THE market for villa holidays is booming as more consumers choose to upgrade from self-catering accommodation. Operators claim that sales are up on last year by as much as 20% in some areas and many are expanding their programmes for next year.

French Life is increasing its villa count in France by 50%, pushing the total to 225 properties for summer 2000.

Cosmos hopes to expand its villas brochure by 20% to around 150 properties, while the Individual Travellers Company is introducing 40 more villas - a 50% rise - in Portugal alone.

"Demand is currently far outstripping supply," said First Choice villa product group manager Richard Curtis. "Operators are desperate to sign new villas and are struggling to find them."

Style Holidays marketing manager Natasha Shane said: "There has been unprecedented demand to Minorca and the Algarve, which has had a knock-on effect to our other destinations."

Style brought forward by two months the launch of its summer 2000 Spain and Algarve programmes to June and July respectively. Its Villas with Pools brochure, to be launched later in the year, will feature new villas and resorts.

With the pound strong in Europe, people are choosing to spend the extra money on villas and the deluxe end of the market is particularly popular, said Meon Villas marketing director Susan Williams.

She added: "This trend has been confirmed by the successful launch of Meon's Specials collection which showcases villas with either outstanding locations or particularly noteworthy interiors. We will be increasing the quality end for 2000."

Traditional destinations for villa holidays - the Balearic islands and the Algarve - are still the firm favourites, but other locations throughout Europe are also proving to be popular.

If the pull of politicians' favourite places is to be believed, Tony Blair's preferred holiday hangout in Tuscany is attracting villa holidaymakers in droves. Meon reported that bookings to the region are 95% up over last year.

Bookings to Corfu, new to Sunworld Beach Villas last year, far exceeded expectations and Cyprus, Meon Villas' newest destination, has been another success story.

Destinations as varied as Gozo, the French Atlantic coast, Greece and mainland Spain have been named as up-and-coming for 2000.

Tenerife makes its debut in Sovereign's Villa 2000 programme, launched this week.

The operator claims to be the only one offering individual villas in the destination. Other new resorts include Speracedes in Nice, Pomos in Cyprus, Gozo and the island of Elba, just offCorsica.

While Minorca and the Algarve remain the cheapest places for villa holidays this summer, operators recommend other locations, such as Corfu and the Dordogne, as best value for money when quality and setting are considered.

With consumer demand continuing to rise, early booking is essential. Repeat bookings are common - many clients re-book as soon as they get home.

"Thirty per cent of our summer '99 capacity was sold before last September, particularly to previous customers who want the same villa or another they have seen while away," said Sunworld Beach Villas product manager Nathalie Bourguet.

Availability for August may be scarce, but there are cancellations and operators advise agents to suggest alternative destinations.

"Spain and Portugal is limited for this summer, but agents should consider parts of France,which are still good value," said Individual Travellers Company marketing manager Owen Davies.


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