NEWS

Europeans feeling the pinch as big-spending US tourists stay away

ROME – Almost outnumbering their customers, three waiters with no one to wait on leaned languidly in their starched white jackets against a table piled high with melons, pineapples and other fruit in the dining room of one of Rome’s most famous haunts for Americans. These days the Americans have vanished, leaving the staff forlorn at L’Originale Alfredo restaurant and many other businesses across Europe, which had grown accustomed to big-spending US tourists. A nose-diving dollar, fears of being terrorist targets and the anti-American sentiment that resounded across Europe during the Iraq war are combining to keep US citizens away. Fears of the SARS virus, a potentially deadly respiratory illness, also gets some blame, but since Europe has largely escaped the disease, the weaker dollar seems a more likely culprit. It took 92 US cents in late May 2002 to buy a euro. A year later it takes nearly US$1.20. And Western Europe is rarely cheap, even when the dollar is strong. «Foreign tourism has seen a big drop,» said Andreas Balakakis, a Greek representative of the American Society of Travel Agents. He singled out the war, which was widely opposed by the public in much of Western Europe, for hitting US bookings hardest, with cruise business particularly affected. An Associated Press poll taken May 14-18 found most Americans didn’t plan to let terrorism or the economy cancel vacation plans, though fewer would take planes. One in 20 planned to cancel vacations, but only 27 percent said they would travel by plane, down a third from a year earlier, according to the poll conducted for the AP by ICR/International Communications Research of Media, Pennsylvania. What seems universal is nostalgia for the American big spender. «Five Americans spend as much as 100 Europeans,» said Constantinos Koufinakos, a Greek merchant married to an American. Americans now «think about each cent before they spend it,» said Anna-Maria Bonatsou, who owns a souvenir shop in Plaka, an old district at the foot of the Acropolis. Sam Horton, in Greece on his senior high-school trip from Oklahoma, said he and his friends were trying to «minimize our expense by eating gyros,» a Greek fast-food concoction of meat, vegetables and tangy sauce, instead of restaurant meals. Koufinakos said he believes many Americans bypassed Greece after hearing about the nearly daily anti-war protests and marches. Anti-American graffiti, scrawled in English, some of it obscene, is common. Mariano Mateos, the maitre d’ at Casa Botin, a cozy, wood-beamed place with centuries-old cast-iron ovens near Madrid’s lively Plaza Mayor, was dismayed that Americans aren’t coming much these days to enjoy the renowned roast lamb. Casa Botin hasn’t raised the price of meat dishes or wine for two years to try to keep customers. Since September 11, Americans are down by 30 percent at the eatery. The restaurant is attracting more Germans and French, Mateos said, adding ruefully that they’re not as generous tippers as Americans. Greek Premier Costas Simitis in May announced plans to spend US$9 million on advertising and other tourism promotion.