Leading British tour operator First Choice launched Island Cruises, involving First Choice and Royal Caribbean, in Palma yesterday. First Choice held a huge launch party for travel agents and guests to present the new cruise ship Island Escape which will be operating on two routes throughout the summer from her base in Palma. This season First Choice aims to carry 50'000 European cruise passengers. Last year 630'000 holidaymakers travelled to the Balearics with First Choice, but the tour operator has noticed a slowdown in holiday sales since September 11. First Choice chief executive Peter Long said yesterday that bookings to the Balearics are currently down 15 per cent while to mainland Spain, the drop has been ten per cent. Long said the main reason for the Balearic decline is that the region has become expensive, when compared to the Balearics' Mediterranean competitors and that, he said, is not conducive to family tourism which is the region's key market. Another factor which is dogging the Balearic tourism industry this summer is the controversy over the tourist tax. Long said that new taxes on tourism are not good ideas and expressed his surprise and sorrow over the breakdown in talks between the Balearic government and the International Federation of Tour Operators in Palma this week. Long called on the government to postpone the tax until “at least” November. Long said that the meeting between IFTO and the local government in Palma failed to clear the air and that the failure of the talks has done little to ease the concerns of Europe's major tour operators, all of which want the tax delayed. “But it is a domestic problem which the government has got to solve,” Long said. But he said that introducing the tax on May 1 would be “irresponsible” on the part of the government and will do nothing the help the current situation in the tourist industry. However he urged hoteliers not to enter into a price war, but instead to make sure that the Balearic tourist industry maintains its high level of competitiveness and continues to provide quality service and products. First Choice has a significant commitment to the Balearics, the Barcelo Group has a 20 per cent stake in the company and First Choice is considering a number of joint ventures with the Majorcan company, such as hotel management and the purchase of new hotels in Spain over the next two years.

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