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Europe: Tourism Industry Feeling The Impact of SARS, Iraq, And The Euro

The Iraq war, SARS, fear of terrorism, the rising euro -- many factors are depressing tourism in Europe this year. Reports say the numbers of visitors to popular Western European destination countries like France are down by 20 percent, as fewer Americans are flying across the Atlantic. Lower-cost Mediterranean destinations appear to be doing better. Croatian authorities say they are having their best summer in years.

Prague, 7 August 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The second weekend in August is typically the high point of the European summer holiday season.

Normally at this time of year, tourists -- many from North America and Asia -- swarm the streets of Paris, Rome, and London. Beaches along the Mediterranean and Adriatic seas are lined body-to-body from Spain across the continent down to Croatia and Greece.

But tourism officials say this is anything but a normal year. The Iraq war and fears of a worldwide SARS epidemic peaked during the crucial spring booking period, when tourists typically plan their holidays and travel agents book flights and rooms.

Added to these factors are the rising euro -- which makes vacationing in the European Union more expensive for those outside the EU -- and the continuing economic woes in Germany, the world's biggest supplier of cross-border tourists.

France, the world's number-one tourist destination, says bookings are down a stunning 20 percent this year. Drops are also reported in Spain and Italy -- the second and third most popular holiday destinations respectively.

Rok Klancnik is the communications director of the UN's World Tourism Organization in Madrid. He points out that France depends heavily on overseas travelers -- especially Americans. He says the Iraq war convinced many Americans to stay at home, and because of the disagreement between the U.S. and French governments over Iraq, Americans who do venture abroad are not choosing France.

"[Tourism is down], especially in France -- in Paris -- due to the conflict, in the media and in public opinion, [over the war in Iraq]. The French did not approve the American attack on Iraq. [Many] Americans decided not to visit France this year [because of this]," Klancnik says.

Klancnik's organization is responsible for identifying trends in tourism, which has become an increasingly important source of revenue for countries around the world. In France, tourism accounts for more than 6 percent of GDP. That figure is higher for smaller countries like Greece and Croatia.

Klancnik says many of Europe's tourism problems can be attributed to Germany, which has been in or near recession for two years. Unemployment in Germany is well over 10 percent of the labor force.

"Iraq and SARS were relatively short crises in international tourism. What is more important is economic recession -- in the United States of America, but especially in Germany, which is the number-one generating market in the world. So the Germans are traveling less," Klancnik says.

He says that when they do travel, Germans stay closer to home and drive -- not fly.

Not all European countries are suffering. Croatian officials say they are enjoying the best summer in years. Bulgaria's Black Sea resorts are also doing well.

Niko Bulic, the director of the Croatian National Tourism Agency, says bookings are up 8 percent this year from last year. He says Croatia has finally, firmly shed its image as an unsafe destination following the Balkan wars of the 1990s.

"We think that Croatia is coming back to its normal position because we were having problems the last 10 years because of the war for independence -- all the postwar problems that Croatia had because of the perceptions that it was an unsafe zone," Bulic says.

Bulic says Croatia was relatively unaffected by the drop in trans-Atlantic tourism brought on by the war in Iraq. Most visitors to the country come relatively cheaply, in their own cars, from nearby countries like Germany, Austria, Hungary, and the Czech Republic.

"We think that Croatia has one advantage that came out because of the safety reasons with the war in Iraq. [And this was an important criteria for people in deciding where they will go on holiday]. Croatia is somehow closer to Europe proper, and as we have 75 percent of tourists coming by cars, private cars, they found it much easier and closer to come to Croatia," Bulic says.

Europeans are generally choosing cheaper destinations, which explains a recent upsurge in interest in Bulgaria. Klancnik calls this the third trend in European travel -- after traveling closer to home and booking travel later, closer to the departure date.

"The third trend -- which is very typical for Germany but also for the whole European travel industry -- is price sensitivity. They like Bulgaria because Bulgaria was always so cheap that it could not become overnight an expensive destination. [And] Bulgaria still is cheap," Klancnik says.

He says he believes the downward trend in European tourism has reached bottom. Barring an unforeseen crisis on the order of a war or an epidemic like SARS, he says the situation could improve as soon as later this year.

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    Mark Baker

    Mark Baker is a freelance journalist and travel writer based in Prague. He has written guidebooks and articles for Lonely Planet, Frommer’s, and Fodor’s, and his articles have also appeared in National Geographic Traveler and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications.