NEW YORK – It seemed like no one would ever leave home again.
After Sept. 11, when hijackers turned four passenger jets into weapons of mass destruction, the American travel industry wasn't just shaken — it seemed shattered.
But six months later, experts are seeing signs that the travel industry is getting back on track. The number of travelers taking to the skies has increased every month since September, although it's not yet back to pre-Sept. 11 levels.
"There are good signs," Travel + Leisure senior editor Nathan Lump said. "Although American travel is down to most international destinations, there's evidence that people are slowly going back."
Domestic travel, especially driving trips, picked up after the attacks. But now tourist spots that depend on air travel, like Florida, Mexico and South America, have started seeing once-timid visitors trickle back in, Lump said.
"I wouldn't say that the post-Sept. 11 slump is over, I would say that travel has rebounded somewhat to certain destinations," Lump said. "People are more comfortable flying again, and flying greater distances."
Lump has found other signs of a substantial travel revival. Family trips are still just as popular now as they were after Sept. 11, and people are booking adventure trips, which typically have to be reserved well in advance.
"People are willing to book trips for the late summer or fall, and that implies confidence in traveling in general," said Lump. "Adventure travelers tend to be in the vanguard, so it's a good sign culturally if people are willing to make more long-term bookings."
Travelers may have decided they have nothing to fear but fear itself. Or, it might be that everyone's assumption — the travel slump came because people were afraid of flying — was wrong.
PricewaterhouseCoopers, which tracks how well the hotel industry is doing, published a report last week that found people were traveling less in late 2001 not because of fright, but because of financial reasons.
Senior lodging analyst Cristina Ampil, who wrote the report, said that by using an econometric formula that took into account both the souring economy and how people were acting before and after the attacks, she discovered most of the travel slump was financially based.
"Eighty-three percent of the weakness in lodging demand is due to the weak economy and the rest, only 17 percent, due to fear in traveling," she said. "It's a lot less than people thought. You'd think the way people talked that (the fear of traveling) would be more like 50 or 40 percent. (Seventeen percent)'s still a drag, but not enough to be the main contributor in the decline."
Ampil also projected that the U.S. hotel industry would make more money in 2002 than in 2001. The industry took in $113.8 billion in 2000, but only $108.7 billion in 2001. In 2002, with an improving economy, she said the lodging industry ought to begin finding its feet again, raking in about $109.4 billion.
But before you go into your closet and break out the lederhosen for your next trip, keep in mind there are still many destinations that haven't had it as easy as Florida or Chile.
"Travel to Europe is still off by an average of 15 to 20 percent," said Lump. "Some destinations are off by as much as 50 percent, like Germany, Switzerland, parts of the U.K., Scandinavia. People just don't seem to be as willing to do that, particularly with the uncertainty of the international situation."
Though airlines aren't offering the same ridiculously cheap trips to Paris and London that they were a few months ago, it's largely because they need to charge more to make up for the fact that fewer people are flying, he said.
But be assured the skies will be friendly for all travelers yet again as the economy improves and the fears over a Sept. 11-like attack subside with time.
"I don't know when," Lump said. "But I think some areas will see business back to pre-Sept. 11 levels as early as next year or even later this year."