New romance with France
Thursday, August 19, 2004
PARIS -- Maybe "freedom fries" taste better in France.
After political squabbles over the Iraq war soured U.S.-French relations, more American tourists are visiting Paris this year, tourism officials say.
Since last year, the diplomatic antagonism has faded. Experts say American tourists are growing less fearful about terrorism. And World War II anniversaries have injected new good feeling into U.S.-French ties.
"The international situation has allowed an increase in Americans visiting Europe -- and we've benefited," said the president of the Paris tourism bureau, Jean-Marc Janaillac.
Paris is not alone. After a rough 2003, Europe is enjoying a rebound in visits by Americans, Japanese and others. Even Spain's terrorism-struck capital, Madrid, has seen more U.S. visitors this year.
Visitor tallies plunged across Europe after the Sept. 11 terror attacks on the United States. Then came the SARS outbreak in Asia, the invasion of Iraq and the betrayal felt by some Americans toward the French over the war, and 2003 proved a dismal year for Paris tourism.
Now Americans are back -- along with many others.
In its latest report, Paris' tourism office said 21 percent more Germans, 18 percent more Japanese and 13.5 percent more Americans checked into the city's hotels in the first five months of 2004 compared to a year ago.
But free-spending Americans, typically the most represented nationality among visitors in Paris, are the special target of promoters. The French capital has held events tied to the Fourth of July holiday the last two years trying to attract American tourists.
Despite the upswing in American visitors, their numbers are still below those of three years ago. According to tourism officials, the number of American tourists in France slumped 31 percent from 3.5 million in 2001 to 2.4 million last year.
Some Americans remain reluctant -- even begrudging -- visitors to a country they believe has a strong anti-American tilt.
"I was concerned about coming. ... My travel agent advised against it," Nancy Webber said Wednesday on the Champs-Elysees. "I didn't want to spend money here, but then I thought, 'Well, I drink red wine and I eat brie."'
Webber, 49, a nurse from Newton, Mass., and her husband, Tony, decided Paris was too important to pass up -- especially for their two teenage daughters and 10-year-old son.
"What overrode all that was the desire we had to bring our kids, to show them Paris," said her husband, a 51-year-old surgeon.
Tourism officials insist Americans worried about an anti-U.S. backlash in France that didn't exist.
"The most cultivated Americans were able to look past the differences," said Jean-Claude Demais, head of Normandy's tourist bureau. "But other Americans were told that French people were jerks -- and people believed it."
Historical remembrance has played a role in the rebound. President Bush joined American veterans and their families in Normandy on June 6 for the 60th anniversary of the Allies' D-Day landings during World War II. Many passed through Paris.
"The ceremonies showed France hasn't forgotten what it owes the United States for the liberation of 1944-45," said Janaillac at the Paris tourism bureau.
Some Americans are also coming to terms with traveling in the era of terrorism, he said.
"Americans have realized what they didn't realize until now: That except in very specific, exposed locations, all the destinations in the Western world could, at a given moment, be exposed" to terror attacks, he said.
Other European countries are noticing tourism rebounds.
More foreigners are visiting Madrid despite the March 11 railway bombings blamed on Muslim militants linked to al-Qaida. In the first six months of 2004, the number of American tourists rose 13 percent from a year earlier, Spain's Economy Ministry reported.
Berlin's tourism office said the number of Japanese hotel guests soared 115 percent in May and there were 45 percent more Americans.
Britain had a 20 percent increase in visits by North Americans in the April-June quarter, said Britain's official tourism promoter, VisitBritain.
Hotels in Rome recorded a 26 percent increase in check-ins in June from a year earlier.
Jim Smyth, a U.S. consultant traveling in Italy, said he put off visiting last year amid worries Americans might be targeted due to anger over the war to topple Saddam Hussein.
"I was not going to come last year because of Iraq," the 63-year-old Virginian said. "It was too soon after the war, especially when I was making plans." But this year, he was "not worried at all."