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Kuoni, Europe’s fourth-biggest holiday operator by sales, said political upheaval in north Africa and natural disasters in Japan had made forecasting this year more difficult.

The Swiss group, best known for its upmarket holidays to exotic destinations, has substantial business in Egypt, especially for customers from Switzerland and Scandinavia, two of its biggest markets.

In the case of Japan, outbound travel from Europe is limited. However, the group is a big operator for Japanese tourists to Europe, while GTA, the UK travel company it is acquiring for $720m, also has substantial Japanese activities.

“It’s very difficult to give any outlook, because there’s just so much uncertainty,” said Peter Rothwell, chief executive.

Bookings to mid-March were flat, after sales in January had been “quite positive,” he said. Sales in Switzerland, the UK, Benelux and southern Europe, some of Kuoni’s biggest markets, were down by 3 per cent in local currencies. By contrast, business in Asia had continued the same sharply upward trend of 2010, the company said. Total bookings in Swiss francs were down 7 per cent year on year, reflecting partly the strength of the Swiss currency.

Kuoni traditionally provides a business outlook only in mid-year, as that allows time for crucial summer bookings and gives a better indication of the second half, when the group does most business, Mr Rothwell noted.

He said about half the customers who had planned to take early year holidays in Egypt had accepted alternatives, such as the Canary Islands, with the remainder cancelling.

Mr Rothwell said he hoped the situation in Egypt would stabilise sufficiently for business in autumn and winter – the peak period for European travellers – to return to normal levels.

He said demand for holidays in Greece had picked up strongly this year, after a poor 2010, when sales suffered from political and labour upheavals. Demand for Turkey was also buoyant. In Japan, Kuoni hoped matters would improve fast enough for traditional summer visits to Europe to recover.

The comments came as Kuoni, which is planning a SFr250m ($354m) rights issue to help finance the GTA takeover, announced a sharp improvement in profits for 2010. The company, which has tried to move to an “asset light” business model by divesting most of its hotels and aircraft and cutting costs, saw net profits jump from SFr1.6m in 2009 to SFr23.2m. Sales edged up by 2.3 per cent to SFr3.98bn.

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