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Weather, Weak Dollar, High Costs Cited : Tourism Down in France; Officials Are Concerned

September 04, 1987|STANLEY MEISLER | Times Staff Writer

PARIS — French officials reported a disappointing summer tourist season Thursday and blamed it on bad weather, a weak dollar, high prices, visas problems and the French reputation for coldness toward visitors.

The reports made it clear that Americans, frightened away from Europe last summer by terrorist threats, did not return to France in significant numbers. Other countries did a better job of attracting them back, and the French officials said they are very worried about the loss of visitors to France's two main tourist rivals, Italy and Spain.

Although a spokesman for the industry had reported a few weeks ago that people who earned their living from tourism were "close to the Wailing Wall," Minister of Industry Alain Madelin used more positive imagery to describe the season. He called it "a summer of good weather with some clouds."

Jean-Jacques Descamps, the secretary of state for tourism, summed up the season as "so-so." No one pretended that they were really satisfied with the results.

Madelin and Descamps provided no statistics to back up their conclusions. Those will come at the end of the year. Instead, the two ministers said they had based their conclusions on general estimates from tourist officials around the country.

A year ago, France was hoping for a summer that would help it surpass the record tourist year of 1985. But the terrorist bombing of a TWA airliner that preceded the punitive American air raid on Libya prompted a mass cancellation of trips to Europe by Americans. On top of this, some Americans boycotted France because of its refusal to let the American warplanes fly over its territory en route to Libya. France had a huge loss of tourist revenue in 1986.

With terrorism quiescent in Europe this summer, there were some hopes of a revival, but these were not fully realized. Descamps said that the number of American tourists increased but not up to the level of 1985. Even more important, the tourism secretary said, Americans were spending less per capita than they did last year.

"We have had fewer rich Americans," he said, "and more of the less rich." That has hurt luxury hotels in Paris.

The total number of foreign tourists did increase this year, Descamps said. Most of the additional tourists were Spaniards and Italians heading for French beaches.

Descamps predicted that 1987 would show, by the end of December, a slight increase in total spending by both French and foreign tourists and a slight increase in foreign exchange earnings over the year before. But, in view of the disastrous 1986 year, his prediction did not amount to very much.

Descamps said the poor showing in 1987 could not be blamed on just bad weather and the weak dollar since Italy and Spain, which have now moved ahead of France in tourist receipts, did better than France despite similar problems.

France had additional problems. Descamps acknowledged that a visa requirement, applying to most tourists and imposed by the government as an anti-terrorist measure after a series of fatal bombings in Paris last September, has discouraged tourists who do not like the prospect of waiting in line for one. But he insisted that consulates throughout the world are cutting down the delays.

He also said that tourism has been damaged by high prices, caused partly by large government taxes on luxury hotels and rented cars and partly by hotel and restaurant owners who raised prices excessively after the conservative government removed price controls earlier this year.

But Descamps, as he has done before, ascribed a good deal of the blame to foreigners' perception of the French people. He said surveys show that many tourists believe that the French are not as "welcoming" as other Europeans. By this, Descamps appeared to mean that many tourists consider French hotel managers and waiters rude.

The weak summer was especially disappointing to Descamps, a dynamic politician who has devoted a great deal of energy this year to an effort to attract foreign tourists.

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