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The trouble with Europe's tourist industry

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If there's one thing that Europeans know how to do best, it's tourism, n'est-ce pas? All those grand hotels and famous resorts and splendid restaurants and crack trains have to add up to the world standard in travel forever, nicht wahr?

Well, maybe not. The Economist reports in a recent issue that shifts in world travel habits and the flow of world travel dollars are putting Europe to the test. And it's a test (as another ECONOMIST piece points out) that she's not passing with flying colors.

The trouble for Europe begins with Asia. Fancy Asian destinations like the resorts of Thailand -- and rugged 'adventure' destinations like the Himalayas -- are luring more and more of the American and European big spenders who like to journey between continents. At the same time, prosperous Japanese and other Asian travelers are vacationing closer to home. Sixty percent of all international visits were to European destinations in 1994, but the World Tourism Organization estimates that at current rates of decline, that figure could be 50 percent by 2010.

Europeans themselves, in the wake of economic hard times, are following in the footsteps of their North American cousins by bargain-hunting with a vengeance when it's time to travel. And the fact that Europeans are taking more frequent but shorter vacations than in previous years means that haughty hotels and snooty restaurants are being forced to become more flexible with bookings and reservations.

But the thorniest problem for Euro-travel may be infrastructure. The cinder-block tower hotels that were thrown up on Mediterranean beaches in the 50s and 60s are beginning to crumble, and lackadaisical standards of service generally are making many holidaymakers wonder why they're not staying at a brand-new Thai hotel surrounded by eager help.

Then there's the environment: The online version of Conde Nast Traveler reports that while the Mediterranean tests out a little cleaner this year than last, there are still portions of the fabled coast that rate no stars at all in the sanitary department. Add to the mix ongoing tensions in France after a summer spate of terror bombings, and you may see more and more tourists decide that there's a Phu Ket in their future.

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