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South/Central Europe: Worldwide Tourism Down, But Some Regions Reap Benefits

The number of international tourists shrank substantially in 2001 for the first time in 20 years. Secretary-General Francesco Frangialli of the World Tourism Organization says the 11 September terrorist attacks in the United States also sparked a disaster in the foreign-travel industry. RFE/RL correspondent Don Hill looks behind the statistics and discovers that some tourist travel was diverted rather than halted, bringing unexpected benefits to a few Southern and Central European destinations.

Prague, 1 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Estimates based on preliminary figures show that world tourism shrank by about one percentage point last year, to 690 million travelers.

The Madrid-based World Tourism Organization says the shrinkage -- the principal cause of which was the September terrorist attacks in the United States -- upset an industry accustomed to steady growth.

John Kester is the travel organization's program officer for market intelligence and promotion. He says, "For the whole year, there has been a decrease of tourism of a little bit more than 1 percent, which is extraordinary because, in general, tourism shows growth rates between 3 and 7 percent."

Other events also affected tourism negatively. One was the outbreak of hoof and mouth disease in the United Kingdom, Ireland, and the Netherlands. The strength of the U.S. dollar discouraged travel to the United States. And the accelerating Israeli-Palestinian conflict depressed travel throughout the Middle East.

The World Tourism Organization measures tourism by logging the number of foreign visitors in each country who stay for at least one night. In Europe, it says, international arrivals were off almost 7 percent in the United Kingdom and by 0.7 percent in Europe as a whole.

Kester says that when tension dampens wanderlust, tourists tend to travel within their own countries or visit nearby destinations: "When there are occasions in the world with tension, what we generally see as a reaction is that people cut back on long-haul trips, and there is a shift to closer-to-home destinations or to domestic travel."

The tourism body reports that another phenomenon noticed in 2001 was that tourists shied away from air travel, choosing destinations reachable by highway or rail.

But less travel to Western Europe was offset by gains in the eastern Mediterranean and in South and Central Europe. Tourism grew by 14 percent in Bulgaria, 12 percent in Turkey and Croatia, and by almost as much in Slovenia. The tourism winner of Central Europe was Slovakia, where an estimated 1.2 million people visited. That was 13 percent more than in the year 2000.

Slovakia's growing ski-resort industry may have attracted a number of new visitors. But a key factor, too, was its new reputation in Europe for growing political stability.

Kester says, "That [political stability] is often a very important factor. It is also I think in the case of Slovakia -- a not-so-very-known country yet -- it is also a country relatively new on the international travel tourism stage. And they are starting now to get their tourism sector working."

The fall of the Iron Curtain opened up a number of new destinations for foreign travel. The tourism organization's Kester says tourists headed first for the more obvious places but are now seeking out more adventurous, or at least lesser known, places to visit, such as Slovakia or Estonia, the latter of which enjoyed an increase in tourism of 9 percent over 2000, representing 9 million visitors.

"People first went to destinations more obvious, like Prague in the Czech Republic or, in general, the Czech Republic and Hungary. Once [having] discovered those places, then newer countries, newer places like Slovakia might come into the picture," Kester says.

The World Tourism Organization has traditionally published foreign travel figures for each year in the following January, even though complete numbers are unlikely to be available. But projecting full-year rates from partial statistics has generally proven reliable.

For 2001, the incomplete numbers project that about 690 million people traveled to foreign destinations worldwide. The top destinations, in descending order, were France, Spain, the United States, Italy, and China. Spain graduated into what Secretary-General Frangialli calls a "firm place as the world's number-two destination."

The travel body predicts that international tourism will resume its growth trend in 2002, based principally on economic rather than political influences. The organization has formed what it is calling "a tourism recovery committee" with ministers from 21 countries and leaders from 15 private-sector tourism companies or associations.