Paris hopes Americans boost flagging tourism

PARIS - August 26, 2009 The French capital registered an 11.1-percent drop in foreign visitors in the first half of this year compared with the first half of 2008, according to figures released Wednesday by the Paris Tourism Office.

The number of Americans in Paris - long the largest contingent of foreigners here - dived last year because of U.S. economic woes and the expensive euro. But it started to pick up again, by 1.1 percent, in the second quarter of this year, the tourism office said.

Paul Roll, director of the Paris Tourism Office, said the city is "counting on the Americans" to keep tourism revenues up and compensate for a plunge in visits by British, Japanese and Chinese tourists.

He noted that America's economy was hit early and hard by the financial crisis and is expected to emerge sooner, while other economies were slower to start their slump.

The weak British pound and troubles in Britain's finance-heavy economy have taken their toll on cross-Channel travel: The number of British visitors fell 23.4 percent in the first half of this year.

"The pound is really low now and it's horrible," said Mark Abbott, a 21-year-old medical student from Liverpool, visiting the Champs-Elysees on Wednesday after two days camping in Normandy.

Asians also stayed home. The number of Japanese visitors to Paris fell 25.4 percent and Chinese tourists fell 17.3 percent.

Overall, the number of visitors to the French capital decreased 7.5 percent to 15.9 million in the first half of this year, the tourism office said. It could not provide figures on overall tourism revenues.

Roll also pinned his hopes on a new law that allows more stores to open on Sundays, saying that could keep more tourists in Paris, and France generally, over a full weekend. Currently most French stores are closed Sundays.

While the new law allows more stores in tourist zones to stay open, it is expected to be months before its effects are felt.

The tourism authority predicts an overall decline of 6 percent in the number of visitors to Paris in 2009, including French visitors.

Yet the lure of Paris still keeps people coming.

"You have to see the Eiffel Tower. You hear so much about it and have to see it yourself," said accounting student Kate Rosenow from Victoria, Australia.

Ray and Kathy Kasten, 51, came to Paris from Atlanta to celebrate their youngest child leaving to go to college and their 30th wedding anniversary. "Paris is more expensive than Dublin or London and definitely more than the States," Ray Kasten said - but they're not cutting back on this trip.

And even though U.N. health officials have declared a worldwide swine flu epidemic, French authorities say swine flu will have little effect on tourism revenues.

Jean-Bernard Bros, deputy mayor in charge of tourism at Paris City Hall, said the city has thousands of masks available in museums and monuments and is studying flu prevention measures at key sites like the Eiffel Tower.

"We are ready," Bros said.

France and its overseas territories have reported 10 deaths related to swine flu.


Associated Press writer Rachel Kurowski contributed to this report.

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