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Concern over terrorism cuts visits by Americans to European tour meccas

From the Acropolis to the casinos of Monte Carlo and London's theater district, a sudden decline in American tourists has shaken the European travel industry. This decline is widely attributed to United States reaction to terrorism. Even though this is a low season for tourism in Europe, the drop in American visitors has been felt in Greece, Italy, France, and Britain -- countries that are favorites for US tour and cruise operators.

The European Community tourism commissioner, Carlo Ripa di Meana, told journalists last week that Greece had lost $100 million in American tourism since the hijacking of a TWA airliner in June, an attack on Athens airport in December, and President Reagan's warning to US travelers to avoid the Mediterranean.

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The number of American tourists in Italy has plummeted 50 percent. Even the Netherlands, where Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport is a favorite transit point for cheaper flights and charters from the US, has been hit by a 20 percent cut.

Mr. Ripa di Meana lays much of the blame for this on Americans' fear that security against terrorists in Europe is too lax and their belief that Europe has refused to crack down on Libya's Col. Muammar Qaddafi.

Some European tourist officials says irresponsible coverage by the American news media may have scared potential tourists.

John Boon, chairman of the British incoming tour operators' association, says when he was in New York recently he saw TV footage of tanks at London's Heathrow Airport, even though the exercise had taken place weeks earlier. Yet, Mr. Boon says, he actually ``saw more policemen with guns at Kennedy Airport in New York.''

But just as important as the concern over terrorism has been the drop of some 30 percent in the value of the dollar against most European currencies. This makes travel more costly for Americans.

Some 15 million tourists visit the Britain annually, spending about $6.5 billion. Of those, 3.6 million are Americans, and they tend to be among the most affluent. The British travel industry employs 1.4 million people and creates an estimated 50,000 new jobs a year.

A French travel official in Nice says numerous cruise ships that normally ply the Mediterranean, stopping off in Nice for the posh casinos in nearby Monte Carlo, had canceled their visits. He said that if all such cruise liners give the Mediterranean wide berth, there will be a drop of some 10,000 American tourists in Nice.

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Tourist ship travel to the Eastern Mediterranean -- to countries such as Egypt which have their high season during winter months -- has also dropped sharply.

Greece is particularly bitter about the image being presented of the security at Athens airport and its seaports. Security has been stepped up, and the Greek government is undertaking a $1 million advertising campaign in the US to improve its image.

Edward McMillan-Scot, a British Conservative member of the European Parliament, noted Tuesday that ``there is a crisis of confidence. People do not want to travel because of terrorism, air and coach crashes, high air fares, currency fluctuations, and tour companies being bankrupt. Europe must tackle these problems together. . . . We must put the record straight or put at risk the $54 billion the 12 EEC countries earned from international tourism last year.''

But Mr. McMillan-Scot says 80 percent of the tourism in the 12 European Common Market countries is in fact ``internal'' -- generated by residents of northern countries taking holidays in Mediterranean countries.

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