Madrid Aftermath: Staying Safe Abroad

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By Carol Sottili
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 21, 2004

Like most casual travelers to Spain, Mike Iselin, a junior at the University of Notre Dame, didn't think much about politics when he signed on to a semester abroad in Salamanca. He thought that, as an American, he might be more welcome in Spain than France, but added, "I was interested in learning the language and the culture."

But since March 11, when bombs aboard Madrid commuter trains killed 201 and injured 1,500, Iselin and other travelers to Spain -- and to Europe -- have had to think about how the attacks affect tourist safety, ease of travel and the attitudes of Europeans toward Americans. Iselin, 21, said in an e-mail from Salamanca that while the attacks "have had a huge effect on the outlook of the people and the topics of conversation," he does not sense that most Spaniards feel any differently toward American tourists. His parents and siblings are still planning to meet him in London over spring break.

Should travelers feel differently about vacationing in Spain or Europe in light of the March 11 attacks? We've asked several experts the questions that may be on the minds of travelers contemplating a spring or summer trip.

Q I have plans to travel to Spain, but should I go to a different country in Europe? Will I be safer in a country that isn't a strong U.S. ally?

A Because it appears that Islamic terrorists, rather than Basque separatists, are responsible for the March 11 attacks, Spain is probably no more or less likely than any other Western European country to be the subject of another attack. Bruce McIndoe, CEO of iJet Travel Risk Management, an Annapolis company that provides travel-risk services for corporations and individuals, said Spain might even be a bit safer because it has already incurred an attack. McIndoe said risks of a terrorist strike may be slightly higher in countries that are allies of the United States, such as the United Kingdom and Italy, but added that those countries "have already substantially raised their security posture."

What are Spain and other countries in Europe doing to increase security?

At press time, European Union foreign ministers were set to meet in an emergency session in Brussels to discuss security efforts. Since the Madrid attack, several countries, including France and Poland, have increased security at airports, train stations and other sites. Greece, which will host the Olympics in August, and Portugal, which will host the European soccer finals in June, have also heightened transportation security. The United Kingdom is taking a closer look at security along the Thames.

Travelers should be ready to face longer lines and closer scrutiny at airports and train stations throughout Europe this summer.

What about other American travelers? Are people canceling their trips?

That's difficult to say, because there is only anecdotal information at this point. Nora Brossard, a spokeswoman for the European Travel Commission (ETC), said in an e-mail, "It's too soon to call the situation. I can tell you that we have been anticipating a spring/summer rebound in travel from pent-up demand, and have seen nothing yet to negate that. We have had no reports of cancellations." Mary Peters, owner of Friendly Travel in Alexandria and a member of the American Society of Travel Agents board of directors, said her agency has received no cancellations on trips to Spain since the attacks occurred. And according to the Spanish Hotel Owners Association and the Association of Travel Agents in Spain, there has been no dropoff in travelers' reservations.

Before the attacks, all indications pointed to more Americans traveling to Europe this year. Last year, there were 10,796,109 U.S. travelers to Europe, according to ETC statistics -- a 2 percent increase over 2002. Passport applications were up 13 percent between October 2003 and February, according to the U.S. State Department, suggesting more international travel by Americans.

Since the attacks, however, there are indications that travel to at least Spain may dip for a time. David Cumpston, spokesman for SideStep.com, an Internet travel booking search engine, said that since March 11, airfare searches for Madrid have dropped by 15 percent. London and Paris continue to be its most popular international destinations. But Melissa Derry, a product manager for Expedia.com, said Spain has become the number one travel destination for travelers to Europe who book through Expedia, adding, "Every indication is that it will remain a hot destination."


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