Cheap and Cheerful

9 minute read
KATE NOBLE/London

As a holiday destination, klagenfurt may not have the charm of Siena or the sexy allure of St. Tropez, but it has something potentially better — an airport. For years, the sunny southern Austrian town was just about nowhere on the list of British vacationers’ choices. But Klagenfurt is one of the newest destinations for Ryanair, the no-frills Irish carrier. The tourists are pouring in.

While some low-cost airlines are concentrating on more traditional destinations, Ryanair, Go and Buzz are boldly going where few have gone before. And their attentions are proving a boon, not just to holidaymakers who snap up bargain fares, but to places like Aarhus, Bergerac and Jerez, which are enjoying a boost to the local economy from an influx of tourists. As the summer vacation season reaches its peak at the conventional hotspots, the air over Europe is filling with people going to places that, until recently, they had never even heard of.

Until Ryanair started daily direct flights from London’s Stansted Airport on June 27, determined British travelers could get to Klagenfurt only if they were prepared to pay a hefty price and change planes in Vienna. Now, with one-way fares starting as low as 315.66, British holidaymakers are discovering the beauties of the Renaissance-style Carinthian capital. Traditionally the nearby lakeside towns of Prtschach and Velden have been prime holiday destinations for wealthy Austrians and Germans, but few other tourists made it to the region’s beautiful lakes, mountains and alpine valleys. In the first three weeks of July the Carinthia tourist office’s English-language website had nearly as much traffic as it did in the whole of last year. Before the Ryanair service began, tourism spokeswoman Martina Skrube had a hard time selling local delights to overseas visitors. “Now,” she says, “we hope we can really attract British guests.”

With rock-bottom fares, the low-cost carriers are prompting people to rethink their holiday plans. When a vacation abroad can cost less than a similar break at home, the attraction is irresistible. So more and more Europeans are taking a couple of short breaks a year in addition to their annual vacation. And they are venturing into unknown territories. Eileen and Geoff Morgan of Hastings, England went to Graz this year. “We’d never been to Austria before,” says Eileen. “It was lovely, just like the postcards.” They now plan to visit St. Etienne in France, “and lots of other new places.” “If you introduce a daily service all year round to these areas and you put a 315 fare in, people will go,” says Ryanair spokesman Enda O’Toole. “We create a whole new demand where there was never a demand before because of the fares we charge.”

One of the ways Ryanair and other discount airlines keep fares down is to use uncrowded regional airports, where they can turn their planes around in 25 minutes instead of 45. “We wouldn’t fly to the likes of Charles de Gaulle, Heathrow or Copenhagen if you paid us,” says O’Toole. “They’re too congested. When you fly your aircraft there you are queueing in the clouds.”

The no-frills carriers’ fondness for remote airports, once a handicap, is becoming an attraction. Ryanair passengers may in the past have been disconcerted to discover that a flight to Copenhagen didn’t actually land in the Danish capital, but instead flew into the Swedish city of Malm with a 45-minute bus connection to Copenhagen. Now more and more flyers are staying in the cosmopolitan port, whose old city is surrounded by canals crisscrossed by bridges, rather than using it merely as a drop-off point. Southern Sweden’s chamber of commerce executive vice-president, Ingemar Nilsson, says increasing numbers of Britons now “come here to enjoy the clean air and easy access to nature.”

Seeking a different kind of holiday has meant that British visitors to Denmark’s second city, Aarhus, have multiplied six-fold since Ryanair started its regular service and have become the second-largest group of foreign tourists, after Swedes. Local businesses are delighted to see the newcomers, since they occupy about 25,000 bed-nights a year, spending an average of 3177 a day. “They come because they want to experience Denmark,” says Steen Berg, head of the Aarhus tourist board. “They enjoy walking around the old streets, watching the cyclists, visiting the cathedral and museums. It is pure pleasure having them.”

For some regions, it’s more than that. After the U.S. decided to close its military air base at Hahn in the rural Eifel region of western Germany in 1991, the local economy went into a steep decline. The withdrawal of around 15,000 troops meant that shops and hotels lost customers, and some 850 civilians at the base lost their jobs. Then came Ryanair. The airline looked at the base in 1999 and decided it was perfectly positioned to provide an international hub for its central European operations. The locals were thrilled. “When the Americans left the future looked bleak,” says Carsten Koppke, mayor of the district of Kirchberg, which includes Hahn. “Now I’m looking ahead very optimistically.”

