AMMAN, Jordan — The gentlemen of Jordan's tourist board stared glumly at a paper on the polished conference table. A U.S. State Department advisory warned tourists to stay away.
The click of worry beads filled the silence while the men considered the latest piece of bad news since Iraq invaded Kuwait on Aug. 2.
"Everything's at a complete standstill," said Nasri Atalla, secretary-general of Jordan's tourism ministry. "Within two weeks of the Iraqi invasion everything was canceled."
From Marrakech to Mikonos and across the Mideast, thousands of people who earn their living off tourism are watching business collapse.
"For Americans especially, the Middle East is a single place, and people don't distinguish between one Arab country and another," said James Ruggia, associate editor of Travel Agent magazine in New York City.
"It doesn't matter if the troops are stationed in the Saudi Arabian desert, nobody's going anywhere near the Middle East."
The loss of an estimated 750,000 tourists this year will cost the already ailing Jordanian economy about $230 million by December. Tourist dollars amount to nearly 10% of Jordan's income.
Some tourism experts in Amman think nearly $2 billion will be lost if the Persian Gulf tension continues through next year.
"We had tremendous hopes. Everything was overbooked for 1991. We had just come out with a fantastic new brochure and were aiming for the American market for the first time," Atalla said.
"Now this," he said, gesturing toward the U.S. travel advisory.
Since the United States issued the warning in late August--followed by similar advisories by most European countries--nearly the only people arriving in Jordan have been journalists and refugees.
The correspondents represent a source of income for the cash-strapped nation, but the mostly Asian refugees have been an enormous drain.
"We've had refugees because it's secure here, but tourists don't see it that way," said Louis Caviezel, manager of the Amman Plaza hotel. "We've had no civil disturbances, no attacks. Jordan is peaceful and stable, but there's nothing we can do."
Caviezel said the managers of Jordan's major hotels plan to keep employees for the foreseeable future. But at least 50 other hotels in Amman alone are beginning to consider layoffs, officials said.
In the Red Sea resort of Aqaba, the Holiday Inn had guests in 11 of its 160 rooms one recent day. The rest of the normally bustling port city was just as deserted.
At Petra, the ancient city that was the setting for "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade," the wind whistles through the empty ruins normally packed with sightseers.
New hotels were being built at Petra and other sites. Nobody knows what will happen now.
"It could take years for us to recover from this," said the owner of a new hotel, who declined to give his name. "Some businesses won't survive."
These are hard times in North Africa as well.
European and U.S. tour operators say 60% of their clients who booked autumn holidays to North Africa are transferring to destinations as far from Iraq as they can get.
The island of Cyprus, a popular destination with British vacationers, reports hotel and tour cancellations of up to 25%. Greece and Turkey are suffering less, but still have seen a drop in reservations since Iraq invaded Kuwait.
"By early September, most places were reporting a 10 to 20% drop, but we believe it's much higher," Ruggia said.
Almost 150,000 Americans and nearly 1.2 million Europeans visited Egypt last year. But Egyptian tourism officials say they're looking at potential disaster in the fall-winter season that begins next month.
Israel has escaped the avalanche of cancellations for the moment. It has welcomed thousands of people for the Jewish holidays, though it's not clear what will happen when the holiday rush ends.
One large California tour operator says 20% of his clients have decided they'll see Israel and Egypt some other time.
Major international airlines have tightened security, while some carriers are flying costly detours to avoid the entire Middle East.
KLM has rerouted long-haul flights that normally stop in Dubai, United Arab Emirates or Bahrain to airports in Greece, India and Thailand, a spokesman for the Dutch airline said.
Pan American World Airways, Air France and others are flying new routes to bypass any potential trouble.
Jet Tours, a vacation-oriented carrier 70% owned by Air France, has stopped taking tours to Syria, Yemen and Jordan.
A spokeswoman for Royal Jordanian Airlines said tourists quickly abandoned the carrier.
"There's nothing much that we can do but keep our fingers crossed and wait and see," she said.