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French tourism chief fears job-law crisis effect

France’s tourism minister said in an interview Monday that if the crisis over a new jobs law does not end soon, it could damage the country’s position as a top tourist destination.
/ Source: The Associated Press

France’s tourism minister said in an interview Monday that if the crisis over a new jobs law does not end soon, it could damage the country’s position as one of the world’s top tourist destinations.

“If the crisis continues into high season, it is clear that would cause many problems for us,” Leon Bertrand told The Associated Press.

Already, Bertrand and tour operators say that violent protests against the law are scaring some foreign visitors away. The United States and Britain have advised their citizens to avoid areas where demonstrators gather.

Whereas riots last fall were largely confined to the suburbs of French cities and towns, “this time things are even more sensitive ... this time, we are in the very heart of Paris, exactly where the sites frequented by tourists are,” said Bertrand in the telephone interview.

He said the renewed violence threatens to undermine a $1.2 million publicity campaign launched by his ministry after the riots to convince visitors that France remains safe. It targets visitors from the United States, Japan, China and Russia.

“For the moment, there have not been any group cancellations, but we know that individuals have either canceled or postponed their trips. Mostly, these are individuals coming from faraway countries like Japan or China or Australia,” said the minister.

“In general, it’s the countries that are farthest away, where the only images they have of France come through the TV screen,” he added. “If things don’t get better by the end of the week, we will be obliged to start a public relations campaign like the one we launched in the end of last year, after the riots, to correct the image of France.”

Bertrand has said France suffered no long-term decline in tourism after last fall’s riots because the marketing campaign helped draw travelers.

Crucial to struggling economy
Tourism is a vital industry for France’s sluggish economy, contributing nearly 7 percent of gross domestic product and sustaining, directly or indirectly, 2 million jobs, Bertrand said.

About 75.3 million tourists passed through France in 2005, up 3.5 percent from the year before, the minister said.

He stressed that no foreign tourists have been injured in the protests. But they have been inconvenienced. The Eiffel Tower was closed last Tuesday amid nationwide strikes that also caused widespread disruptions to train, plane and bus services. More strikes are planned Tuesday.

Tour operator Irene Melki said her Paris-based company, French Adventures, has suffered “a real dip” in summer bookings.

Some wary of ‘chaos,’ others not
“Vacationers are heading to calmer countries,” she said. “People are seeing the protests on TV, and they’re very wary of getting caught up in that sort of chaos.”

Standing in line Monday at the Eiffel Tower, American tourist Pat Olle said she felt “very safe.”

“The government has everything under control,” said the housewife from Wimberly, Texas.

Mexican doctor Bernardo Hernandez said he tried to postpone his visit but went ahead because his airline tickets were nonrefundable.

He said he and his family planned to “lay low” to avoid getting caught up in Tuesday’s planned protests, but otherwise — despite having seen “some pretty alarming stuff about France on TV” before he arrived — his trip was “so far, so good.”