Tourism Officials Not Yet Worried

Published November 08, 2005

| Associated Press

The Eiffel Tower. A crisp Chablis savored in a Paris cafe. Rioting. Flames. Shots fired at police. And now, a death.

Violence shaking the suburbs of French cities is threatening the country's carefully cultivated image as one of the world's favored travel destinations.

The list of foreign governments urging tourists to exercise caution in France is growing, with Australia, Austria, Britain, the Netherlands, Germany, Japan, Denmark, Slovakia and the Czech Republic on Monday joining the United States, Russia and Hungary in issuing warnings to avoid riot-hit areas, especially at night. None are advising travelers to avoid France altogether — at least, not yet.

"I thought about it a lot before leaving for Paris," Belgian traveler Susan Lecurieux said Monday as she boarded a train from Brussels to the French capital. "But no, I'm not scared."

German travel agency TUI AG said the riots have drawn questions from customers. "We have received a couple of inquiries from people traveling to Paris who want to know the exact location of their hotel," said TUI spokesman Kuzey Esener.

Further disturbing French tourism officials are grim — if overblown — world headlines like "LE 'CIVIL WAR'" in the daily Sabah in Turkey or "'Stay out' alert as Paris burns" in Britain's Metro.

On Monday, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin announced that curfews would be imposed across France wherever they are needed and said 1,500 reservists were being called up to reinforce the 8,000 police and gendarmes already deployed.

Still, the nation's tourism minister, in an interview Monday with The Associated Press, said he felt that the international media was exaggerating the violence.

"You get the impression that France is awash with flames and blood, which is not at all the case," said the minister, Leon Bertrand. "You cannot deny the images, but there are images and images."

The issue is crucial for France because tourism is a vital sector of the economy, contributing nearly 7 percent of gross domestic product and sustaining, either directly or indirectly, 2 million jobs, Bertrand said. France welcomed 75 million tourists in 2004, a boost for a country struggling with nearly 10 percent unemployment and sluggish growth.

The rioting started Oct. 27 in the northeastern suburbs of Paris but has spread and claimed its first victim late Sunday or early Monday: a 61-year-old beaten by an attacker while trying to extinguish a trash-can fire.

As police reported his death, they said unrest has fanned out to 300 towns. The violence occurs at night, mostly in tough suburbs, and targets police and property, with arsonists torching thousands of cars and scores of buildings.

The tourism minister insisted the riots are not — as yet — threatening France's tourist appeal and are not "of a nature to change the image of France."

"We have had no cancellations or anything like that," he said. "For the moment, I do not think we need overly worry because the places affected — and affected only at night — are not those frequented by tourists," he said. But he also suggested that the violence could hurt tourism if it persists.

"If we note next week that it is continuing, then we might, at that time, be justified in asking ourselves questions. But that is not the case at the moment," the minister said.

He said he was unaware of tourists experiencing difficulties because of the unrest.

But the U.S. Embassy's warning about the "extremely violent" riots noted that train travel into the capital from Paris' main airport, Charles de Gaulle, "may be disrupted at times, as it passes near the affected area."

The warning suggested that travelers take airport buses or taxis and said Americans should avoid Paris' northern suburbs, as well as Trappes in the southwest, and "move quickly away from any demonstrations that they may encounter."

The Slovak Foreign Ministry suggested that visitors think twice about parking their cars on city outskirts. The Czech Foreign Ministry recommended that truck drivers only unload their goods during the day and to spend nights at rest areas of toll higways.

The British Foreign Office noted that "most visits to France are trouble-free," but added that travelers who must pass through riot-hit areas should be "extremely vigilant."

"You should also be aware that in the present circumstances disturbances could occur almost anywhere," it said.

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