There's movement in the skies above Sarasota-but not on the ground.
Condor, the German airline owned by Thomas Cook AG, is pulling out of Fort Myers after April, leaving German competitor LTU as the airport's sole non-stop link to Europe this summer.
Unlike LTU, which has been steadily flying to Fort Myers and Miami for more than a decade, Condor has been flitting between Florida destinations like a restless lover. First it flew Frankfurt-Tampa, then Frankfurt-Fort Myers, and now it'll be Frankfurt-Orlando. The airline vaguely announced that it might be back to Southwest Florida International by next winter, but a spokeswoman sounded more final. Despite massive advertising, demand for the weekly Fort Myers flight "weakened considerably" over the last few months, she told Outside In last December. She added that Orlando offers more (high-margin) business travelers.
Why does this matter to us in Sarasota?
Well, our tourism officials have been whining about a drop in visitors.
Maybe we only have a handful of business travelers to offer, but this could be the perfect time for SRQ to declare its love to this lost German beauty. German tourism here has declined for most of this decade, and we could try to revive it.
As Michael Walley, the airport's marketing chief, suggested earlier this year, hotel owners from Clearwater to Fort Myers could gang up and tie together a package European tour operators can't refuse via SRQ. The tour operators, in turn, would fill the seats of Condor's Boeing 737s that would shuttle thousands of outlet mall-starved Germans to Sarasota-Bradenton.
Landing a European airline wouldn't cost SRQ a lot of investment money. We have a long enough runway to accommodate fully loaded and gassed-up long-haul jets, and we also have (rudimentary) customs and immigration facilities.
And even though German travelers still seem to be shell-shocked by Homeland Security's hour-long immigration-lines-cum-fingerprinting, and tour operators are irate at the disappearance of budget waterfront hotels in Florida, there are signs of a revival in the German travel market.
Two discount supermarket giants in Germany, Aldi and Lidl, are getting into the package-tour travel business, as is Tchibo, a national chain of coffee stores. United States destinations are beginning to show up among their offerings, and it would be very surprising if Florida didn't figure in those plans.
Lidl offers its travel packages through a cousin of Condor, tour operator Paneuropa, which happens to be a subsidiary of Thomas Cook.
Lidl isn't offering U.S. travel yet, but its competitor Aldi does. And anything Aldi offers, Lidl must have, too. Both Aldi and Tchibo do offer U.S. packages, but chose to work with tour operator Berge & Meer, which, in turn, is linked to LTU.
If you think about it, Sarasota Bradenton International Airport, conveniently located halfway between Tampa/St. Petersburg and Fort Myers/Naples, could actually be a great destination.
There's no reason why Germans shouldn't be coming back to Florida, especially since our dollar continues to lose ground against the euro.
Which brings me to the next topic.
THEY DON'T WANT OUR DOLLARS ANYMORE! We've been used to the world salivating for our greenbacks and treasury bonds. But this era might be over not too long from now.
During 2006, the dollar lost 15 percent-plus of its value against the euro, and the European Central Bank-which traditionally would have intervened by lowering interest rates and making billion-dollar reserve purchases-doesn't seem to care. Worse, the ECB even increased its rates, making euro purchases more attractive. And our Fed's Ben Bernanke is just standing by.
The Europeans can afford to do this because, in the face of economic growth elsewhere in the world, the U.S. export market has lost relative importance.
Is this the dollar's final free fall, as many analysts have predicted? Not yet, they say. Not too long ago, $2 billion was flowing into our country every day from the rest of the world. The United States was seen as a shrine of stability and a profit machine. That perception has changed, and the flow is beginning to dry up, or could even-although this is a long shot, according to a recent study by the Bank for International Settlements-reverse. Sixty-six percent of the world's monetary reserves are still in dollars, versus 25 percent in euro. But that's down from 70 percent in 1999. Analysts predict a gradual but continued decline of the dollar.
What does this mean? On a higher level, the world wouldn't subsidize our debt spending anymore. Either our interest rates or inflation would shoot up, or people would shred their credit cards and savings accounts would (have to) become the rage.
On a more immediate level, a cheap dollar would help Sun Hydraulics sell its hydraulic cartridges in Korea, Tropicana might be able to export orange juice even to Brazil, the citrus center of the world, and the Longboat Key Club would fill its beds with German tourists in summer (see above).
So get used to seeing more euros, British pounds, Swiss francs, yen and Chinese yuan at local airports and banks.
Ironically, the fate of the U.S. dollar is not in the Europeans' hands.
We depend on the willingness of our Chinese friends to continue buying and keeping U.S. treasury bonds, and tagging their yuan to the dollar. China is sitting on a $1 trillion mountain of hard currency reserves, the biggest in the world.
STILL, WE MIGHT GET A CHEAPER BENZ. World free trade is dead. Long live the North Atlantic Free Trade Area.
If the Doha round of negotiations at the World Trade Organization fails-which is quite possible-the United States and the European Union might decide to form a trade bloc encompassing most of the world's old wealth (the U.S. and EU make up 60 percent of world GDP). Germany, one of the leading exporters to the United States, is discreetly pushing the plan for this economic version of NATO. In a low-profile meeting last fall, the German government's world trade chief met with U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab.
In our neck of the woods, a U.S-EU free trade area could theoretically mean lower-priced Roquefort cheese, Beck's beer and Mercedes-Benz sedans. It could also be an export boon to Florida's agribusinesses.
But there's also a geostrategic aim: The Europeans see a transatlantic trade bloc as a tool to fend off the rising economic powers in Asia.
Johannes Werner is a Sarasota-based business journalist who has worked in Europe, Mexico, the Caribbean and the United States. He is the editor of Cuba Trade & Investment News and hosts the Florida-Caribe radio show on WSLR 96.5 FM.