French tourism counts cost as Americans stay away

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The Independent Online

The telephone background music at the federation of French tourist offices yesterday was "Georgia on My Mind". Who said that France was anti-American? A lot of people did - over and over again - before and during and after the Iraq war. As a result, it appears that many fewer Americans, from Georgia or any other state, have France on their mind this summer.

The telephone background music at the federation of French tourist offices yesterday was "Georgia on My Mind". Who said that France was anti-American? A lot of people did - over and over again - before and during and after the Iraq war. As a result, it appears that many fewer Americans, from Georgia or any other state, have France on their mind this summer.

The official figure - American visits down 30 per cent - does not tell the whole story. The union of French travel agents suggests that American tourism has fallen by 80 per cent this year. An internet poll in the United States estimates that four in 10 of the Americans who planned to travel to France this year have stayed at home or gone elsewhere.

The non-invasion has been felt especially painfully in Norman towns and villages close to the D-Day beaches. "We've hardly seen any Americans this summer. We've had our best weather for decades but our worst season for Americans," said a hotel owner in Calvados. "Luckily, the British are still coming and many more French than usual."

The Ministry of Tourism insists the shortage of Americans should not be interpreted simply as a boycott because of France's opposition to the US-led invasion of Iraq (although that has clearly played a part). It says the collapse of the dollar against the euro, which has made travel to Europe 30 per cent more expensive since 2001, had already eroded American tourism in France last year.

Many fewer Americans are travelling anywhere abroad this year, partly for economic reasons (the US slowdown, the fall in the dollar) and partly because of fear of terrorism.

In the case of France, this seems to have been compounded by a fear of the French. Those American tourists who have reached Paris say other Americans stayed away not so much to "boycott" France but because they feared an unpleasant, even violent, welcome.

Word of mouth and internet rumour in the US has talked of Americans being ill-treated and insulted in France because of the Iraqi war. (There is no evidence to back up these rumours; rather the opposite.)

"Everyone told us horror stories," said Angela, 26, from South Carolina. "They said that bus drivers were dumping their American passengers in the middle of nowhere and people were being beaten up. Since we got here, everyone's been great with us."

For the most part, according to French tourism officials, it is the mass market Americans who are missing: the coach parties, who stay in cheap hotels on the edge of Paris and visit the Eiffel Tower (where ticket sales are down 10 per cent this summer).

The wealthier Americans, who love French culture and food, seem to have been less influenced by the rampant anti-French propaganda in the US or fear of anti-American behaviour. Top class hotels on the Côte d'Azur say they have noticed a fall but nothing dramatic.

"Americans are usually 20 per cent of our clientele. They've gone down to roughly 15 per cent," one hotel spokesman said.

To put all the figures in perspective, American visits to France fell by 91 per cent in the three months after the suicide attacks in the US on 11 September 2001. Overall, the French tourist industry expects to have a reasonable season.

There will be fewer foreign visitors (Asian tourism remains depressed by the Sars epidemic) but there is a stay-at-home trend across the world this year, including in France. The tourism ministry believes that France will fall below its peak of 75 million visits in 2000 but that the missing Americans, and others, will be replaced by hundreds of thousands of French holiday-makers who have decided to stay in France this year.

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