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13 Sep, 2004

U.S. Visitors Concerned Over “Sense of Welcome” in Europe, Study Finds

A new study conducted by the European Union to woo back American visitors has broken new ground by raising issues that reflect the impact of geopolitics and globalization on the travel & tourism industry.

While the study does probe the routine marketing issues like image, perception, value for money, likes and dislikes, it also goes considerably in depth into what is becoming known as the ‘new normal’ — the issue of safety and security and the sense of welcome felt by Americans in Europe in the wake of the Iraq crisis and the era of post-9/11 terrorism.

American tourism to Europe slowed down considerably in the wake of anti-Americanism perceptions that followed the diplomatic and political controversies of the Iraq war, with France, Germany and Spain being particularly affected.

With the European now seeking to bring back the US visitors, the European Travel Commission thought it appropriate to timely to “assess… Europe’s branding and positioning …..in light of the recent market volatility stemming from 9/11, the war in Iraq, and economic conditions in the United States and Canada.”

The Menlo Consulting Group, Inc. was given the task of conducting the research to explore perceptions and images of Europe as a tourist destination in the United States and Canada and to ascertain how best to position Europe in these two important source markets.

Both trade and consumer responses were sought in the interviews conducted in October and November 2003, with the official results and findings only being publicly released in late August.

The conclusions offer a clear indication of how global geopolitics have become a part of travel and tourism market related market research, chiefly because national foreign policies are having a distinct impact on where people choose to travel, and why.

Concluded the study, “U.S. tour operators believe that their clients are concerned about being welcomed in Europe as a consequence of political tensions over the war in Iraq. They believe that the problem is confined largely to France and Germany, but that there is some spillover to Europe as a whole.

“Sense of welcome is an issue that relates primarily to Americans. It is rooted in part in the political tensions stemming from the war in Iraq, but it goes far beyond the tensions in the Middle East.

“We were dismayed to learn the extent to which American travelers—particularly potential first-time travelers to Europe—believe that Americans are looked down on by Europeans and are less than welcome in Europe.

“This is a situation that badly needs to be corrected if Europe is to continue to grow the market. We encourage the ETC to confront the issue head-on. Americans need to be reassured that they are welcome.”

It added, “Safety and security issues are likely to occupy a center-stage position on the world scene for the foreseeable future. Many travelers—particularly first-time visitors from the United States—are hesitant to fly right now and are concerned about the possible dangers of traveling in Europe.

“Safety, however, is a particularly sensitive topic, which should be addressed with the utmost care. Addressing the issue head-on runs the risk of exacerbating the situation by highlighting potential dangers of traveling in Europe.

“With this in mind, we recommend that the ETC weave a subtle message of safety and stability into its positioning, using extreme care not to alarm potential visitors.”

One of the interviewees responded, “Focus on the fact that nothing has changed. It’s the same wonderful Europe. It is important to let Americans know that Europeans don’t blame us for the war in Iraq.”

Canadians, too, were concerned, but from a different perspective.

Says the study, “For the most part, the (Canadian travel) trade seems to believe that Canadians feel they will be welcomed and respected when traveling in Europe—as long as they are not mistaken for Americans.”

It added, “Perhaps the most significant impact of the war on Iraq is that Canadians are more sensitive than ever about being mistaken for Americans. It is difficult for native English speakers to recognize the difference between an American and a Canadian accent, and it is even more difficult for those whose first language is not English.

“As a result, members of the trade say that Canadians are going out of their way—even more so than usual—to distinguish themselves from Americans.”

Said one respondent, “Canadians put maple leafs on their backpacks and do other things to go out of their way to make it known they are not American. When Europeans find out you are Canadian, they treat you like royalty. Canada has always been respected by the Europeans for its peacekeeping efforts and missions abroad, and the fact that it remains neutral.”

It is not just geopolitics that is having an impact.

According to the report, “A few focus group participants mentioned that the “Americanization” of Europe concerns them. They noted that Europe has become more like the United States in recent years, a change that makes Europe a less appealing place to visit.”

Said one respondent, “Now you don’t see traditional costumes, and there is a McDonald’s on every street corner. The Germans used to criticize the Americans because of the way they would always dress in jeans—but now the Germans are worse than the Americans!

“Furthermore, you can’t turn on a TV in Germany—or in any other country in Europe, for that matter—without finding reruns of American TV.

“If they are going to sell hamburgers, can’t they at least have their own brands? There are Burger Kings and McDonald’s everywhere.”

Said another respondent, “The more Europe becomes like America, the less interested I am in going there. Greece, the countryside in France, the south of Italy, those places are so different than here. They are loud and vivacious and friendly and warm. That’s what excited me.

“A lot has been Americanized. I would like Europe to stay 40 years behind us. But they are not staying that way. There are McDonald’s everywhere. They love the idea of the fast food. It is novel to them. All the new, fast, efficient stuff.”

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