Where are we going - Holiday Guide 2004
Does nothing deter British divers from travelling far and wide Not a lot, it seems. While US travel operators wring their hands about the reluctance of all but hardcore American divers to venture abroad, Britains specialist travel industry is upbeat about the prospects for 2004. Steve Weinman has been hearing their views
Deserted beaches, good company on the boat - a great holiday combination. This is the Turks & Caicos
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We dont know when or where the next terrorist incident may occur, but life goes on. Britains divers, after years of exposure to the threat of terrorism at home, seem to have come to terms with the fact that dangerous stuff happens, not only bombings but crashes, earthquakes, hurricanes, floods and kidnappings.

Motorways are dangerous places too, but what are you going to do - stay at home

Divers policy is to concentrate on the diving and let you decide whether you want to risk the trip or not.

You can check the risks, as far as they are known, on the Foreign & Commonwealth Offices website (www.fco.gov.uk). Its travel advisories are divided into two levels of perceived danger, but break it down and you wont find too many diving destinations specified.

FCO officials shake their heads about places such as Papua New Guinea and the Philippines, for instance, but their warnings are limited to certain areas, well off the usual diving itinerary.

Much the same applies to Sudan, Sri Lanka, Israel and the Solomon Islands. And the warning about travel to Turkey in the wake of Novembers bombings refers to Istanbul and other major cities, not seaside resorts. However, there is a blanket second-level warning about Indonesia, which many would argue is tough on a huge, diverse country struggling to rebuild its tourism in the wake of the Bali blasts.
Snooba Travel is one of those dive tour operators that takes a robust view of official warnings and leaves it to clients to decide where they feel safe. People ask us about safety in places like Indonesia, says the companys Nikola Greifeld. We would expect that diving destinations off the beaten track, such as Manado, are generally too small to be targeted and are extremely safe. You must remember that Bali was a mass-market destination. She says there have been no problems with reduced flights through Singapore.
Regaldive, holder of the Diver Award for Best Tour Operator, is one of several companies to take a different view. It has a blanket policy not to take divers to parts of the world where there is an FCO travel advisory, because of liability issues.
Heaven help us if there was ever a general warning about the Red Sea area, though I think thats extremely unlikely! says Regaldives Andreas Elia.

What Nikola, Andreas and other diving-specialist tour operators seem agreed on is that, after several years of uncertainty, the prospects for 2004 are good. The turning point came after initial hostilities in Iraq had died down and the SARS epidemic was contained.

We went through hell and high water between February and June in 2003 and it was extremely difficult to sell anything because of the war, says Phil Connor of Dive Sportif.
But the market recovered pretty well. Were optimistic about 2004, and as long as the economy improves well have a busy year.

Long-haul travel is very much on the agenda, with several operators reckoning on Australia as a good bet. Now that you can fly on to New Zealand and back for only £60 extra, you may be tempted to remind your long-lost Antipodean relatives of your existence and sweet-talk your boss into giving you a lot of time off all at once.

Tahiti and Cocos are bringing a lot of inquiries, reports Trish Faulkner of long-haul specialist Diving World. And for Jamie Hammond of Kuoni the Maldives, Sharm and Thailand are the big ones. Weve had massive interest in the Far East, especially Thailand, since September.

Nikola Greifeld, the bulk of whose business is divided between Asia and the Maldives and the Caribbean, reckons demand for Asia is growing fast, including battered Indonesia and the Philippines. She agrees that Thailand is doing well, though recommends a liveaboard trip to get the best from the diving there.

Tourism to the Maldives from Britain leapt by 16% in 2003. More people are diving in the Maldives, and the Seychelles too, says Nikola. They arent put off the Indian Ocean by problems with coral because they know the topography is great, the water is warm and clear and theyll find tons of fish - maybe even whale sharks.

Demand for the Red Sea continued unabated after the Iraq war, of course, fuelled by continuing bargain prices for excellent diving, accommodation and expanded liveaboard programmes, particularly in the highly rated southern Egyptian waters.

But Phil Connor feels that these prices are artificially low. They will have to rise at some point so that we can reinvest. Sensible people in the tourist industry want that to happen so that we can raise our service levels.

Despite its transformation in recent years from a dive town into a general tourist resort, Sharm el Sheikh remains the big magnet for divers, though Dahab, still very much a divers hang-out and well-served by dive centres, is exerting an ever-stronger attraction.

There has been a swing from Hurghada to Sharm because the diving infrastructure in Sharm is very good, says Andreas Elia. Hurghada is perceived as big and sprawling, although many groups still like to go to there, and a number combine it with Safaga for two-centre holidays.

