Areas not directly involved in crisis still attract visitors


September 10, 1990|By Tom Belden | Tom Belden,1990 Knight-Ridder News Service

A month after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait heightened tensions in the Middle East, some interesting patterns have developed among those who are required to continue traveling to the region.

The tense atmosphere is apparently keeping some leisure travelers away from the Mideast, but it doesn't seem to be having the same effect on business travelers, according to several airlines and travel agencies.

Within days of the crisis breaking out, commercial airline service by major international carriers was suspended to Baghdad and Kuwait City. Doing business with those countries was forbidden for U.S. citizens.

The State Department has issued advisories suggesting that travel be deferred to the eastern provinces of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, the countries on the periphery of the conflict.

The Iraqi invasion also prompted security precautions to be stepped up at airports in Europe and the Mideast, according to the airlines and various government officials. Anyone traveling to and from either of those areas should allow plenty of time at airports for questioning by security personnel.

There also could be delays if a traveler has a ticket that was issued at the last minute or has an unusual itinerary, things that could arouse suspicion.

Yet, in contrast to other recent periods of Mideast conflict, the airlines and agents say that this time there seems to be caution, but not the same outright fear about whether it's safe to travel to areas not directly involved in the troubles.

Over the last few years, travel to Egypt and other parts of the Arab world, Israel, Turkey and even Europe -- especially by vacationers -- plunged as concern rose over Mideast conflict and terrorism, and then only slowly built itself back up.

"We have not seen an increase of travel to the area nor have we seen a major decrease," said Charles Roumas, vice president of Travel One Corp., a large regional agency based in Mount Laurel, N.J. "Travelers are following the State Department warnings, and those haven't been too specific yet."

The response of business travelers may stem from the fact that there haven't been any direct threats aimed at Americans by terrorist organizations -- or at least no threats the public is aware of, one security consultant suggested.

"Travelers right now and for the next six months won't be feeling much [impact] because no organization can get an operation going and in place to be a threat," said Peter V. Savage, a Baltimore consultant and author of "The Safe Travel Book."

For instance, the terrorists who planted a bomb aboard Pan Am flight 103 in December 1988 took months to plot the attack.

European airlines have seen modest declines in the number of travelers to some of the Mideast cities they serve, but nothing terribly surprising.

"People are not traveling to the Middle East in the same numbers they were before," said British Airways spokesman John Lampl, whose airline serves 10 Mideast cities. "But travel to London and Europe is not affected. The planes are absolutely full."

Lufthansa German Airlines, with flights to 17 Mideast cities, has noticed two patterns, spokeswoman Kerstin Sabene said. There a decline in travelers going to Cairo and Tel Aviv, while many of those who were scheduled to fly to Iraq or Kuwait have been rerouting themselves to other cities in the region, she said.

Swissair, which flies to 13 Mideast destinations, said its leisure traffic to Israel and Egypt is about what it has been in previous years.

"Basically, our Mideast traffic is within expected figures, with the exception of Kuwait and Baghdad," Swissair spokeswoman Linda Parseghian said. "We see a cautious trend as far as the rest of the year goes. People are waiting to see what happens."

Pan American, which serves only one Mideast city but more than a dozen in Europe, has seen no drop in business to Europe, spokeswoman Elizabeth Hlinko said.

Even as business travelers seem to be adjusting to crisis, the situation has required some travel-service companies to go to extraordinary measures to help customers.

Mark Allan Travel of London, a division of Houston's Lifeco Services Corp., had to arrange quickly the evacuation from Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, of more than 500 employees and dependents of American energy and oil-field service companies. Scheduled air service to Dhahran was cut off and the agency had to charter aircraft to evacuate people to London or Zurich, where hotel rooms and other necessities of life were waiting.

American Express Co. said both its travel-services and charge-card divisions have been pressed into service to help customers.

The charge card continues to be accepted throughout the Mideast, except in Kuwait and Iraq because of the ban on doing business with those countries, spokeswoman Maureen Baily said.

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