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Bonjour to Tourists, Not Tristesse

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<i> Stanley Meisler is The Times' correspondent in Paris. </i>

The state of American tourism to France has sunk so low that the government feels forced these days to take drastic measures--even going so far as to try changing the worldwide image of the French as cold and rude.

A campaign is under way to persuade the French to smile, say bonjour more often and refrain shock when an American calls them by their first names. The slogan is “Welcome in France: It’s as easy as saying bonjour .”

“We have the reputation,” Minister of Tourism Jean Jacques Descamps explained on radio recently, “of being a country perhaps less welcoming than we should be.”

France is trying so hard for obvious reasons: All Europe was hurt by an enormous decline in tourism last year and France was among those countries hurt worst of all.

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The number of visiting Americans, according to Descamps, dropped from 2.8 million in 1985 to 1.7 million in 1986, a loss of 40%. Most of the drop was caused by the fear of terrorist attacks against American planes or people, resentment against the French for refusing to allow American bombers to fly over France en route to raid Libya last April and then the rash of bombings that killed 11 people and terrified Paris last September.

Now France, like the rest of Europe, hears that Americans may be coming back, and the French, like other Europeans, want to regain lost dollars. The competition is fierce and officials here believe that their promotional drives must be catchy and clever.

One of the cleverest, catchiest and most delightful came in the Burgundy region last month. Local officials decided to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Thomas Jefferson’s visit to Burgundy, inviting a group of American travel, food and wine writers to join the fun.

For a week, Burgundians hailed Jefferson, the U.S. ambassador to France in 1787, as the first American tourist to visit Burgundy and the U.S. President who introduced Burgundy wine to the White House. Forgotten were some inconvenient facts: Jefferson had devoted as much attention to the Bordeaux wine country as to Burgundy during his voyage and, in any case, had made the trip mainly to soak his injured right wrist in the mineral waters of Aix-en-Provence to the south.

The Burgundians did not take their celebrations too seriously. Consider the mayor of Beaune’s speech praising Jean-Francois Bazin, the vice president of the Burgundy regional council who organized the tributes to Jefferson: “We have had several reasons to celebrate Franco-American friendship in recent years: the 40th anniversary of the D-Day landings in 1984, the 100th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty in 1986. And now Monsieur Bazin has invented a new reason.”

Later, at a sumptuous dinner in the historic Chateau de Clos de Vougeot, located on a vineyard that Jefferson did not visit, one of the hosts raised high a glass of burgundy and toasted “the 200th anniversary of the day when Thomas Jefferson practically stopped here.”

Such promotions, however, may not work if the value of the dollar keeps declining. Americans have been receiving fewer and fewer francs for the dollar almost every day. Even if a hotel did not raise its price in francs, a room that cost $100 a night two years ago would cost $170 now. But most French hotels, in fact, have raised their prices in francs. Tourists will find their return to France--and the rest of Europe--quite costly.

The first readings on impending tourism are mixed. Air France says reservations made by individual Americans for summer travel to France are up by 30% but that crucial reservations by associations, corporations, schools and other groups are not any better than they were last year. “We think that group reservations will probably not improve until the summer of 1988,” said Bruce C. Haxthausen, press relations manager for Air France in New York. The shortfall in statistics reflects the tangle of the problem. It is far easier for tourism to forget bad weather than bad politics. The memories of political problems often linger.

In the case of France, even tourists with short memories will be reminded of the French problem with terrorism when told that they need a visa to enter. The requirement was imposed by Premier Jacques Chirac last year as a barrier against terrorists. Nor will American tourists be comforted by news photos of French gendarmes with machine guns still patrolling the Champs Elysees as a deterrent to terrorism.

Other countries have had similar problems in the past. In the early 1970s, President Luis Echeverria of Mexico, courting the Third World, instructed his United Nations delegate to support an Arab-sponsored resolution describing Zionism as “a form of racism.” The vote provoked fury in the United States. American Jewish organizations called for a boycott. American corporations and associations cancelled conventions in Mexico. The once-prosperous tourist industry reeled.

A chastened Echeverria rushed his foreign minister to Israel to lay a wreath at the grave of Theodore Herzl, the founder of Zionism. Echeverria assured American Jewish leaders that he was not anti-Israel, that the vote was a mistake. The boycott was lifted. But several years passed before convention trade returned to normal. There are probably some American Jews who still boycott Mexico even if they no longer remember why.

Smiles, in short, are useful but can only deal with part of the problem of lost tourism. The cliches about the French have never struck me as accurate anyway. I do not look on them as cold and rude but as somewhat aloof, inward and independent, a people who would rather shrug than smile, especially in Paris, where residents treat Americans no differently than they do their fellow French.

It may take time for the wisps of fear and the lingering resentment about French policy to dissipate. That is too bad. Americans who stay away from France miss a wondrous beauty, an antique magnificence and a sense of style with few equals in the world.

I understand why France feels desperate enough to try ballyhoo but wish it were otherwise. Burgundy would be worth visiting even if Thomas Jefferson had not stopped there on the way to soak an injured hand.


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