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New life in the travel industry?

After two years of reduced travel, Americans are on the move again, producing an unexpected spurt in bookings for cruise ships, hotels and airlines in recent weeks.

Trans-Atlantic flights are on the rise, industry executives say, and tour operators, who just recently were bemoaning a slowdown in bookings for Hawaii, now report an upsurge of fresh business.

Airlines that were unsure whether to add flights to Florida and other warm-weather destinations now say they will, and so far last month almost 1,400 flight attendants had been recalled _ the largest number since May 1990.

"Our phones are ringing off the hooks," said Ron Letterman, the president of the Carlson Travel Network's 1,000 travel agencies, which are in all 50 states. "International travel is up 15 percent this year over the same time last year, and business travel is up an average of 6 to 7 percent. Travel to the Caribbean and Hawaii has been very strong lately."

Resorts at some national parks and ski resorts also say business is looking better.

At the Mammoth Springs Hotel in Yellowstone National Park, for example, occupancy reached 75 percent from mid-December to mid-January, compared with 61 percent in the corresponding period last year, said Steve Tedder, a vice president of TW Recreational Services Inc., in charge of lodging at the park.

At Taos Ski Valley in New Mexico, "bookings are up 25 percent since Jan. 1," from the same period last year, said Chris Stagg, vice president of marketing. Most visitors are from southern California, he said, but many are from New York, Chicago, Texas and New Mexico.

At Universal Studios Florida in Orlando, a record number of visitors came in the week between Christmas and New Year's Day, and attendance remains strong.

"We were up more than 15 percent over our previous record week last July," said Randy Garfield, the executive vice president of marketing. Attendance this month, he said "is running about 30 percent ahead of our projections."

In 1990, travel was a $328-billion industry in the United States and its territories, according to a recent study by the U.S. Travel Data Center. The center is a non-profit agency for travel and tourism research.

That figure equaled 6.5 percent of the gross national product. But the last two years have been difficult, with the Persian Gulf war and the nation's economic slump keeping many people at home.

While most predictions were that 1992 would be only lackluster, the recent spurt in bookings has many travel industry executives hoping the elusive recovery in business and leisure travel may finally be under way.

Even hotels and airlines, which were devastated by the recession and the war, are showing modest improvement. Executives say much of the recent increase in business reflects pent-up demand, fueled by generous industrywide discounts.

Nowhere is the travel business better than at the cruise lines.

Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines, based in Miami, received a record 115,000 calls from travel agents in the first week of the year, a company spokesman said, nearly twice the level of the first week of last year. The 115,000 recent calls resulted in 95,000 bookings, another record.

Carnival Cruises Lines, the industry leader also based in Miami, booked 65,000 passengers between Jan. 6 and 12, most for winter and spring cruises, said Tim Gallagher, Carnival's director of public relations. "By Jan. 9 we broke our previous record of 46,200, and our bookings have continued very strong since," he said.

Carnival's bookings are particularly striking because it markets its cruises to the masses, not the wealthy, and its potential customers are among those most vulnerable to a weakened economy.

Last month, the American Hotel and Motel Association said in a report that for the fourth consecutive month the hotel industry "continued to show growth in several key indicators, making it clear that a slow but steady rebound from the effects of the recession is indeed under way."

Airline passenger traffic increased 3.6 percent in December, according to the Air Transport Association of America.

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