Phil Connor reckons that too little has been done by the authorities to smarten up Hurghadas fading image. Sharm outstrips it for quality now, and its great for families.

Further south in Egypt theres been quite a buzz about Marsa Alam because it has good hotels, pristine reef and not only shore but now boat-diving, says Andreas. The direct flights have drawn positive feedback. But our hot tip is Sudan, where the liveaboards are continuing to explore virgin Red Sea diving areas.

These days what people want above all is convenience. Generally they are being more adventurous, want to go further afield, and can do so because they have more disposable income and more plastic at their disposal. With places like the Maldives within easy reach and trips to the Caribbean for £500 to £600, they will take the opportunity if they can.

The Caribbean proved a big draw for Brit divers in 2003, with Bonaire, Grenada and Tobago among the winners. Again people like the convenience - these are superb destinations and good value for money, says Andreas. The Dutch Antilles in particular [Bonaire and Curaao] has gone through the roof.

Places like Bonaire are great for shore-diving and divers are attracted by the marine parks and generally by the less-developed Caribbean holiday islands, adds Nikola.

Stephanie Tester of Barefoot Traveller has also noted the popularity of the Dutch Antilles and says that the trend looks set to continue. Barefoot also recommends Turks & Caicos and Sipadan and is hoping the Bahamas will regain popularity after a lull in both the US and British markets.

Phil Connor reckons Tobago is one of the fastest-growing attractions, with six flights a week from the UK opening it up. Its the last of the islands to keep its true Caribbean feel, and apart from good diving its great for families, he says.
What about closer to home In Europe, dive tour operators are finding it hard to compete with the low-cost airlines. Theres no margin for us because its so easy for people to arrange a trip themselves these days, says Nikola Greifeld.

So the advice is to find out where Ryanair, EasyJet etc are flying, find accommodation and book yourself some diving nearby. Bear in mind that, sooner or later, even budget airline prices look likely to rise in the Euro Zone.

Short-haul destinations which are arousing interest include Gozo, which Andreas Elia reckons is perfect for a four-day weekend, if not longer, and Kas and Kalkan in southern Turkey, recently opened up in terms of wreck-diving and offering scope for family holidays besides.

Multi-activity specialist Neilson has also found that Mediterranean dive holidays aboard Turkish gulets are getting good repeat business from groups. Theyre not crazily overpriced, everythings thrown in and you can do anything from beginner to speciality courses on board if you want to, says Larry Sayer. They really do look after you.

Which is exactly what we want. Of course, all the tour operators have their own holidays to sell and favourites to recommend. Pick up some more ideas in the following pages, where we visit Egypt, Gozo, the Maldives, Mexico, Norway, Thailand, Turkey and the Turks & Caicos Islands. Visit our website Divernet (see left) and dont miss the chance to come and meet the travel exhibitors at the London International Dive Show.

First Stop Divernet
At the risk of blowing our own trumpet, its a hard fact that lately more and more divers have been using a facility on Divers website www.divernet.com to find out about holiday offers, particularly last-minute trips.
Over the past year the number of individuals reading Divernets Latest Offers travel pages has grown by a massive 275% to 6700 a month. If usage goes on tripling on a yearly basis, soon everyone will be finding their holidays this way!
The Internet is hot on promises for people who want to compare prices on all sorts of goods and services. But too often what is advertised as an independent bargain-hunting service turns out to be nothing of the sort. You may have come across those online holiday sites where most of the offers come from one or a small number of travel operators.
Our advice is simple: never rely on a single source when pricing up your dive holiday. Even if youre being offered a members-only discount offer through your dive club, check out the competition first. Youll be surprised!
Divernets Latest Offers is a non-profit-making service for divers. The offers may be standard or heavily discounted to fill seats close to the time of departure - either way, Divernet simply posts the news for you. It takes no commission, and you book direct with the tour operator.
So be smart for 2004 and dont move without using Divernet Late Offers, at least as a benchmark. And if you like the sound of any of the destinations featured in this Diver Holiday Special issue, use the contact details provided but also check out Divernet Late Offers for prices on these and similar holidays.

Divers at Tamariu on Spains Costa Brava. Budget air travel has made Mediterranean resorts cheap and easy to access but grab it while you can
Where are we going today Well-planned holidays should be a time for pleasant surprises

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Red Rock, Purple Rock    Funky Town    Gozo a-Go-Go    Splashing out in a big way    Cancun revelations    Pots & Holes    Wartime on ice    Need a little TCI