Guatemala blames leftists - and State Dept. - for decline in tourism

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Just as the awesome temples and palaces of the Mayas here have been overgrown by vast jungles, Guatemala's tourism industry has been left in ruins by political strife and guerrilla terrorism.

But while government officials and tourism industry sources acknowledge that the strife between guerrillas and the military regime is scaring tourists away, they say external forces are equally responsible, and that the United States in particular is to blame.

Just two years ago, Mayan treasures and Indian villages with their colorful inhabitants, combined with tropical forests, rocky mountains, smoking volcanoes, and isolated lakes, made Guatemala one of Latin America's most popular spots for travelers.

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Over half a million visitors brought $260 million in revenue with them, and tourism became the nation's third-largest industry.

Today, the largest hotels are all but empty and many smaller inns have closed. Bus lines and air travel have been cut back, and travel agencies and tour services have shut down.

Related businesses - restaurants, nightclubs, gift shops, and taxi companies - struggle to survive. Government officials estimate tourism has dropped 75 percent since its peak in 1979. The terrorism campaign launched by leftist rebels this summer is apparently succeeding in destroying the tourism trade.

But government officials say outside forces such as London-based Amnesty International are at least partly to blame for the falloff. Amnesty has been campaigning in Europe since 1980 to stop tourism in Guatemala, to pressure President Romeo Lucas Garcia's government into ceasing alleged human rights violations.

In August, after a wave of bombings and attacks in tourist areas, the US State Department warned that ''the possibility of American citizens being caught in a cross fire between guerrillas and government forces, or hurt in a terrorist incident, is increasing'' and urged ''extreme caution'' for travelers.

Publicity about the statement discouraged potential visitors worldwide, and ''was not the act of a government that is supposed to be supporting us,'' said Hector Berger, a government tourism spokesman.

''The advisory was like kicking us when we were down. Why single us out? Why was there no advisory for Ireland, or Italy, or the Mideast, where they have problems, too?''

Mr. Berger said the advisory played into the hands of the guerrillas. ''It gave the guerrillas the international recognition they seek - like Mexico and France have given the leftists in El Salvador - which is the only sort of victory they can ever hope to achieve here.''

A US official in Guatemala denied that any political message was intended. ''We felt that we had an obligation to warn people of a personal danger they faced here.''

The violence of the past few weeks, including the burning of an airline office and vandalizing of monuments and the museum at Tikal, vindicated the US warning, he said.

''This is a very trying time for the Guatemalans. The attack on Tikal, which is a precious national treasure, particularly, was a great psychological blow. So I think the negative reaction of many Guatemalans . . . is very understandable. But it's not logical.''

Guatemalan officials, pointing out that no foreign tourist has been injured or killed, continue to pursue European tourists. Italy and Germany are the two biggest sources of visitors, and their embassies plan no warnings.

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