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US tourists rebooking trips to Greece as TWA hijack fades

American travel to Greece, sharply off after the hijacking of Trans World Airlines Flight 847 out of Athens, appears to be slowly on the rise again. ``Now that the hostages are home, bookings are definitely picking up,'' says a spokesman for American Express.

``We're getting some new bookings again,'' agrees Hans Elsevier, director of Tourlite International Inc., one of the major companies arranging charter trips to Greece.

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A US State Department advisory urging traveler discretion in using Athens airport because of its ``above average'' potential for terrorist activity remains in effect. Yet on June 28 the International Aviation Transport Association (IATA) in Montreal, which dispatched a team of inspectors to Athens shortly after the hijacking, announced that the state of security at the airport had been raised to acceptable international standards.

Both the American Society of Travel Agents and the Greek National Tourist Organization argue that the IATA seal of approval on airport security should be enough.

``IATA is the competent international body and I think every reasonable person would expect [US authorities] to lift the advisory any moment now,'' says Stergios Mourgos, director of the Greek National Tourist Organization's Western Hemisphere division in New York.

But a State Department source indicates that the United States is not bound by the IATA pronouncement and that the advisory will not be lifted until the US is satisfied that the Athens airport is secure.

Though many American travelers changed their plans within the last month to avoid trips to Greece, the debate continues over just how serious the impact has been.

There are no reported cancellations of festivals or conventions in Greece as a result of change in American travel plans.

Trans World Airlines (TWA), which flies two jumbo jets daily from the US to Athens and another by way of Rome, says that after the hijacking these flights ran 65 to 80 percent full.

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``That's not terrible but we'd like it to stay in the 80s,'' says spokeswoman Sally McElwreath. She stresses that TWA considers the Athens airport secure.

``We had some cancellations but it wasn't as bad as we thought,'' says Maupintour spokesman Peter Anderson. He says cancellations of the tour operator's trips to Eastern Europe after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 were far greater. ``The phone rang and rang,'' he recalls.

Though some have estimated that as many as 30,000 Americans canceled their Greek travel plans, the Greek Tourist Organization's Dr. Mourgos suspects the total is closer to half that figure. He says his office alone is responsible for a tally and that he won't have the precise answer for some time.

Stressing that the only cancellations have been from US tourists, Dr. Mourgos says that even if the higher estimate were true, the impact on the Greek tourist business would be only minimal.

His country expects 7 million tourists this year, Mourgos says, and had expected to draw about 575,000 of them from the US.

``The initial reaction was pretty severe -- and there are still cancellations -- but they've been dropping off quite a bit over the last week or two,'' confirms a spokesman for the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA).

``That first week we had about 10 percent of our airplane seats empty and at every departure we've had some people who just don't show up,'' says Mr. Elsevier of Tourlite which normally books about 1,000 passengers a week to Greece and Italy.

For many travelers the choice has been a tough one between taking what they perceived as some risk vs. forfeiting large sums invested in Greek travel plans.

``Many had to decide whether they could really afford to kiss all that money goodbye,'' says an ASTA spokesman who notes that some tour operators made the ``goodwill gesture'' of waiving cancellation penalties.

One such tour operator was TWA, the line the hijackers chose for their attack. In addition to waiving cancellation penalty charges on cheaper fares, the airline switched cruise ship boarding points and itineraries on its land packages from Greece to Italy.

``We made it pretty easy for travelers to change their minds if they wanted to,'' notes Ms. McElwreath.

But many charter operators, criticized by some passengers as greedy for not following suit, say they had already paid airline operators, hotels, and bus companies for the arrangements and could not afford to be so generous.

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