No Americans in France

Article excerpt

Byline: Daniel Gross

But the decline in travel may be a blessing.

After traversing a mountain path 6,000 feet up in the Swiss Alps last week, where cows with clunky bells far outnumbered people, I stumbled into a bare-bones restaurant--and was shocked to see a college classmate whom I hadn't seen in at least 15 years. The surprise wasn't so much that I saw someone I knew--we all have tales of extremely random encounters in out-of-the-way places. Rather, it was that I ran into an American at all.

I've spent the better part of 10 days investigating vital economic issues, including the impact of European fiscal austerity in France, the sources of the strong Swiss franc, and the ultimate Swiss mystery: how the cost of food rises (yet the quality falls) the higher you trek into the Alps. But in my journey, I've missed seeing a few things: multitasking French service workers, solicitous Swiss, and, my college classmate notwithstanding, American tourists. This summer, it's An American in Paris, not A Horde of Americans in Paris.

Time was, suffering the lines at the Louvre or trundling onto European trains in the summer would mean braving busloads full of American tourists--seniors, middle-aged churchgoers, high-school students--or gaggles of college kids equipped with backpacks and copies of Let's Go Europe. But this year? Not so much. In the first quarter of 2010, according to the International Trade Administration, U.S. air departures to Europe were down 6.7 percent from the first quarter of 2009.

Since the economic crisis hit, in fact, Americans have generally decided to stay home. According to the ITA, total outbound air departures from the United States fell 1.4 percent in 2008 and 1.8 percent in 2009. That's a marginal difference. But journeys to Europe--which require expensive airfare and swapping weakened dollars into stronger euros--have fallen by a much larger amount. Departures to Europe were down 6.2 percent in 2008 and 4.2 percent in 2009, and were off another 6.7 percent in the first quarter of 2010. Should that decline hold up, 2010 would see U.S. visits to Europe down 17 percent from 2007 levels.

This is clearly bad news for souvenir hawkers, street performers, and the proprietors of the few brasseries that soldier on through the August doldrums in Paris. …