Bienvenue, Sort Of

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
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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