Romagna in the north, while northerners will hop down to Sardinia, Capri, Sicily and the Amalfi Coast, according to Trademark Italia. When British Ph.D. student Lena Ciric was asked to give a lecture in Edinburgh, she tacked on a few extra days to sightsee in the Scottish capital. "Who wants to go abroad these days?" she says. "It would be hard to properly enjoy a holiday if you're worried about terrorism and SARS." Desmond Chung says his friends in Hong Kong have been signing on to Cathay Pacific's new local tours, including a $12 expedition to the New Territories and a $50 dolphin-watching trip followed by dinner at the Grand Hyatt. "They're all getting to know Hong Kong," he says. The French, never big on overseas travel, have been embracing their country's top spots--Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur--with a passion; the numbers are even up slightly from the 90 percent who already vacation at home.

Most national tourist boards would gladly trade their hordes of domestic travelers for a few more international ones. "Italians don't spend like Americans," grumbles Giancarlo Abete, the president of Italy's National Federation of Travel and Tourism--not least because their trips tend to average only three nights. International arrivals to the United States declined by nearly 12 percent in 2001 (and are expected to have fallen another 0.1 percent in 2002), contributing to a nearly $45 billion decline in tourism earnings.

But at least the industry can count on some customers: no matter how grim things get, few people are willing to give up their holidays altogether. "Vacations have switched from being a luxury item to being part of life," says Jim Kackley, director of Thomson Family Adventures in Watertown, Massachusetts. "Even if unemployment is 5 percent, you still have 95 percent of the people out there working and earning money." River Odysseys West founder Grubb agrees. "You work for food, clothing and shelter, and when you have stuff left over, you vacation," he says. Even if it's only in your own backyard.

Join the Discussion