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World Shrinking for Wary Travelers

Americans are staying away from many vacation destinations while foreign tourists balk at coming to the United States.

November 03, 2002|J. Michael Kennedy | Times Staff Writer

Eric Heath had worked for months on the surprise birthday trip for his wife, Colleen. He secretly bought plane tickets and reserved a hotel. He even conspired with his wife's boss to arrange vacation time behind her back.

The dream destination: Bali. But not anymore.

In the aftermath of the nightclub bombing that killed nearly 200 people last month, Heath and his wife opted for an out-of-the way Mexican Pacific resort in Barra de Navidad rather than the South Pacific.

"As soon as I saw the news reports I knew there was no way I was going to bring my wife there," said Heath, of Monrovia. "I wasn't going to be looking over my shoulder all the time."

Their story is becoming increasingly common. Americans who see themselves as targets are staying away from foreign vacation destinations in droves as the once-expansive world of travel shrinks with each new threat and violent incident.

Thirty-seven countries are listed by the State Department as places where American travelers should use extreme caution or avoid altogether, apparently a record number. Of those, 24 have a travel warning, which means "stay away." "The sense is that we have many more now than we ever did," State Department spokesman Stuart Pratt said of the warnings.

That may bode ill for the adventurous American tourist. Americans began traveling abroad in large numbers with the introduction of transoceanic jet travel in 1958. With a few exceptions, those numbers continued to climb through the next three decades.

The last major downturn in travel to foreign destinations came during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when Americans hunkered down to see what would happen in the battle to free Kuwait from Iraqi occupation. Even the number of Americans visiting comparatively safe Europe dropped by more than 1 million in 1991, a 16% decrease from the previous year. Since then, however, the number of Americans traveling abroad had risen dramatically -- until 2001, when they again stayed home.

Travel experts say that in the event of a Middle East war, Americans will seek out familiar places like Europe for vacations, or will simply stay close to home. Recreational-vehicle sales and rentals, for instance, are booming. The bed-and-breakfast business is up, and so are visits to national parks.

"Any place with an Indiana Jones kind of atmosphere can forget it," said John Valerio, owner of Crown City Travel in Pasadena. "If it has a smidgen of intrigue, people aren't going to go there."

Not Even on the List

And that includes places not even on the warning list. Valerio's bookings to Turkey are way off. Ditto for Eastern Europe. Suddenly, a trip north to Canada is starting to look more appealing than a biblical pilgrimage to Israel, which has been racked by terrorist attacks and other fighting. Tourism is up 5% in Canada while it has dropped 70% in Israel.

"No one's coming," said Hani abu Dayyeh, a Jerusalem-based tour operator whose family has been involved in the Middle East travel industry for many years. "It's a big mess."

Among other things, Abu Dayyeh's company had to sell several hotels and about half its bus fleet just to stay afloat. The staff at his Jerusalem office has dwindled from 22 to three. He said that the American tourist presence is almost nil and that it has been that way for two years. The culprit is not only West Bank violence but also suicide bombings throughout Israel that have made cafes and buses common targets.

Susan Eckert, whose Adventure Woman tour company caters to women 30 and older, said she had to plan her 2003 trips carefully to avoid places that are potential trouble spots. This year she canceled trips to both India and Nepal because of unstable conditions there.

"I didn't want to go anywhere near places where there have been problems," said Eckert, who runs her company out of Bozeman, Mont. "We used to go places where we can't go anymore." She cited Rwanda and Zimbabwe, among others, where she no longer takes her tours.

Even Europe, though, may not be free of anti-American sentiment. Richard Dekmejian, a USC political science professor, said Europeans are becoming increasingly dismayed with the bellicose threats of war against Iraq by the Bush administration.

"The stuff coming out of the State Department is having such a negative resonance right across Europe," he said. "Our friends in Europe and the non-Islamic world are aghast."

Another industry that has been forced to make changes is the cruise-line business, particularly those that offered around-the-world packages.

"World cruises are struggling," said Mike Driscoll, editor of Cruise Week, a trade publication. "These are cruises that often have 40 stops. But it's hard to find 40 countries that aren't near a worrisome area."

He also said cruise lines are operating out of more American ports, allowing vacationers to drive to a ship and avoid a flight.

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