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Tourism may take hit from terror alert

But US travelers in Europe unfazed

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By Alan Clendenning
Associated Press / October 4, 2010

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MADRID — A rare advisory for US travelers to beware of potential terrorist threats in Europe drew shrugs yesterday from many Americans on the continent, but tourism officials worried that it could deter people from crossing the Atlantic.

The State Department alert advised the hundreds of thousands of US citizens in Europe to take more safety precautions. Security officials say terrorists may be plotting attacks in Europe with assault weapons on public places, similar to the deadly 2008 shooting spree in Mumbai.

Britain’s Foreign Office yesterday raised the terror threat level from “general’’ to “high’’ for British travelers to France and Germany. The British home secretary, Theresa May, said the threat of terrorism in the United Kingdom remains unchanged at “severe,’’ meaning an attack is highly probable.

The US travel alert said citizens “should take every precaution to be aware of their surroundings and to adopt appropriate safety measures to protect themselves when traveling.’’ The alert isn’t intended to keep travelers away from public places, officials said.

While, the advisory is a step below a formal warning not to visit Europe, some analysts said it could still hurt a fragile European economy already hit hard by the debt crisis.

Without a specific threat, however, American visitors generally were not changing their travels.

“We live in New York. So in New York we think about these things all the time,’’ said Richard Mintzer, a 55-year-old American visiting Italy with his wife. “I wouldn’t say we are particularly worried in Rome, no more than we would be at home, or anywhere in the Western world.’’

At the spring-summer 2011 ready-to-wear fashion shows in Paris, W magazine fashion market director Karla Martinez said she gets “worried for five minutes, but then I forget about it and get back to the job that I’m here to do.

“It’s a little scary when you’re staying in a big hotel with lots of tourists, because we hear that could be a target, but I try not to get too worked up about it,’’ she said. “At the end of the day all you can do is keep your eyes and ears open and try not to be naive.’’

“I don’t think most people will alter their plans unless the threat is very specific,’’ said George Hobica, founder of Airfarewatchdog.com.

IES Abroad of Chicago, a nonprofit organization that offers international study programs, sent e-mails yesterday warning about 1,500 college students in its European programs to avoid crowded tourist spots and hangouts typically frequented by Americans. The message — also sent to parents — told students to leave public places if they see signs of trouble.

“We say, ‘Be alert, cautious and aware of your surroundings,’ ’’ Bill Hoye, IES executive vice president, said. “It means, ‘Don’t be totally plugged into your iPod.’ ’’

Hours after the e-mails were sent by IES, the company had no sign of any students who wanted to drop out of the programs.

The effect on travel could deepen if the threat leads to new, tighter security measures, said Henry Harteveldt, a travel analyst for Forrester Research. But the Air Transport Association, a US trade group for the airline industry, said it expects “business as usual.’’

United, Continental, and Delta said they were operating as usual yesterday without any cancellations or delays related to the terror alert. The airlines said customers will be charged the usual penalty if they want to change itineraries.

Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition, said business travelers will likely keep their plans and hold onto nonrefundable tickets if the warning remains fairly general.

“The biggest impact will be those people who right now haven’t yet made their plans,’’ Mitchell said. “They’re the ones who will forestall their decision until the situation is a little bit more clear.’’

US Senator Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat, said that after talking to State Department and Justice Department officials, the alert “means be careful when you go, but they are not advising you not to go.’’

The State Department alert noted in particular “the potential for terrorists to attack public transportation systems and other tourist infrastructure.’’

“Current information suggests that Al Qaeda and affiliated organizations continue to plan terrorist attacks,’’ it said. “European governments have taken action to guard against a terrorist attack and some have spoken publicly about the heightened threat conditions.’’

US and European security analysts have been concerned for days about a terror attack similar to the one in Mumbai, which targeted two luxury hotels, a Jewish center, a popular restaurant, and a crowded train station, and left 166 people dead.

American intelligence officials believe Osama bin Laden is behind the plan to attack several European cities. If that’s true, it would be the most operational role bin Laden has played in plotting attacks since Sept. 11, 2001.

Eight Germans and two British brothers are at the heart of an Al-Qaeda-linked terror plot against European cities, but the plan is still in its early stages, with the suspects calling acquaintances in Europe to plan logistics, a Pakistani intelligence official said last week. One of the Britons died in a recent CIA missile strike, he said.

Germany’s Interior Ministry said it saw no need to change its assessment of risks to the country and there were “still no concrete indications of imminent attacks’’ there. France’s interior minister said the threat of a terrorist attack is real but the country is not raising its alert level.

“The terrorist threat exists, and could hit us at any moment,’’ said the French defense minister, Herve Morin, in the daily Le Parisien. “Networks organizing themselves to prepare attacks are constantly being dismantled around the world. It is good for the French to know this,’’

A French official said yesterday that Italian police had arrested a Frenchman suspected of links to a network recruiting fighters for Afghanistan. The man was arrested in Naples in early September, said the official, who was not authorized to be publicly named because terrorism cases are classified.

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