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Tourism Drops in Wake of Terrorism

January 19, 1986|PETER S. GREENBERG | Greenberg is a Los Angeles free-lance writer

The recent terrorist events at the Athens, Rome and Vienna airports have focused world attention on the safety of airports and travel in general. As a result, a sort of travelers' panic has evolved--travel agents have reported thousands of cancellations of trips to Europe, specifically to countries in the Mediterranean.

To be sure, it has been a very bad year at airports around the world. A bomb exploded last summer at Frankfurt Airport. Another detonated at Tokyo's Narita Airport, and an Air India plane bound for London's Heathrow Airport apparently exploded an hour before landing.

To the travel business, the short-term results have been devastating.

Flights to countries such as Israel, Egypt and Italy are departing with a substantial number of empty seats, as passengers begin to perceive their airports not as destinations but as combat zones.

Some New Fears

"First, there was fear of flying," says one travel agent. "Now there's fear of leaving and arriving."

All of this airport fear has impacted other areas of the travel industry. At least two cruise lines have canceled the remainder of their 1986 cruise schedules in the Mediterranean: Royal Cruise Line and Princess Cruise Line. The latter will reposition a ship in Seattle and use it for summer cruising routes in Alaska. "We had no choice," the spokesman for one line says. "Our bookings weren't just low, they were non-existent."

The statistics cannot be ignored. Americans are truly scared about traveling abroad. And while this may be a terribly unfair and short-term overreaction to a handful of terrorist activities, the impact cannot be ignored.

Last year, helped by a strong dollar overseas, more Americans than ever traveled abroad. This year, some travel experts predict as much as a 50% drop in American tourists. "Unfortunately," says an airline spokesman, "Americans are allowing the terrorists to set their own travel agendas."

Drop in Tourism

The Greek government is so worried about the drop in tourism that it is inviting 2,000 American travel agents to visit Athens for a virtually all-expenses-paid week. Other governments, in countries like Tunisia, Morocco, Turkey and Yugoslavia, are clearly concerned. For example, Yugoslav port cities such as Dubrovnik depend largely on cruise ship business. Many cruise lines' Mediterranean itineraries also include trips to the Adriatic and to the Dalmatian Coast.

A recent Louis Harris poll showed that three out of four Americans believe that the possibility of being hijacked should be a matter of "great concern" to anyone thinking of boarding a plane. Another revealing finding: Only 18% of those polled said they thought airport security measures were "very effective."

One of the short-term answers to this travel crisis is to improve airport security. Already, police have become much more visible at international airports. Security at Frankfurt Airport has been beefed up considerably, as it has at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport.

Gun-toting guards patrol London's Heathrow Airport, and check-in counters for airlines considered terrorist targets--El Al and Air India being just two examples--have full-time guards stationed at both the ticket counters and the nearest curb-side entrances to those areas.

But much more needs to be done. Only a few major international airports, such as Tel Aviv and in Saudi Arabia, X-ray all airplane luggage. (Check-through luggage on the ill-fated Air India 747 had not been X-rayed before the plane left Montreal.)

Ways to Combat Terrorism

Already, the U.S. Department of Transportation has approved an accelerated classified research drive to develop ways to combat airport terrorism. One proposal would be to place an explosives detector at each U.S. airport by 1988. Other research is developing and perfecting a system to detect nitrogen in airline baggage, a component of all known explosives.

Other, somewhat harsher proposals are being studied. One would require airports to set up a perimeter barrier, preventing all but official vehicles access to the airport. Individual passenger cars and even private shuttle buses would be banned.

No tickets would be sold at airports. Passengers would be required to buy them before their departure date. Ticketed travelers heading to the airport would be stopped at the perimeter barrier, where passengers and baggage would be screened. No visitors would be allowed beyond that point.

The ticketed passengers would then board airport shuttle buses to go to the terminal. In this way, security experts believe that terrorists would have difficulty in targeting individual airlines or citizens of particular countries.

However, airport officials are not enthusiastic about this proposal, claiming that it would cause lengthy delays and traffic congestion near airports. Very few cities can accommodate such a radical restructuring of car traffic patterns near airports, unless those airports are in remote, uncongested areas.

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