Optimism is high in all the areas around the newly busy airports. When Buzz started service to France’s bustling port of La Rochelle in March 2001 with four arrivals a week, they were the first international flights ever to land at the little airport. “The impact was immediate,” says airport director Thomas Juin. “The traffic was much heavier than we anticipated.” By the beginning of 2002 Buzz had increased the flights to nine a week after more than 25,000 people had used the service, spending 35.34 million in La Rochelle’s hotels, restaurants, car-rental agencies and other businesses. One reason that Buzz launched the route was the popularity of the sailing and fishing center for Britons buying or renting property. “We started flying to places where we know that there is a lot of holiday ownership,” says Adam Harris, Buzz’s director of sales and marketing. The local effect has been “radical” according to Juin. “A few weeks ago an English colleague and I were in a restaurant on the Ile de Ré that was full of English speakers,” he recalls. “I joked with him that now he could feel more at home in my city than I do.”

So successful have the Buzz operations become that French cities are vying with each other to get on its map. “There is an awful lot of competition between different cities,” says Harris. When Buzz started flying to La Rochelle and the picturesque cathedral city of Poitiers, the equally ancient city of Tours grew indignant. “They said, ‘Why aren’t you flying to us?'” he recalls. “‘We’ve got a bigger town, a bigger airport and a student population.'” This year Buzz opened nine French routes — but not Poitiers — flying directly from the U.K. to more French destinations than any other airline, including Air France and British Airways.

Tourist boards are seizing on these new links with glee, planning big promotional campaigns. Italy’s Le Marche region around Ancona, which is pushing the area as “Italy’s best-kept secret,” has put big ads in British newspapers and launched two English-language websites. Regional promotion-office director Paolo Galli proudly says, “We are on 200 London doubledecker buses.” With a coastline of breathtaking seascapes and jewel-like towns the area has much to promote.

With all these new routes, airlines are designing spectacular special offers to fill their planes. After Sept. 11, when the major carriers were cutting back service and laying off staff, the no-frills lines were virtually giving seats away. In November Ryanair was offering round trips to Salzburg for 3.06, plus airport taxes. This year, when both Ireland and Germany qualified for the second phase of the World Cup in June, Ryanair celebrated by offering 6,000 seats for travel on Aug. 31 in or out of its 12 German destinations for free, with customers paying only the tax.

With a seemingly insatiable public appetite for cheap flights and new destinations, the no-frills airlines, which currently account for 7% of all air travel in Europe, are planning massive growth. “What we are striving to do now is to reduce the cost of air travel to make it accessible to everybody,” says O’Toole. Ryanair recently placed an order for 100 Boeing 737 aircraft to be delivered before 2010 and is in discussions with 40 airports about new services. By 2010 it aims to be “the biggest scheduled airline in Europe and will carry 40 million passengers.”

Those kinds of expansion programs sometimes meet opposition from locals, concerned about the effects of pollution and noise. Jürgen Rösner, a leading member of an anti-air-traffic-noise group in Hahn, has tried to raise awareness of the dangers. But in an area where unemployment reached 12% at the end of the 1990s — and where more local people are now employed at the airport than before the Americans left — Rösner is fighting a losing battle. “We can’t manage to activate the public,” he complains.

The antis aren’t going to get much help for their cause any time soon. The opening- up of new routes for tourists also enables companies to pitch for business they were never able to get before. Dijon, previously accessible only by road or train, got its Buzz link in March; the northern French city estimates that British visitors will bring in at least 35 million this year. Officials, noting that already around 20% of British passengers are business travelers, plan to exploit that traffic by promoting the city as a location for conferences and conventions. They calculate that for British companies a three-day conference in Dijon, including air fares and hotels, would be cheaper than meeting in London. Hoping to make Dijon the gateway to the rest of Burgundy, airport director Daniel Lefebvre says, “There is a lot of hope for the future.”

As the no-frills airlines continue their growth, it seems that everyone’s a winner — travelers, regional airports and local communities. And now even Siena and St. Tropez can dream of becoming the next Klagenfurt, La Rochelle or Aarhus

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